Inside the Foster Building: Dining


staff canteen

Staff Canteen. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

H. G Woods, Charge Nurse from 1919 – 1949 described memories of mealtimes in Charles Thomas Andrews’ book on the history of St Lawrence’s, The Dark Awakening (1978):

‘The diet was revolting: it even shocked those of us who had just returned to civilisation after four years of active service and were not easily shocked. Breakfast was at 7.30 a.m. The majority of the patients ate in Foster Hall where they would find the tables laid out with a large desert spoon and a basin to each place accompanied by a half pound hunk of bread smeared with the cheapest of margarine. There was porridge, for those who could eat it, served in the basins and, when the porridge was consumed the same basin was filled with about one and a half pints of cocoa. To patients who worked on the farm or on the grounds or garden there was fried rusty bacon and potatoes.’

He continues:

‘As most of the food that went to make up the dinner was produced on the farm and in the hospital the standard of dinners was somewhat higher, but tea at 5p.m. was back to the low standard of breakfast – weak tea served in basins and the half pound slice of bread smeared with margarine. This was the last meal of the day for some years: the patients had nothing more until 7.30 a.m. the next day. After some years this was supplemented by an allowance of bread and cheese, for working patients, for supper at 7 p.m.’

He observes the changes over time:

‘As time went on conditions for the patients became better especially as some of the older administrators retired and we were controlled by younger and more enlightened personnel. Food improved, especially the serving of it; we progressed from basins to soup plates, then to mugs and from mugs to cups and saucers, from mess room to ward messing which was a great advantage in many ways. In ward 8 we were now allowed to prepare our own bread and margarine after a battle so, instead of slicing half a loaf into four slices, we cut it into fourteen slices and the patients were very appreciative’.

staff dining room

Staff Dining Room Information. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Gordon R. Retallick, a nurse who started working at St Lawrence’s on  April 27 1929, remembers having his meals on the ward:

‘we had a roast dinner every day of the year. Our rations consisted of half a pound of sugar, half a pound of butter and half a pound of bacon weekly and a small loaf of bread every alternate day […] On night duty we brought our own food and ate it in the dormitory when convenient, during duty hours.’

Gordon worked at St Lawrence’s for 41 years. Of patient mealtimes he recalls:

‘Before patients were allowed to leave the dining room, all knives, forks and spoons were checked and, if found not correct, no one was allowed to leave the table until the missing piece was found. This sometimes meant searching the patients. The charge attendant always said grace before the patients dispersed’.

Eileen Goff, who spent 24 years at St Lawrence’s, a ward sister for 12 of these, also had her memories of mealtimes recorded in The Dark Awakening:

‘Meals were very poor for both patients and staff during the war years and some dreadful looking brawn, a horrible pink colour with even black bristly hair showing in the horrible looking concoction, was served at least once a week. Night nurses went on duty with a last meal served in the dining room at about 7.15 p.m.; then they had no further meal until breakfast at 7 to 7.30 p.m. next day when they came off duty’.

milk machine

Milk Machine. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Robert Rowe, Assistant Chief Nurse who worked at St Lawrence’s for 36 years, from 1919 to 1955, remembers breakfast being at 8 a.m.: ‘Staff when to breakfast in relays, some had to have their meals in the ward with the patients’. Dinner was at noon, with tea at 4.30 p.m.: ‘This, the last patients’ meal of the day, consisted of two slices of cake with bread and margarine’, although stating that aside from this meal, the patients’ food was ‘generally very good’. However, ‘There was no canteen or any other facilities for obtaining food in the institution’. He noted the improvements made under Mrs. Belinda Banham, as Chair of the Management Committee (and who wrote the Preface in The Dark Awakening) during the late 1960s and early 1970s:

‘Under Mrs. Banham’s administration we have noted what progress has been made. The food and furnishings, the wellbeing and care of the patients is excellent. Both my wife and I expressed the view that we wouldn’t mind spending a month’s holidays at St. Lawrence’s. The old 20 foot long bare tables with basins for tea have gone: it is now a first class hotel service’.


© M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

These recollections contrast with the diet during the early 1820s, on the opening of the Cornwall County Asylum, devised by Dr Richard Kingdon. There were three meals a day, and the typical menu consisted of:

Morning: milk, meat broth or gruel and bread

Midday: baked or boiled meat and potatoes with seasonal vegetables, or soup with vegetables and bread. Sometimes there would be ‘good broth’, pea soup or rice milk, with pudding on a Wednesday

Evening: bread, cheese or treacle, or bread and milk, sometimes there would be seedcake or broth.

The Committee approved this menu on August 17th 1820, but added in the following stipulations. Beer, cider or wine was to be served ‘when required’, and dinners were to vary, with fish to be given ‘occasionally’. There was to be a good supply of seasonal vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and turnips, with sweetened peppermint and other herb teas to be given to the women for their supper with seedcake. There was also to be a sick diet, ‘to such as require it, all in such quantities as to improve the general health’. Tea and coffee, however, were too expensive, and did not form part of the patients’ diet.


 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved. All ward kitchens had a pig bin, with the swill picked up regularly by truck.

The initial furnishing orders for the old Cornwall County Asylum in 1820 reveals the following for the kitchen:

2 dozen wooden plates, bowls and spoons, Bethlem pattern of sycamore, and 8 trays

2 dozen knives and forks,12 iron spoons and a soup ladle

24 ewers, 8 pewter dishes from 20 – 26″ in diameter and 12 pewter plates

a digester

a 5 gallon boiler and a 2 gallon copper tea kettle

a fish kettle, a frying pan and 4 iron saucepans of different sizes

2 pepper boxes, a coffee and pepper mill

2 flour dredgers, 2 collanders, a cleaver, meat saw and chopping block

2 morestone salting vats, 2 buckets and a time piece

a gridiron.

The latter – a gridiron – is of some significance, being associated with the martyrdom of St Lawrence himself.


St Laurence, or Lawrence, with gridiron.

Ranworth Rood Screen, c. 1430, St Helen’s Church, Norfolk.

Photograph: Martin Harris


Badge depicting St Lawrence holding a gridiron. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

And for a picture of dining in Foster Hall from the 1950s/60s – see:

With sincere thanks to M. Hodgson, Steve Davies RMN (Registered Mental Nurse) and the St Lawrence’s Facebook Page.

Please check out



C.T. Andrews, The Dark Awakening: A History of St. Lawrence’s Hospital (1978)

Cornwall Lunatic Asylum Minutes, August 17th 1820


Documenting the Decline


With the shocking and unwarranted demolition of the Foster Buildings continuing at a pace more befitting of a post-war concrete tower block than a building of such historical and cultural significance, there is not really a lot to say at the moment. Rather, these beautiful and haunting images, reproduced here with the kind permission of the photographer, M. Hodgson, can speak for themselves.

foster hall (2)

Foster Hall. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Foster hall

 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

ward sign

 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Valency ward

Valency Ward.  © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.


 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.


 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Norman Ward Day Centre

Norman Ward Day Centre. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Foster complex Oct 2013

 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

More of these beautiful photographs will be shared soon. If anyone has any memories brought back by these photographs please let us know and they can be included as captions and quotes underneath the images.

And finally…..


Carnage.  © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Please check out


With sincere thanks to M. Hodgson, Steve Davies RMN (Registered Mental Nurse) and St Lawrence’s Hospital Facebook Page.

Please click on images to enlarge.

William Robert Hicks: Man of Bodmin.


William Robert Hicks, Mayor (1865). Artist unknown

Born in 1808 in Bodmin, William Robert Hicks was a musician and wit, famed for his stories written in the Cornish and Devonian dialects, he was once described as ‘the most amusing person to be found in the West of England’. But his fame spread throughout the country; he was also regarded as the best storyteller of his day and was a regular guest in London society. He was also on ‘intimate terms’ with men and women of ‘humbler classes’ which may help explain why this convivial socialite took the appointment of Governor of St. Lawrence’s Asylum in 1840, where he remained for twenty years, instigating many reforms in the treatment of the patients.

There is little doubt that when Hicks took over as governor, the treatment of those in the asylum was in need of improvement. Local writer Sabine Baring-Gould described Hicks’ disgust at the existing regime at St. Lawrence’s, claiming he “found the old barbarous system of treatment of the insane in full swing”. By contrast, Hicks took a more compassionate view: “He at once adopted gentle methods and in a short while radically changed the entire mode of treatment, with markedly good results”. Baring-Gould relates a story of the success of these newly employed methods: “One poor fellow, whom he found chained in a dark cell on a bed of straw as a dangerous lunatic, he nearly cured by kindly treatment. As the fellow showed indications of great shrewdness and wit, Hicks released him and made much of him”. The man in question is probably ‘Daniel’, who, through Hicks’ narratives, would become something of a celebrity.


Hicks pictured in The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin.

Daniel appears repeatedly in the book by Hicks’ friend W. F. Collier, The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin:

‘One of the great characters in the asylum (many great characters were there in Hicks’s time, as you may suppose), whom I will call Daniel, on the principle that no real names shall be used, he found on a bed of straw, chained, in a dark cell, and treated as a dangerous lunatic. He discovered that this person was a very clever man, though possessed with some mischievous delusions, a great wit, and a philosopher in his way. Hicks released him; found him safe; employed him in the asylum to take care of the pigs, and do other useful work; and made so much of him and his sayings that he became a well-known personage in the county’.

In his later years, ‘Daniel’ was even considered safe enough to be sent home to his friends, but continued to be the subject of monologues by Hicks and such became his notoriety that some of Daniel’s sayings ended up being published in Punch magazine.

As a friend and guest of Hicks in the asylum, Collier offers us an interesting insight into his methods of reform, noting that ‘When Hicks first took charge of the asylum he gave a supper to those of the inmates whom he considered safe’. He even went to far as to undergo a treatment then practiced on patients himself to gauge just how cruel it was: ‘One of the methods for quieting a refractory patient, I believe still in vogue, is a douche bath applied to the head; and as Hicks thought it a very severe remedy, he tried it on himself that he might know what it really was. He told me it was very severe’.

On December 31 1860, after 20 years of service and sweeping changes, Hicks resigned his connection with the lunatic asylum, retiring on a full pension.

In 1865, he became mayor of his home town of Bodmin and revived the ancient tradition of Beating the Bounds, a custom in which the locals walk the parish boundaries of the town. Although not a uniquely Cornish tradition, Hicks gave it a distinctly Cornish twist by concluding the ceremony with a game of Hurling. It is a tradition that still survives to this day and is performed every 5 years or so.

In 2010, when the ceremony was most recently performed, local resident Vic Legg explained its historic roots: “The beat the bounds event was important in the 19th century because it was important for people to know where the boundary stones were, because if anyone moved outside the borough of Bodmin and they fell ill, they were not entitled to receive relief’.’ This question of community care was one that was obviously of importance to Hicks.

The ceremony was revived in several Cornish towns, this painting is of the event in Penzance:

1853 “Beating the Borough Bounds” at Alverton Penzance – oil painting by J T Blight.

Hicks died in 1868 and is buried, fittingly, in the town that was his home and employment for so much of his life, his contribution to Bodmin commemorated in a stained glass portrait in the local church.


W. F. Collier, The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin 

Joseph Pollard, Truro, 1903

Demolition imminent….


We had the privilege today of spending some time with Cathy, and the lovely people at St Lawrence’s Social Club, where we received a very warm welcome indeed. This was a fantastic opportunity to meet some of the staff who have worked at the hospital over the years, and we would like to say thank you to all involved.

Sadly, this did mean we saw the latest step in the demolition of the Foster complex of buildings, including Foster Hall. It would appear nothing more can be done to protect or save this beautiful, and historically important, building. [Although the Cornish Buildings Group have an update on this, please see comments on this post].

We feel the photographs speak for themselves. However, if anyone more photographically skilled than we are manages to go and capture the forlorn feeling coming from behind those new barriers, or wishes to record the demolition of this historic site, please contact us.








Photos: © Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall 2013. All rights reserved.

Outside the County Asylum: The cases of Charles Luxmore and Edward Lancey


This third post about life outside the asylum ventures over the border into Devon, highlighting two cases which prompted legal processes concerning the domestic confinement and inadequate care of those considered ‘lunatics’. These legal processes demonstrate the turn towards the belief that, in the minds of the authorities at least, the best place for the ‘pauper insane’ was the County Asylum, reinforced by the Acts of 1845. And for Charles Luxmore and Edward Lancey this belief would certainly seem to have been an accurate one.

Charles Luxmore had become a blacksmith in his youth, despite being a child of ‘weak intellect’. However, in 1838, after he displayed increasing episodes of ‘mania’, his father confined him – a situation he was to endure for the next 13 years.

He was restrained with a chain and leg iron within a wooden ‘cell’ measuring 7ft x 4ft, at the family home at Germansweek, near to the Cornwall/Devon border. When his parents became infirm and unable to manage Charles, they asked John Yeo, their son-in-law, to take over. Yeo and his wife moved to Orchard [probably Orchard Barton], in nearby Lewtrenchard, taking Charles and the wooden structure with them.

A local resident reported to the Poor Law Officer their concerns that a ‘lunatic’ was being confined in poor conditions, and Charles was discovered. He was found chained to a beam, naked and filthy. Unable to walk without assistance, he was taken by covered cart to the Devon County Asylum at Exminster, which had opened in July 1845 – 7 years into Charles’s confinement.

This was a complicated case, as it was not immediately apparent how the law had been broken. It was finally decided Yeo should be prosecuted for volunteering to take care of a lunatic but failing to do so. The case was heard in July 1851. Yeo was sentenced to 6 months in prison – although in a common gaol rather than a punitive house of correction – with the clear message that people should report to the authorities if they were unable to humanely care for a family member within the home. The new asylums were the places to manage and treat insanity.

Nevertheless, many families resisted placing their relatives within the County Asylums.

Devon County Pauper Asylum, Exeter

Devon County Asylum at Exminster

Image: The Time Chamber

The second Devon case involved Anthony Huxtable, charged with ‘abusing, ill-treating, and wilfully neglecting Edward Lancey, a lunatic’ at Bratton Fleming, near Barnstaple.

Edward, Huxtable’s brother-in-law, had been discovered after a ‘holloaing noise’ was heard coming from the house by James Richards, the relieving officer of Barnstaple Union. Edward was found in a darkened room, measuring 8ft x 6ft, and less than 6ft high, which could not be opened from the inside. The window was boarded, and, despite it being only 6ft from the family sitting room and opposite the kitchen door, the room emitted a ‘great stench’, attributed to it having no ‘convenience’.

James Richards described how he saw ‘something like a bundle moving about on the bed’. Taking a closer look he realised ‘it was a human being’. Edward was on a bed covered in straw, with just a piece of unidentifiable cloth as bedding, and wearing only a shirt.

‘I could not see much of the lunatic in the bed’, continued Richards, ‘but from what I did see, I remarked that his legs were drawn up, and his nose was almost between his knees’. Lancey would not – or could not – give Richards rational responses, only talking to himself, and appeared ‘wholly without intellect’. Richards requested ‘some clothes for the lunatic’, but Huxtable stated he did not have any. When Richards threatened to take ‘the lunatic’ to the magistrates at Barnstaple naked, Huxtable found some clothes, although from his ‘bent, fixed position’ Richards supposed it would be impossible to clothe Lancey in trousers. Indeed, he observed, ‘when he was carried out of the house into the omnibus, he retained the same position in which he had been lying’.


Edward Lancey, a few days after his admission into Devon County Asylum, by G. Pycroft, published in The Asylum Journal of Mental Science Vol. II (1856)

Edward’s terrible condition and rescue was widely reported in the newspapers, as was Huxtable’s subsequent trial. It transpired Huxtable was a widower who ‘did not wish to part with the lunatic, as his (lunatic’s) mother and sister wished to keep him’. Huxtable was in receipt of £21 a year to keep Lancey: £7 from his wife’s estate, and £7 each from that of her two sisters, also deceased. Edward had been with him for 7 years, and Huxtable described him as ‘perfectly quiet and harmless’. Previously Lancey had lived with his mother – the intimation being she may also have been ‘insane’ – and Huxtable testified that Edward was:

‘in the same crippled, helpless condition when he came to him; that he was exceedingly filthy in his personal habits; and that it was impossible to prevent him’.

Huxtable also claimed that Edward ‘destroyed his clothes as fast as they were given to him’.

Speaking at the trial on Huxtable’s behalf was the rector of the adjoining parish, Reverend Carwithen. He testified that Huxtable was industrious, hardworking, and of excellent character. Carwithen had visited the property and heard Lancey ‘raving’: he had also smelt the ‘intolerable’ and ‘offensive’ stench. Huxtable had assured Carwithen he tried to keep his brother-in-law clean, but any ‘convenience’ placed in the room had been destroyed.

Mr. Torr, the surgeon called to the property at the request of Richards, reported he had found him to be pale and emaciated, with his ‘knees up to his face’, unable to use his legs to walk. However, he also observed Lancey had been on clean oat straw with no bedsores or marks of violence. Huxtable informed Torr he had not put him in an asylum as none would take him due to his ‘dirty habits’ – an assertion refuted by Torr who told him ‘there were places provided for them’.

Edward was removed to the Devon County Asylum, where John Bucknill, the superintendent, examined him. Bucknill reported that whilst he had seen ‘persons kept in farm houses’ they were ‘not in the filthy condition as was this lunatic’. He took the opportunity to emphasise the benefits of the asylum, attributing many aspects of Lancey’s condition as due to, or exacerbated by, his previous confinement, and highlighting how his condition had improved with proper food, care, and a larger, well-ventilated room.

Bucknill deposition

In a judgement shocking to modern sensibilities, Huxtable was acquitted, as he had not imprisoned Edward, ‘the lunatic being himself, by very nature, a prisoner’, whilst the charge of wilful neglect was dismissed as it was ‘more accountable to ignorance and the incapabilities of the farmer’s house’. The evidence was thought to show Huxtable had done all he could for Lancey under the circumstances – and to usefully demonstrate the undeniable benefits of the County Asylum.

Bucknill published an account of Edward Lancey’s case, to underline precisely that, drawing attention to another recently admitted patient called Joseph Adams. Joseph had been discovered in an attic room where he had been confined by his mother and brother for 18 years. In that time he had never been out of the room nor had clothes on – although Bucknill notes he was well fed and not crippled.

Nevertheless, despite the promotion of the benefits of the County Asylums, mistrust, combined with financial and geographical factors, meant the workhouse continued to be used to house the pauper insane throughout the 19th century.

References and further reading:

Sarah Wise, Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctor in Victorian England (2012)

Elaine Murphy, ‘Workhouse care of the insane, 1845 – 90’ in Pamela Dale and Joseph Melling (eds) Mental Illness and Learning Disability Since 1850: Finding a place for mental disorder in the United Kingdom (2006) pp. 24 – 45

Leonard D. Smith, ‘The County Asylum in the Mixed Economy of Care, 1808 – 1845’ in Joseph Melling and Bill Forsythe (eds) Insanity, Institutions and Society, 1800 – 1914: A social history of madness in comparative perspective (1999) pp. 33 – 47

Further Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy, to the Lord Chancellor (1847)

‘Cruel Treatment of a Lunatic’, Medical Times & Gazette Saturday, January 13 1855, p. 559

‘Cruel Conduct Towards a Lunatic’, The Standard Tuesday May 29 1855

‘Alleged Ill-Treatment of a Lunatic’, Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser Thursday July 261855

‘Seven Years in a Lunatic’s Life’, Lloyds Weekly Newspaper Sunday, June 3 1855

John Charles Bucknill (ed) The Asylum Journal of Mental Science Vol. I (1855)

John Charles Bucknill (ed) The Asylum Journal of Mental Science Vol. II (1856)

The Time Chamber:

Devon County Mental Hospital: Social Attitudes and Mental Illness in Devon 1845 – 1986:

Outside the County Asylum: Care at Home in 19th century Cornwall



 Cornwall County Asylum today

© Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall 2013. All rights reserved.

Some families could afford a private keeper and manage their relatives at home, or lodge them in single houses under the care of an attendant. However, many were confined in the family home. Families were exempt from official scrutiny when caring for relatives who were mentally ill or had a learning disability, as, particularly prior to the County Asylum Act of 1845, this was understood as wholly appropriate, and in some cases a legal obligation.

Newspapers and reports of the time sometimes provided a tragic glimpse of this arrangement, bringing to public attention incidences when care at home was woefully inadequate.

For example, on April 7th 1810 the West Briton reported that the previous Monday Thomas Hunkin of Megavissey, a married man with five children, had hung himself ‘in a small room in which he had been confined for some time, in consequence of his evidencing symptoms of derangement’.

This news was published less than two weeks after the paper had informed its readers how the High Sherriff, gentlemen, freeholders, clergy, and ‘other inhabitants of the county of Cornwall’ had assembled at Bodmin Assizes to discuss ‘the expediency and propriety of providing a lunatic asylum, or house for the reception of lunatics, and other insane persons’ within Cornwall. Local magistrates were subsequently requested to ascertain the numbers of people within their districts ‘for whose accommodation, comfort and cure it will be necessary in the first instance to provide’.

bodmin asylum

Bodmin Asylum

Image: Old Cornwall in Pictures

The founding of the County Asylum was primarily to address the issue of the pauper insane, for whom the inadequacies of home care – and within the poorhouse and workhouse – could prove fatal. Another case, reported on December 25th 1812 was that of ‘a poor but once industrious man’, Hannibal Thomas of Chacewater, who for two years previously had ‘laboured under that most dreadful of maladies, mental derangement’. His wife and five young children had been supported by the parish, but it was only when one of the children died that ‘the deplorable state of this miserable family was discovered’.

Living in a single room, Hannibal was found:

‘confined to the bed, raving in all the wildness of frenzy; the mother also was confined by illness, and near her lay the corps of her infant; and the other children crying for food, which their wretched parent was unable to supply, their pittance not enabling them to secure a sufficiency of barley-bread or potatoes’.

There was a public appeal for charity for the family.

wrist restraint

Wrist Restraint

Image: Science Museum, London

Poorhouses or workhouses were often the only options for families in poverty when they could no longer manage their relative in the family home. A report on the 28th February 1817 provides another vivid illustration of the dire circumstances these families could find themselves in. A nineteen year old woman ‘subject to fits and occasional derangement’ was removed to a pauper house in St Buryan ‘because the overseers thought two shillings a week too much for her maintenance; her father is an industrious fisherman with a large family; her mother is blind’.

However, a fire reduced some of the St Buryan pauper houses to ruins: 21 of the 27 parish poor managed to escape by jumping from the windows: this young woman was amongst those who perished. Separated from her friends upon being removed to the poor house she had become violent, and been secured by a chain:

‘She was seen struggling in the flames but could not free herself from the fetters, and no assistance could be afforded her’.

restraint harness

Restraint Harness

Image: Science Museum, London

Care at home for those understood as mentally ill or mentally impaired did not necessarily mean confinement. On 25th February 1833 James Symons, ‘of weak intellect’, from Praze in Crowan parish, was missing, ‘supposed to have missed his road, in following his father to work, at a mine’, and ‘to have wandered beyond his knowledge’. A month later a report appeared in the West Briton, and during that time he had only been heard of once, at the beginning of March:

‘when he was found at Mawgan, and was put back to Michell, by a parish officer, who, it is believed, supposed he would find his way home; but his friends have not since that time – about the 4th instant – heard any intelligence of him.’

Symons was described as 5 foot 4 inches, ‘about 26 years of age’ and ‘slight made’, with dark hair and ‘reddish whiskers’. He was ‘of reserved habits; talks to himself, and is capable of telling his name and the place of his residence’. At the time of his disappearance he had been wearing a blue-striped shirt, with a neckerchief and blue and white socks, a blue jacket, a waistcoat and trousers of heavy material (fustian), ‘high shoes, and an old hat’.

‘Whoever may meet the person above described’, the paper stated, ‘are requested to restore him to his afflicted parents, for which a handsome reward will be given.’ Sadly, however, Symons was reported as still wandering nearly 7 months later, although the September 6th edition of the West Briton did report receiving information ‘that the poor lunatic was seen in the neighbourhood of Liskeard, about a month since’. ‘As he is not capable of inquiring his way’ the paper continued:

‘it is earnestly requested, by his distressed father, that he may be detained by any person who may meet with him, and information be sent, by post, to Mr John Symons, Praze, Crowan, who will immediately proceed to take him home, and who will pay all reasonable expenses incurred’.

 It is not clear whether poor James Symons made it home.


References and Further Reading

West Briton

Old Cornwall in Pictures:

R. M. Barton, Life in Cornwall in the Early Nineteenth Century (1997)

Sarah Wise, Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctor in Victorian England (2012)

Joseph Melling and Bill Forsythe (eds) Insanity, Institutions and Society, 1800 – 1914. A social history of madness in comparative perspective (1999)

Science Museum:                                                                                                      Wrist restraint and restraint harness: these items appear to be replicas made after 1850.

Outside the County Asylum: Workhouses, Poorhouses and Madhouses

The first patient was admitted into Cornwall County Asylum on the 25th October 1820. This was the seventh such establishment to open following the County Asylums Act of 1808, which required each county to found an asylum to care for people with mental illness, and the first in the West Country. Despite this Act, only nine public asylums had opened by 1827, leading to enforcement through the interdependent Lunacy Act and County Asylum Act of 1845. These laws were designed primarily to address the issue of the ‘pauper insane’.

Whilst we may find the concept of the 19th century asylum unsettling, it is perhaps necessary to place these institutions in the context of the existing conditions and treatment of the ‘insane’ – particularly the poor – in the late 18th and early 19th century.Those ushering in a new era of asylum treatment viewed themselves as progressive, moving away from the dreadful conditions prevalent within private madhouses, workhouses or family homes. Inevitably, many who were mentally ill joined the prison population.

Above: James Norris (incorrectly named as William Norris), an American sailor, whose case in 1814 was instrumental in reform. Norris was found to have been in Bethlem Royal Hospital, mechanically restrained, in extremely poor health, and confined in isolation for over ten years. The beginning of his confinement, in 1804, was at a time of severe overcrowding in Bethlem due the increased admission of military patients caused by the war between Britain and France. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

For those who could afford it, or were financed by their parish, there were private ‘madhouses’. As profit-making businesses, conditions varied, with many using cheaper mechanical restraints rather than strong clothing or alternatives to restraining, and administering corporal punishment rather than care.  These methods were also apparent within the older charitable asylums with medieval foundations – the most renowned being London’s Bethlem. There were no such institutions in Cornwall: private patients were sent to ‘madhouses’ outside of the Duchy, including Dorset and London.

During 1791, concerns about corruption, poor conditions and harsh treatment within York Asylum, which had opened in 1777, led to the Quakers establishing ‘The Retreat’, instigated by the Tuke family. York Retreat, opened in 1796, advocated and promoted humane methods of ‘moral management’, and contributed to a significant shift in the treatment of mental illness.

Above: The Retreat, York. In D. Hack Tuke, Reform in the Treatment of the Insane: Early History of the Retreat, York; its objects and influence (1892).

The pauper insane tended to be housed within workhouses and poorhouses, often chained, and in terrible surroundings. For example, the reforming philanthropist James Neild wrote to The Gentleman’s Magazine on November 5th 1803 describing a visit to Bodmin, where he had witnessed the ‘savage and inhuman treatment’ of a ‘poor lunatic’ in the workhouse there:

‘On visiting the workhouse at Bodmin, in Cornwall, which I found in a very dirty state, I was shown down stairs into a room where a poor lunatic was confined. He lay stretched on a little short and dirty straw at the further end, with a few rags, but no shirt upon him. He held a book in one hand at arm’s length, on which his eyes were intently fixed. His shaggy hair, long beard, dirty and livid face, gave him the appearance of a monster rather than a man. He took no notice, either on opening the door, or during the time I was in his room, till I came close up to him; he then took his eyes off his book, and looked at me with a more forceible appeal to humanity than I had ever felt.’

He continued:

Neild states he ‘endeavoured to investigate the matter, but the mistress kept such an incessant clack that I could not put in a word edgewise’. He subsequently contacted the mayor, also the parish rector, who organised, along with the magistrates and a physician, ‘that the poor object’ be ‘taken from his wretched place of confinement, put into a clean room, and properly taken care of’. The physician was ‘the humane and philanthropic Dr Hall’, who also worked ‘without fee or reward’ at Bodmin prison, and it would appear the man was placed in an individual cell there.

Hall assured Nield:

‘he would pay particular attention to the man; that he was only temporarily deranged, and was frequently sane for a long time, and would then do a most astonishing deal of work for those he loved.’

Above: Bodmin Union Workhouse buildings today, St Dominic’s Close. This building (built 1838-42) superseded that which Nield witnessed. © Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall 2013. All rights reserved.

Bodmin Union Workhouse. © Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall. All rights reserved.

Similarly, John Pawley was kept in Lostwithiel poorhouse from 1809 until his death in 1815, chained, with a bed of straw and reeds. It would seem Pawley was kept in a separate room – the windows of which needed frequent repair – however, this was not always the case. In 1807, a report by Henry Alexander found that of the nine workhouses in the west country which had insane inmates, only three had separate accommodation for them, one of which was Redruth.

At Liskeard he discovered two women confined in filthy, damp, dungeon-like conditions, chained to the floor, with only a little dirty straw for bedding. One of these women, a former maidservant of around 30 years of age, stated she had been confined for wandering. Seven years earlier her betrothed had left Liskeard for Plymouth and neglected to contact her: travelling to Plymouth she found him about to marry another woman, causing her ‘derangement’. Alexander deemed her to be quite harmless. The other woman showed him injuries on her arms from the children in the workhouse throwing stones at her.

At Falmouth and Teignmouth workhouses he found two ‘idiots’ amongst the other inmates, observing:

‘There was something extremely disgusting and hardly human in their appearance. They had each of them only a very thin gown on. Both of them were men but they were perfectly indecent.’

These conditions could result in further tragedy and suffering. On the 20th August 1819, the year before Cornwall County Asylum admitted its first patient, The West Briton reported on a case heard at the Cornwall Assizes. Phillippa May, ‘a pauper belonging to Padstow’, was charged with the murder of 73 year old Mary Jeffry, also a pauper. Phillippa May had been ‘insane for two years before, and was confined with a chain at the poor-house at Padstow’, chained to a beam. Mary Jeffry slept in the same room. During the night of the 19th of May Phillippa had attempted to escape and strangled Mary, the noise alerting the sleeping keeper of the poorhouse.

Phillippa May was found not guilty, however, by reason of insanity at the time of the attack.

References and Further Reading

Charles T. Andrews, The Dark Awakening (1978)

M. A. Crowther, The Workhouse System 1834 – 1929 (1981)

W. B. Webstock, Old Dorset (1967)

Barbara Fawcett and Kate Karban, Contemporary Mental Health: Theory, Policy and Practice (2005)

Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Madhouses in England (1815)

 D. Hack Tuke, Reform in the Treatment of the Insane: Early History of the Retreat, York; its objects and influence (1892)

James Nield, State of the Prisons in England, Scotland and Wales (1812)

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 74, Part 2, 1804: 608-611

Anne Digby, Madness, morality and medicine: A study of the York Retreat 1796 – 1914 (1985)

Sarah Rutherford, The Landscapes of Public Lunatic Asylums in England, 1808 – 1914 (2003)

Barry Edginton, ‘Moral architecture: the influence of the York Retreat on asylum design’, Health and Place 3 (2) 1997, 91–99.

Strong Clothing: ‘Held’

From ‘A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects’, part of the BBC ‘A History of the World’ project. These items are on display in Bodmin Museum.

According to the article accompanying this image, ‘once the mere whisper of Bodmin’s lunatic asylum, St Lawrence’s, was enough to put the fear of God into Cornish men and women’ and the dark dress on the right, which would have been worn by women from the 1890s onwards, was ‘a poignant reminder of the uniform stigma of lunacy.’

An exhibition at Plymouth Arts Centre offers a new perspective on the subject of clothing, specifically, ‘Strong Clothing’, used in late nineteenth and early twentieth century asylums like St. Lawrences. Often regarded as inhumane forms of controlling patients, ‘Held’ by Jane Fradgley (currently showing until 16 June 2013) is a series of photographs that seek to show how “dignity and comfort for the wearer” are also part of the story of these “well-constructed garments”.

© Jane Fradgley 2013.

Fradgley was initially inspired by photographs taken by Henry Hering of patients in Bethlam in 1856. One shows a young woman, Emma Riches, in a thickly quilted garment with the hand of another person, possibly a nurse, seemingly offering comfort.

© The Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum

The BBC piece suggests that a culture of fear was prevalent around asylums like St. Lawrence’s and conforms to accepted representations of the historic ill-treatment of vulnerable mentally ill people. By contrast, Jane’s work offers us an alternative perspective on attitudes to both patients and those who provided care and clothing for them. It is well worth a visit to Plymouth Arts Centre to see the photos for yourself.

For more information on this fascinating exhibition, visit:

Jane’s work also forms part of a further event: ‘held: a symposium on restraint and strong clothing’, taking place on Wednesday July 31st, 5pm – 8pm, at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, as part of the ‘Damaging the Body’ series. Entry is free, and all are welcome. The symposium aims to offer a variety of perspectives on restraint in the care of the mentally ill, both past and present. More details can be found here:


Elizabeth Barclay House


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2013). All rights reserved. (1907).

What’s in a name?

Founded in 1898 in Bodmin, the Elizabeth Barclay Home was originally intended for the ‘training of backward girls of good character who have passed the age of fourteen’: no girl who had ‘lost their character’ was eligible for admission. The home took in laundry from the local area and the girls were trained in this and other domestic chores with the prospect that some would then be able to go into domestic service. However, ‘low standards and bad habits’ were reportedly slow to cure during the home’s first year and others were found to be incapable of ever living in the outside world. Those who did not manage to ‘find improvement’ under this regime would be returned to friends or guardians….parents were not mentioned so we may assume that the girls in question were orphans.

None of the descriptions of the home sit well with modern readers: as well as being described as a place for ‘backward girls’ in its early years, it was also known as ‘an industrial home for girls of weak intellect’ and was described in The Times in 1912 as ‘the Elizabeth Barclay Home of Industry for the Feeble-minded’. Later, women who had given birth outside wedlock would also be considered candidates for improvement and it remained an exclusively female hospital until 1948 when men began to be admitted too. Treatment of the mentally ill of both sexes continued until 1990 when, like so many similar establishments, it was closed down.

With thanks to Cornwall Record Office and Bodmin Museum.

The Foster Building, St Lawrence’s Hospital


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2013). All rights reserved. (1907).

At this present time the unused remains of St Lawrence’s Hospital – a complex known collectively as the Foster Building – is a contested site. Destined for demolition, the views, experiences and memories of this collection of buildings inevitably differ.

For some, the buildings signify the historic St Lawrence’s Hospital as a whole, for others the most important building within the complex is Foster Hall.


© Whatever’s Left 2006-2013. All rights reserved.

Is this a site of cultural or historical significance – a unique part of Cornish heritage, or just another example of an early 20th century hospital building, many examples of which exist across England? Is this a building which contains important memories, also serving as a physical reminder of changing attitudes towards mental illness – memories worthy of preservation? Can this site serve as a focus for recording a history of mental health in Cornwall, or is it a derelict eyesore, marked by stigma and a drain on precious resources, whose value lies in demolition and redevelopment? Should it be saved, protected and turned into a community resource, in a way which preserves its heritage for future generations?

Despite the Foster Building not being recommended for listed status by English Heritage, it is an important part of the Duchy’s heritage, as part of the old St Lawrence’s Hospital (known previously as the Cornwall County Asylum) and as a site in its own right.


© Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall 2013. All rights reserved.

Built in the early part of the 20th century, to alleviate the main hospital’s problem with overcrowding, the Foster Building was named after Henry Durett Foster, in recognition of his work for the institution. The renowned Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail was chosen to design the new building, opened three years after his suicide in 1903 following his own apparent struggle with mental illness.

We feel the story of St Lawrence’s Hospital has an important place within the history of Cornwall, highlighted by the imminent demise of the Foster Building. We wish to explore, collect, record and share many aspects of this history up to the present day – which means different views, experiences and memories – and we invite people to contribute, offer feedback and commentary.


C. T. Andrews, The Dark Awakening: A History of St. Lawrence’s Hospital Bodmin (1978)

Foster Hall Revival Trust

The Silvanus Trevail Society

Cornish Buildings Group

Whatever’s Left, ‘St Lawrence’s Asylum, Bodmin’

‘End of an era?’ Cornish Guardian May 1st 2013

‘Last hurdle preventing demolition of Bodmin’s Foster Hall is overcome’ Cornish Guardian May 1st 2013 [online edition]

‘Calls to save historic building’ Cornish Guardian April 17th 2013

‘No consultation on demolition plans’ Cornish Guardian March 27th 2013

‘Calls to step up and save Foster Hall’ Cornish Guardian October 12th 2012 [online edition]

‘Pasty boss steps in to save Foster Hall’ Cornish Guardian May 16th 2012 [online edition]

‘Demolition of Foster Hall ‘would be a scandal for town’ Cornish Guardian October 5th 2011 [online edition]

‘Scandal over £1.5m to rent derelict site’ Cornish Guardian June 1st 2011 [online edition]

With thanks to Bodmin Town Museum, Bodmin Tourist Information Centre, Cornwall Record Office and Whatever’s Left.