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


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.