This feature was first published by The Bury Free Press in their print edition only and is reprinted here by kind permission.
Grand ballrooms are not the first thing that come to mind when we imagine the Victorian asylums of our recent past but a newly published novel by Anna Hope, The Ballroom, was inspired by her discovery old photographs of an ornate ballroom in a northern asylum, now fallen into disrepair. And whilst her story is set many miles away, in the Yorkshire Ridings, it has intriguing parallels with the old county asylum, once known as St Audry’s near Ipswich and the exhibition dedicated to it in Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life. After reading Anna’s novel and interviewing her for this feature, I realised that it was time to re-visit this local museum which has an exhibit about the old St Audry’s asylum and talk to Lisa Harris who is employed there as Collections and Interpretation Manager.
The St Audry’s Project tells the tale of the old St Audry’s Hospital in Melton, which began life as the Suffolk County Asylum in 1832, on the site of an old workhouse. When St Audry’s closed in 1993, its museum collection and archive were divided between various regional establishments. Since then, the Museum of East Anglian Life has been collating oral testimonies and working with local people to ensure that such an important and fascinating part of Suffolk history is not lost. Lisa explains the history of the collection and her involvement in it.
“The Museum of East Anglian Life was re-developing Abbots Hall and we wanted to look at the concept of home and belonging: home as in the people who themselves once lived in Abbots Hall; home as in being a proud Stowmarket girl, or a Suffolk person or even an East Anglian. We also wanted to look at different types of home, of which an asylum is one, and we knew we had the St Audrys collection which hadn’t actually been on public display before, to my knowledge,” she says
“All the archives that survived are based at Ipswich Records Office so this gave us a chance to talk about this whole element of life in Suffolk but also to link into the bigger picture and we were able to get funding from Comic Relief for this.
It is interesting that the collection came into being via the informal efforts of the staff who once worked at the hospital and I ask Lisa about this.
“The collection came here originally because it was in the teaching section of St Audry’s, housed in the attic. When they became a teaching hospital in the 1950s different staff gradually gathered items such as clothing, farm equipment and patients belongings and created a museum on site. But when the asylum closed in 1953, there was concerns as to where all of this might go. Some of the more medical items went to the Science Museum in London, a lot of it went to Felixstowe Museum and the rest came here”, she explains, sweeping her arm around the room lined with glass vitrines containing the tokens used as part of a patient-goods exchange system, the books and records, carefully inked in black fountain pen, pairs of spectacles, thick hard-to-rip nightgowns and decks of cards.
There’s staged vignettes too: a hospital screen has become an art installation where people have attached labels inscribed with the stigmatising language used to describe mental illness and the people who experience it. ‘Mental’, ‘schizoid’, ‘mental enfeeblement’ are starkly stamped on paper luggage tags and there’s a bed and bath with restraints in one corner plus the recorded voices of former staff who talk of their own lives there, often in a pronounced Suffolk burr. As visitors move slowly around the room, these voices fill the air, bringing the room to life.
Conducting research such as this can be made challenging by the stringent rules which control access to patient records: By law, a 30 year closure period is applied to administrative and committee papers, 80 years for student and staff records, and 100 years for personal medical records. This means the most important voices of all – that of the patients- are missing. Both Lisa Harris and Anna Hope emphasise the importance of that patient voice and the ways in which they sought it out for their respective endeavours.
The voice of the patients in The Ballroom are vivid, born in part from the many hours of research its author put in, as Anna Hope explains. “Their [the patients] voices do break through too, particularly in the casebooks. I read extensively in the casebooks of High Royds for the period in which the book is set, and the patients jumped vividly from their pages; even the act of holding the casebook in my hands was powerful: the marbled covers, the smell of age, the photographs of the patients, and their own words, erupting into the present, making themselves heard.” Anna skilfully combines her research with the imagination of a fiction author, managing to avoid the trap that many authors fall into, of circumventing the objectivity of historical data to such a degree that accuracy suffers.
High Royds Hospital, Menston, West Yorkshire.
The Ballroom is Anna Hope’s second novel and it begins with the arrival of Ella Fay at the Sharston asylum in 1911. She is sent there because, after railing against the lack of light in the textiles mill where she works, she snaps and breaks one of the windows- a socially transgressive act in the eyes of her employers and her colleagues, albeit perfectly understandable and rational to us. John Mulligan is already a patient at Sharston, an Irishman suffering from depression provoked by the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent abandonment of him. When Ella and John meet at a Friday night dance in the asylum’s beautiful ballroom, they embark upon a slow-burn of a relationship, marked by surreptitious meetings outdoors and smuggled letters and encounters in the wild, expansive Yorkshire moors.
Overseeing their care and to a certain extent, their fate, is Dr Charles Fuller, an ambitious yet inadequate medic who becomes slowly obsessed by the growing eugenics movement which advocated the social control and compulsory sterilisation of the poor and anyone with a mental illness or learning disability. In 1908, the newly appointed home secretary, Winston Churchill, was determined to solve the problem of what he referred to as the“feeble-minded” – anyone who was deemed unable to self-determine. Churchill’s views on compulsory sterilisation crystallised and he began to circulate pamphlets on the subject among the cabinet. The Eugenics Society grew increasingly influential and in 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act established powers to incarcerate the “feeble-minded” in specially-built asylums. As we see in John and Ella’s story, the sexes lived separately and only met in strictly monitored meetings, in their case, the weekly dance and these impending laws threaten their relationship and very existence, in John’s case.
I asked Anna Hope about the clear parallels with todays social and political situation, not just in the UK but across Europe too, where cuts to health and social care have disproportionately impacted upon the poor and the mentally unwell and the language used to justify government policy has become ugly. “The welfare state; universal healthcare, access to education and greater social mobility are being eroded daily. Not just that, but I feel something even more insidious taking place; poverty has shifted in my lifetime from being something that should be ameliorated by a healthy government and society, to something that is perceived as the fault of those who find themselves poor. I think this is deeply dangerous and beneath the cuts to child benefits for instance, amongst many other cuts, there’s a disturbing echo, as you say, of eugenic policy,” she says.
As for the long view, Anna emphasises the importance of re-visiting the recent past in order to learn from it. We must guard against rose-tinted historiography too. “I think it’s a good time to look a little into our past and see what we were capable of” she says. “Churchill, for example, has been very well served by history, and for good reason, but if you look at his language as home secretary in 1911, in its insistence on ‘racial purity’ and the threat to the race from social degeneration it’s really not so very far from Hitler’s a few decades later.”
Do you think we lost as much as we gained from the abolition of the asylum system with regard to the purest meaning of the word? Have we forgotten that sometimes, some people do need a place of asylum while they recover, I ask Anna.
And what of the ballroom which first inspired Anna Hope to write her novel? Well, interestingly I also discovered that St Audry’s had a ballroom too which is, for me, one of the most unexpected counterpoints to the stereotype of an asylum as a dour and crepuscular place- all worthy, joyless therapies and rigid monitoring. I also discovered that ballrooms were common in Victorian mansions from the 1880s until around 1920, and these mansions were, after all, family homes which links beautifully to Dr Kirkman’s belief that St Audry’s should replicate the home as much as possible and be filled with activities and things that were not merely useful but also stimulated the patient aesthetically.
“The more we looked into it, the more we discovered that St Audrys acted as a home away from home and this was all of the principles that Dr Kirkman put into place about being able to step out of your day to day life and the drudgery and issues that worried you,” Lisa says.
“If you had a mental illness, [although obviously these illnesses were understood in a different way to how we interpret them today], you then could be taken somewhere that was safe. You could be kept warm, you could be fed and given the chance to keep yourself clean but also, be given something that would keep your mind active. So being involved in day to day running- making clothes, helping with washing, on the farm,. It kept you busy and gave you the time to heal, I suppose”, she adds, and her words very much reflect the St Audry’s 28th annual report of 1865 which reports, in the purple prose of the Victorian age,”the admission is in dark insanity, the discharge in bright reason and light.”
Interestingly, in The Ballroom, Dr Charles Fuller, is initially keen to encourage his patients to enjoy dance and music, playing the piano for them in the dayroom and when he is introduced to the new Ragtime music emanating from New Orleans by a local music-shop employee he attempts and fails, to embody its joyful and less boundaried spirit. I held my breath as I read this because Charles is as imprisoned, in his own way, as some of the patients but fails to recognise this and I really hoped he might break free. The psychic struggle he becomes embroiled in is something I asked Anna about, especially with regards to his lessening empathy for his patients and increased ‘othering’ of them in line with his belief that eugenics is the way forward. “I thought it was dramatically more interesting if he was deeply in denial about his own demons and desires. I think perhaps it’s impossible to become the sort of character Charles does without deep suppression of one’s empathy,” she says, something which chimes with Dr Kirkman’s own beliefs about how to care for the mentally unwell, some of which are inscribed on the walls of the exhibit in the Museum of East Anglian Life. “No restraint can be employed which is so powerful as tenderness. Watchfullness, activity, gentleness and that peculiar tact acquired by long training to replace contests of strength between patient and keeper.
The Museum of East Anglian Life website.
Related links: an oral history of a Suffolk psychiatric hospital
Museum images courtesy of The Museum of East Anglian Life, except where indicated.
Image of The Ballroom book cover, Anna Hope, the High Royds hospital, courtesy of Anna Hope/Transworld publishers.
The header image of West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum is courtesy Mark Davis / Guzelian