Madness was an all-enveloping term whose varieties can affect us all and for which we now have much kinder words. A jarring name, much used up to the eighteenth century, it was replaced by ‘insanity’ in the nineteenth century and ‘mental illness’ in the twentieth. I began this post during Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May) when my thoughts turned to a family member who had Alzheimer’s disease. I was also reminded of some of the subjects we’d come across in this blog and wondered how they were cared for in less enlightened times.
The most distinguished of the Norwich School of Painters, John Sell Cotman (1728-1842) occupies prime position in the city’s pantheon yet ‘his compulsive and intermittently manic personality prevented his talent from flourishing in the national arena.’ . Now recognised as bipolar disorder, these extremes of elation and depression also affected Cotman’s sons.
Miles Edmund, who often finished his father’s paintings, was depressive; Alfred’s violent behaviour  led to his committal in an asylum; and John Joseph was known around the city, rather cruelly, as Crazy Cotman. His brilliantly colourful and energetic paintings are the antithesis of the calmness portrayed in the wherry school of painting.
A little more is known about the troubled life of Thomas Jeckyll, born eight years after Alfred Cotman and subject of four posts. Wymondham-born Jeckyll became an important figure in the Aesthetic Movement based on the fashion for Japanese art, spearheaded by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Earlier in his career, Jeckyll had worked for his patron, Sir John Boileau of Ketteringham Hall, during which time his unreliability was noted. A later absence was to precipitate the infamous affair of the Peacock Room. Due to illness, Jeckyll had to absent himself from a project to design a room in the London house of wealthy collector Frederick Leyland, where he could display his oriental china. Whistler, who had been working elsewhere in the house, completed Jeckyll’s work but he went far beyond any ideas discussed with Leyland. The Peacock Room, in blue and gold, is a masterpiece achieved by painting over the surfaces of Jeckyll’s room and in the process airbrushing him from history. Only a pair of sunflower fire irons remain as a reminder of Jeckyll.
Thomas Jeckyll returned from London to the family home in Unthank Road, Norwich . He had been experiencing pressure of work in the early 1870s and in 1873 underwent some kind of crisis. Then, in November 1876, having suffered his first manic episode, he was admitted to a private asylum, Heigham Hall, about half a mile outside Norwich city walls.
A search for private asylums in Mason’s Directory of 1852  comes up with ‘Asylum-lane’ in the parish of Heigham. This was to be renamed Park Lane and if you were to zig-zag northwards, through what must have been open countryside before the encroachment of terraced housing, you would have arrived at extensive wooded grounds labelled ‘Heigham Hall, Private Lunatic Asylum’. Jeckyll was incarcerated here in an asylum for ‘patients belonging to the upper and middle classes’ .
On Bryant’s map of 1826, Heigham Hall appears as Marrowbone House or Hall – a sly dig at butcher John Lowden, a contractor to the army in the Napoleonic Wars, who renovated this medieval building.
Although Thomas Jeckyll’s condition seems not to have improved, he was discharged from Marrowbone Hall the following year to his father’s home in Norwich . However, George Jeckell (whose surname betrays his son’s fancified ‘y’), was himself exhibiting signs of mania and died in May 1878. A few months prior to this, Thomas had been incarcerated in the Bethel Hospital as a fee-paying patient and he was to stay here until his death in 1881. As we saw for the Cotmans, inheritance plays a strong part in bipolar disorder.
Before looking at the pioneering Bethel Hospital in the city centre let’s return to Marrowbone Hall. The Hall, formerly The Grange, was partly renovated by butcher Lowden around 1810 ‘in modern style’. Then, in 1836, it opened as a private mental home, managed by Drs John Ferra Watson and William Peter Nichols (whose name crops up throughout the history of Norwich medicine in the early C19). Heigham Hall had set itself up in competition with an establishment near Park Lane known as Heigham Retreat – the word ‘retreat’ signifying its use as a private asylum . We’ve encountered these two properties when searching for another Heigham House occupied by the Unthank family .
In 1852, the Reverend Edmund Holmes was found in bed with the 12-year-old daughter of Mrs Bunn, his housekeeper, who called the constable [6, 8]. Holmes was taken to a magistrate who referred him for committal to Heigham Hall. Just a few months later Holmes was discharged only to immediately become a boarder employed as the asylum’s chaplain. The public were incensed that the owners appeared to have offered a dubious diagnosis of insanity in order that a man from ‘a high county family’ could evade the law. A surprisingly partisan article in a medical journal of 1855 tried to boost Heigham Hall’s reputation, stating that others had thought Holmes was a lunatic and that the housekeeper’s husband had often held the minister on the floor as a protection from violence .
The affair became a national cause célèbre when another doctor claimed that Dr Watson of Heigham Hall had offered him a bribe to sign Holmes’ lunacy certificate, saying it would be worth ‘hundreds a year in his pocket’ . Following questions in Parliament, the Lunacy Act was amended so that no-one’s status as a patient could be switched to boarder without full investigation by the Commissioners in Lunacy. But the question remained: was this the ploy of a wealthy man to evade justice or was Holmes insane?
From 1904 until his death in 1949, Heigham Hall was owned by Dr John Gordon Gordon-Munn who, in 1914/15 was Lord Mayor of Norwich. As a trainee doctor he had written a short thesis on, ‘Some Observations Upon the Uterus and its Appendages in the Insane .’ That is, he examined the macro- and microscopic appearance of the sexual organs of insane women. In his brief introduction, he cites various sources to support his assertion that, ‘It has long been held that a decided relation does exist between pathological conditions of the sexual apparatus in women and insanity.’ This offers a disturbing insight into the prevailing (male) view of ‘women’s problems’ that persisted into the twentieth century. Women were thought to be liable to a periodic lunacy according to the lunar cycle – the waxing and waning of the moon. The Latin for moon, ‘lunaris’, gives rise to ‘loony while the Latin for womb, ‘hystericus,’ is evidently the base for ‘hysterical’. Indeed, there were claims that female hysteria could be cured by hysterectomy. In 1866 a physician wrote that clitoridectomy could cure certain kinds of insanity. Such barbaric treatment appears to be the product of sympathetic magic, not science.
Competing with Heigham Hall for patients was the Heigham Retreat (above). This private mental asylum was approached from Park Lane along an avenue of trees that gave name to present-day Avenue Road, with which it partly coincided. In 1859, the proprietors of Heigham Hall bought out their competitors at Heigham Retreat and promptly closed it. Now, Avenue Junior School occupies the site. Heigham Hall itself lasted until 1960 when it was demolished to make way for Dolphin Grove social housing.
Five miles west of the city, Costessey Hall was home to the Jerninghams on whose land George Gunton established the brickworks whose products helped define the face of Victorian Norwich [see previous post 11]. But Gunton’s Cossey Reds were used first to build the phantasmagorical Neo-Gothic hall, which was never completed.
The 10th Baron Stafford, Sir Augustus Frederick Fitzherbert Stafford Jerningham was probably the grandson of Mrs Fitzherbert and the Prince Regent (the future George IV).
Jerningham was certified insane by the Lunacy Commission. Whether or not his mental illness was inherited from the Hanovers is unclear but some hereditary component seemed to run in the family for Jerningham’s younger brother, Sir Fitzosbert Edward Stafford Jerningham, was thought of as eccentric. His valet reported that his lordship would throw out watches that failed to keep time. Fitzosbert rarely ventured outside, reasoning that his brother had left the park and never returned .
Ordinary individuals had no wealth to insulate them from physical or mental illness. The earliest public asylum in the country was Bethlehem Hospital, which moved from just outside London’s city walls to Moorfields in 1676. Although the Bethel Hospital in Norwich came later (1713) it had the distinction of being the country’s first purpose-built asylum . This is where Thomas Jeckyll spent his last years.
The austere external facade on Bethel Street is part of Edward Boardman’s remodelling of 1899. On the opposite side of the wall were gardens and a ladies’ croquet lawn. Some idea of this cloistered place can be glimpsed from Catherine Maude Nichols’ engraving and painting (see  for the story of this fascinating artist). Catherine’s father was one of four consulting surgeons at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital – then on St Stephens Street – where he specialised in removing bladder stones. This was the Dr Nichols who established Heigham Hall as a private asylum. He was also surgeon at The Bethel, which accounts for his daughter’s access to the private side of this hospital.
The original building was founded by Mary Chapman, daughter of John Mann, a wealthy worsted merchant who had been the city’s mayor and the county’s high sheriff. This was on the site of the Committee House that stored the county’s arms during the Civil War. In 1648, during a popular Royalist uprising against troopers of the New Model Army, citizens broke into the building and somehow ignited 98 barrels of gunpowder. The explosion or ‘Great Blow’ killed around 100 people and blew out the glass in the nearby churches of St Stephens and St Peter Mancroft. The churchwarden’s accounts for St Peter Mancroft record that in 1652 the ‘glasyer’ William Rutter was paid 13 pounds, four shillings and sixpence ‘for the glaseing of the sayd East windowe and other glasing work in the church’ . Rutter’s east window would have been a collection of fifteenth century glass, painted in several Norwich workshops, and rescued from around the church.
Mary Chapman’s husband, John, was rector of the parish church of Thorpe to the east of the city. Both had mental illness in their families and John left money to found a charity for those deprived of their reason. Mary was to use her remaining 24 years to build The Bethel on the site of the old Committee Rooms and establish a hospital for the insane . The patients’ relatives were expected to pay what they could and during Mary Chapman’s lifetime she herself paid for the maintenance of several inmates. Her will arranged for a trust to provide ‘not for natural born idiots or fools, but for the convenient reception and habitation of lunatics’ . This provides a rough distinction between conditions apparent at birth and those that appeared later in life (although it is now known that the latter may have a genetic basis). Hogarth’s print has its own taxonomy of madness and is instructive for illustrating attitudes to, and classification of, mental disturbance in the mid-eighteenth century.
Having led a dissolute life, the protagonist Tom Rakewell (front left), sits on the floor with a self-inflicted wound in his side and is being chained for his own protection. The man on the stairs (right), in love with a famous courtesan, is besotted, lovelorn, moonstruck. The tailor (centre mid-ground) measures an imaginary client with his tape. Two cells are occupied by delusional patients. These different species of madness, and the terms used to describe them, might not stand up to modern scrutiny but we should remember that science was yet to get into its stride. As a benchmark for where this stands in the history of science, the man at the back, part-hidden by the door, is trying to find a method for what seemed to be the intractable problem of determining longitude and, in case we didn’t grasp this, Hogarth has written the word on the wall. The man kneeling with a makeshift telescope to his eye is probably trying to solve the longitude problem by observing the stars . Two years after Hogarth published his print, the Longitude Commissioners awarded John Harrison a prize for producing a chronometer accurate enough to measure the difference in local time – and hence longitude – between a ship at sea and Greenwich Mean Time.
The two fashionably-dressed young women have come to visit, one of them using her fan to block sight of a crowned man with a sceptre in one hand and said to be urinating with the other. While the visiting elite could claim to be motivated by higher ideals, and were expected to make a charitable contribution towards the upkeep of the insane, crowds of the lower sort would come to ‘Bedlam’ in search of amusement. Madness was a diversion.
‘Madness’ and ‘lunacy’ – terms offensive to modern ears – were everyday coin in the eighteenth century; in the nineteenth century they were largely replaced by ‘insanity’ and in the twentieth century by ‘mental illness’. Steven Cherry also makes the distinction between madness as a legal term and mental illness as a medical concept . In a more religious age, madness could be perceived to be the consequences of ‘sinfulness and the loss of divine protection’ . Another explanation, set out by the Ancient Greeks, suggested that temperament was regulated by an imbalance of the four bodily humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. An excess of black bile was thought to cause melancholia whereas a choleric and manic nature was attributed to an excess of yellow bile. The humoral theory held for two millennia but had little or no practical use in treating: hysteria, post-natal depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, the effects of syphilis on the brain, monomania (e.g., conversing with supernatural beings), congenital idiocy, delirium tremens caused by alcohol etc etc. For some time the Madness of King George the Third has been attributed to the blood disorder, porphyria, which may have been treated with arsenic, but a twenty-first century analysis of his handwriting suggests that the monarch could have been exhibiting acute mania .
Over the gates of London’s Bethlem Hospital were two figures carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber, one depicting ‘raving madness’, the other ‘melancholy madness’ – the two poles of manic depression.
Clearly, Hogarth’s depiction of Tom Rakewell (above) is based on Cibber’s chained figure.
The model provided by London’s Bethlem Hospital – or Bedlam, with its connotations of chaos – tapped into two contemporary views of insanity. This dichotomy appears on King’s 1766 map of Norwich: the road was named Bedlam Street while the hospital itself was called a more dignified (and biblical) Bethel.
From a young age, Amelia Opie visited Bethel Hospital in Norwich . She would throw a halfpenny over the wall for an inmate, Goodings, to buy snuff; she also spent most of her weekly allowance buying him pinks and other flowers after he had admired a nosegay she was wearing. Despite being petrified by his clanking chains she could still write, ‘Some of my happiest moments were those when I visited the gates of bedlam.’ As a romantic 16-year-old, Amelia went inside the Bethel with two male friends at a time when she ‘considered madness not as occasioned by some physical derangement, but as the result, in most cases, of moral causes.’ But Amelia saw no lovelorn patients rolling their eyes and ‘went away disappointed from having false ideas of the nature of the affliction which we had gone to contemplate.’
It may be surprising to read from Amelia Opie’s account that inmates of the Bethel, who were free to roam the grounds, might still be chained. Inmates were owed a sense of duty and humanity and ‘in obstinate resistances to be governed no blows or correction with any weapon.’ But records show that humane management still involved handcuffs, padlocks, a heavy chair with straps, and straight-waistcoats. Chains were intended to prevent escape and to minimise harm but were insufficient to stop a patient from killing the Master, James Bullard, with a scythe .
Surgeon doctors attended patients in the Bethel, some from the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital founded in 1771 on St Stephens Road, just outside the city walls. The first physician to be appointed was Sir Benjamin Wrench who had promised Mary Chapman that he would remain physician to the Bethel for as long as he was able. He retired in 1747 aged 82 . We previously brushed past Sir Benjamin – or at least, his house – in the post on the Norwich School of Painters . The Norwich Society of Artists held their first exhibition in Sir Benjamin Wrench’s Court, which was demolished in 1826 to make way for the new Corn Exchange on the corner of Exchange and Little Bedford Streets where the north end of Jarrold Department Store now stands. When the NHS was established in 1948 the Bethel itself became an annexe of the City Asylum at Hellesdon. It closed in 1995 after 282 years service.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Norwich had roughly 50 private asylums and a handful of private subscription asylums. The ‘lunatic poor’ went to the poor house or workhouse even though there was no special provision for them . However, from 1828, they were to be housed on a site once occupied by a lazar (leper) hospital established by a Bishop of Norwich; this was just outside St Augustine’s Gates in a new building that had a ward for the sick. The new asylum, adjacent to the pre-existing workhouse infirmary, was known for the first two years of its existence as the Norwich Pauper Asylum . Renamed the Norwich City Asylum, the institution was to remain here until 1880 when a new City Asylum opened in Hellesdon. The OS map of 1886 shows the Borough Lunatic Asylum as ‘disused’.
In 1880, the city’s accommodation for the mentally ill was transferred to new premises at Hellesdon, just beyond the Mile Cross.
The workhouse infirmary at St Augustine’s had already left the site in 1859 for Bowthorpe Road, forming the nucleus of what would be the West Norwich Hospital. It had a ward for lunatics .
Although not in Norwich itself, we must acknowledge the presence of the Norfolk Lunatic Asylum at Thorpe St Andrews, two and half miles east of the city centre. As a result of an Act of 1808 this County Asylum, which was funded by the county rates, opened in 1814 specifically for pauper and criminal lunatics. . It was only the third of its kind in the country. Here it is in an engraving of 1825 by John Berney Ladbrooke, son of co-founder of the Norwich Society of Artists, Robert Ladbrooke.
©Reggie Unthank 2021
Recently published, my latest book is an anthology of short, richly illustrated articles in which I take a sideways look at the history of Norwich. See my previous blog post for further details. The book is available in Jarrolds
Norwich and City Bookshop Norwich. Click the underlined links to go straight to the mail order pages. It can also be bought in: The Bookhive, Norwich; Waterstones, Castle Street, Norwich; the Holt Bookshop; Ketts Bookshop, Wymondham.
- Andrew Moore (2005). John Sell Cotman: The Calm and the Storm. In, John Sell Cotman: Master of Watercolour. Pub: Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service.
- Susan Weber Soros and Catherine Arbuthnott (2003). Thomas Jeckyll: Architect and Designer, 1827-1881. Pub: Yale University Press.
- Walter Rye (1917). History of the Parish of Heigham. See: http://www.welbank.net/norwich/hist.html#hhall
- Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology (1855) vol 8(29): pp168–170. Heigham Hall Lunatic Asylum, Norwich. See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4961946/
- Sarah Wise (2015). https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/lunacy-and-mad-doctors/201505/did-the-victorian-asylum-allow-the-rich-evade-justice
- Ernest G. Gage (1991). Costessey Hall: A Retrospect of the Jernegans, Jerninghams and Stafford Jerninghams of Costessey Hall, Norfolk. Pub: Colin L. House, Costessey Hall, Old Costessey, Norwich.
- Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson (1997). The Buildings of England: Norfolk I. Pub: Yale University Press
- Christopher Woodforde (1950). The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century. Pub: Oxford University Press.
- Mark Winston (1994). The Bethel at Norwich: an eighteenth century hospital for lunatics. Medical History vol 38, pp 27-51. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/3601231.pdf
- Joanna Tinworth (2021). Notes on Hogarth’s painting: http://collections.soane.org/object-p47
- Steven Cherry (2003). Mental Health Care in Modern England: The Norfolk Lunatic Asylum/St Andrew’s Hospital, 1810-1998. Pub: The Boydell Press.
- V. Rentoumi (2017). The acute mania of King George III: A computational linguistic analysis. PLOS ONE vol 12 (3). https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0171626
- Cecilia Lucy Brightwell (1865). Memorials of the Life of Amelia Opie. Pub: Fletcher & Alexander. Norwich. See https://www.gutenberg.org/files/47595/47595-h/47595-h.htm
I am grateful to Clare Everitt for permission to use images from the excellent Picture Norfolk website.