Posts Tagged ‘Unlocking the Asylum’

Unlocking the Asylum: Sexuality and Psychiatry

February 11, 2019

February marks the start of LGBT History Month, a month long celebration of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) history. Before the late 20th century those who identified as LGBT were often perceived as suffering from a mental health condition. It is therefore unsurprising that staff working on the Unlocking the Asylum project, which is aiming to catalogue the records of the North Wales Hospital, have uncovered a number of references to LGBT patients who were admitted to the hospital because of their sexuality.


The North Wales Hospital as it would have been for patients in the 1950s, photograph by Ronald Thompson.

Amongst the post-1948 series of patient records there are a number of patients admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of homosexuality. Some of these patients voluntarily admitted themselves to the hospital looking for a ‘cure’ for their condition. As male homosexual activity was illegal up until 1967, many were afraid of the legal consequences of their behaviour, which could see them imprisoned for up to seven years. One patient admitted in the 1950s told Doctors that he did not mind giving up his homosexual activity in view of the difficulties it would cause him from a legal point of view.

The main ‘treatment’ offered to patients at the hospital during this time was Stilboestrol, a form of chemical castration. According to Doctors this ‘treatment’ would eliminate sexual desire and make it possible for a patient to live within the law. One patient who was admitted in the early 1950s was offered three choices, he could accept his homosexuality and run the risk of the legal consequences; he could be celibate; or he could have his sexual desires removed chemically by use of Stilboestrol. Some patients did not wish to be ‘cured’ of their homosexuality, one patient admitted himself because he wished to escape from pending police action. The Doctor ‘treating’ the patient prescribed a course of Stilboestrol although he said did not feel optimistic of the outcome of such a treatment in this particular case.

There are also records relating to patients who identified as lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Several patients declared that they were bisexual, and there are a number of records of patients who identified as lesbian. There are also a number of patients who identified as transgender or transsexual. One patient wished to be a female and wanted recognition of their real gender and identity, whilst another wished to physically transition from male to female. One patient felt as though they didn’t belong to either gender.

The North Wales Hospital collection is a vital resource in bringing to light the experiences and histories of those who identified as LGBT, during a period when these identities were perceived as psychiatric disorders. To find out more about LGBT History Month and events in North Wales please visit the LGBT History Month website.

LGBT Outing the Past Calendar

A calendar of LGBT events taking places in Wales can be found on the LGBT History Month website.

Please note that due to NHS regulations records of patients containing sensitive personal information are closed to the public for 100 years. These records may be available to researchers who belong to an academic institution upon request. If you are interested in using the North Wales Hospital collection for academic research please contact us.

Lindsey Sutton

Project Archivist (Unlocking the Asylum)

Alcohol in the Asylum

January 7, 2019

Welcome to our first blog post of 2019! This week not only marks the start of the New Year but for some is also the start of dry January, a public health campaign which sees participants give up alcohol for a month.

There are frequent mentions of alcohol in the early records of the North Wales Hospital. A dietary table for pauper patients produced in 1848 reveals that male patients could receive as much as 14 pints of beer per week, with females receiving considerably less at three and a half pints per week. As well as being included in the daily diet, alcohol was also given during special events and celebrations. During the first annual ball which took place at the Asylum in 1849 “males were supplied with a moderate allowance of good ale, and the females with tea and a little negus.”

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A diet table showing the food and drink allocation for pauper patients, produced in 1848.

This provision of alcohol in asylums was not uncommon in this period. As well as been seen by the medical profession as having palliative qualities, it was also often safer than drinking water which carried risks of illness. Beer was also used in asylums as an incentive and reward for patient labour. Patient labour was believed to be important during this period, not only was it thought to be beneficial in aiding a patient’s recovery but also served the dual purpose of supporting the running of the asylum.

The subject of beer provisions feature amongst minutes of the Committee of Visitors. At a Special Meeting of the House Committee on 4th October 1853 the Steward of the Asylum reported that 24 barrels of beer that were supplied to the institutions were short of the legal measure. The contract with the supplier was terminated and another supplier was found. By 1867 the annual report reveals that the Asylum had spent £582 18s on 368 barrels of beer for the year. Concerns over this high price led the Committee to recommend building a brew house, and by 1869 the Asylum was profiting from its production of beer.

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Taken from the 1869 annual report, showing how the asylum was profiting from the baking of bread and the brewing of beer.

By the late 1870s alcohol started to be phased out of all asylums due to changing ideas in the medical profession about its benefits, and changing societal values about the dangers and immorality of consuming alcohol. In addition large patient numbers and overcrowding in many asylums was leading to an expensive increase in the amount of alcohol needed.

In the early 1870s beer had already been withdrawn from general use at the Asylum, and was only given to male patients who were fully occupied with work in the institution. By 1880 it was phased out altogether, the Medical Superintendent reporting that “we have discontinued the use of beer, except during harvesting, or other unusual operations. We have no reason to regret the experiment; on the contrary, it has prevented jealousy amongst the inmates, whilst no ill result to either mental or bodily health has followed”.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes was discounted by medical professionals. As time went on the North Wales Hospital became a place where those suffering from an alcohol related illness could go for treatment and recovery, a far cry from the daily beer rations of the 1840s!

Lindsey Sutton

Project Archivist (Unlocking the Asylum)