freedoms of patients at william simpsons asylum

In this blog post Lauren, our Putting Arts and Humanities to Work (ARTU9W4) placement student, writes about the details of life in the asylum in the 1850s she discovered while working on our William Simpson’s Asylum project.

Patients at the William Simpson’s Asylum partook in multiple jobs during their time there. The institution arranged for inmates to volunteer themselves in ‘odd jobs’ on the grounds. The most popular form of volunteering was gardenwork. This was a very popular activity among patients and many of them enjoyed this work because it kept them occupied. This was also beneficial for the institution (and most likely their gardener) as it sped up the growing of vegetables and made patients feel a sense of accomplishment in what they were working on.

Extract from Governor’s Report to the Trustees of the William Simpson’s Asylum, 1858, recording hours spent by patients working in the gardens.

In 1858, around 17 patients were engaged in gardenwork and they would work for around 10 hours each day. It is noted in the Annual Report of 1858 that Thomas Allan was particularly keen and engaged in his work, with the Governor describing him as “almost equal to an official”. In this same report, 20 others were noted to have engaged in work in other ways than tending to the garden. Some of these duties included: tending to the pigs, mending the water pipes, setting up chairs on the grounds, taking care of the beer, running messages and ‘riddling the ashes’ (keeping the fire going). Another patient who was in his eighties would clean the knives as he was too unfit for other forms of work.

“The employed are always the happiest, the most contented, and the most healthy.”

Governor’s Report to the Trustees of the William Simpson’s Asylum, 1858.

However, not all the inmates were passionate about this work and some of them even complained that it was unnecessary. The Governor recorded that the only way to get patients to be enthusiastic about their work was by offering them a small amount of beer to satisfy their needs and to keep them engaged (half a bottle allowed each day!), and if the work was particularly strenuous, they would be given an additional slice of bread for their efforts.

Money and alcohol were strictly monitored. The only time a full bottle of beer was allowed was during Feast Days. On any other occasion, if a patient were to be found in the possession of spirits they were threatened with being discharged from the asylum. They were also not allowed any pensions or additional incomes as the only income they could receive must come from the institution itself. Their weekly allowance was 6d a week (a sixpence), and family and friends were discouraged from providing patients with anything more than they were allowed.

Extract from House Regulations of William Simpson’s Asylum, November 1855.

Reading was an additional pastime allowed for patients to engage in. Newspapers and periodicals were provided by the institution which many patients were keen to read. There was also a library at the asylum, but it was suggested that most books were too intellectually written for that particular group. However, development to the library in 1859 allowed for a Sabbath’s Day book to be given to each inmate in the evening. It was observed that more than half of inmates were seen to be reading in the Hall during evening hours.

Lauren Mallen

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