People, places, spaces and meaning

On 28 November 2014 I will be presenting a paper at my old university, Hertfordshire, on my research into Caterham Asylum, the first state imbecile institution (along with it’s sister asylum Leavesden.)

Below is the abstract:

Alongside the nineteenth century chimneys and workshops of industry, Victorian asylum buildings provide us with a stark visual reminder of a sometimes difficult past. Originally situated on the outskirts of towns, these infamous edifices, through the processes of historical and popular inquiry, and the spread of our cities, have become more visually, physically and emotionally prominent. 

Originally viewed as isolated and punitive institutions, where the insane were sent to be shut away from society, more recent scholarship has shown them to be dynamic sites, with permeable walls, and varied populations. Yet despite nearly forty years of dedicated historical inquiry, the common perception is that Victorian asylums were the province of the mentally ill. Furthermore, there has been little scholarship that explores the asylum population as a whole, preferring to discuss staff and patients as separate entities.

Caterham Asylum opened in 1870,  built to provide long-term accommodation for the harmless chronic pauper insane. The asylum’s  design, character and remit was shaped by contemporary understandings of idiocy, the role and purpose of institutions, and the interactions between those who worked and lived within its walls.

My paper will focus on the design, building and perception of the first state imbecile asylum, provide an insight into the institutional experience of its staff and patients, and illustrate how an alternative reading of the asylum landscape can provide new avenues for discussing nineteenth century welfare, psychiatry, and institutions.


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