‘Philanthropy gone mad’?

Bristol’s ‘Lunatic Pauper Palace’ faced hostility from the outset

It will come as little surprise that the foundation of what became Bristol’s Glenside Hospital for psychiatric care was mired in controversy.

It could be said to date back to 1698 when St Peter’s Hospital was opened in what is now Castle Park, by the city’s well-meaning Guardians of the Poor. Although essentially it was a Workhouse presided over by a Dr. Thomas Dover, it had a ward reserved for ‘lunatics’.

1,000 franc Burkino Faso coin, minted in Prague,
commemorating the original Robinson Crusoe.

The good doctor would later find fame and fortune by leading the landing party that rescued the shipwrecked Alexander Selkirk – the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ – and by combining opium and ipecacuanha to form Dover Powders which could reduce pain and induce euphoria, but also induce violent vomiting if over done.

By the 19th century St Peter’s had 3 ‘lunatic wards’, and conditions at the hospital were causing concern internally and externally.

The poor were transferred to a new Stapleton Workhouse in the refurbished ‘French Prison’ on Manor Road, now private housing.

Some patients went to private asylums in Fishponds, but it would continue to house others until the Bristol Lunatic Asylum opened in 1861.

St. Peters Hospital

In 1844 the Lunacy Commissioners, who inspected such places, were scathing about St Peter’s, describing it as ‘totally unfit for an asylum’.  But Bristol Corporation vacillated about providing an alternative, arguing that they had already had to spend ‘heavily on sewage and other sanitary measures under the Public Health Act’. They even set up a committee ‘to endeavour to postpone the building of a new lunatic asylum’.

The Bristol Gazette joined in, saying it would be ‘lunacy itself’ to build a new asylum: ‘[T]o take a pauper simply because he is mad and to place him in a palace with pleasure grounds, ornamental water, etc., is nothing short of philanthropy gone mad.’

Pressure on the Corporation from the Home Secretary led the Bristol Mirror to opine ‘We are asked to provide Pauper Lunatics with a palace which will costs from £200 to £700 per idiot or madman (£15k-53£ at today’s prices). It must be a positive pleasure, to be out of one’s mind in the present day.’

After years of much argy-bargy Fishponds was chosen out of eight possible sites. and work began on the Bristol’s Municipal Lunatic Asylum in 1858. 

The Lysaght ironworks HQ, now a university film school

Designed by Irish architect Thomas Royse Lysaght, it echoed the Bristol Byzantine style he employed in the construction of the castle-like headquarters for his brother John’s iron works in St Phillips, now Plymouth MarJon University’s film school, Screenology. 

The asylum went up beside Stapleton Workhouse, the former ‘French Prison’, on Manor Road, just along from Fishponds House, a private asylum which was closing after a sensational public inquiry.

Bristol’s Municipal Lunatic Asylum now a university campus

The light and airy buildings had not been completed when 50 men and 61 women from St Peter’s were transferred in early 1861, but the Lunacy Commissioners were impressed by the transformation. They declared they ‘could hardly recognise the patients before them as the same company they had been accustomed to seeing in St Peter’s Hospital’.

However the new premises were quickly both over-crowded and in debt. Within two years there were 199 patients, and it was decided to expand the hospital and make it more self-sufficient with profitable piggeries, a bakery and a smithy.  Patients were now less likely to be physically restrained, and those who could were expected to work, keeping costs down at the same time as improving their mental and physical health.

Patient health was problematic since many were admitted with incurable or contagious diseases, from cancer and senility to syphilis and tuberculosis. The added problem of a poor water supply from wells was exacerbated by a severe drought in 1864. Water had to be carried up from the river Frome by cart until land was purchased to house a 5,000 gallon tank with a pumping system into the hospital. Nonetheless three or four patients still had to bathe in the same water.  

Inevitably there were outbreaks of typhoid, and deaths from contamination. Bristol Water Works were persuaded to provide a mains supply in 1877 and things improved even as the number of patients and the hospital itself expanded. A bricked-over quarry beneath the hospital grounds became a spring-fed reservoir containing a million gallons of water.

Round-headed leek or garlic (Allium schaerocephalon)

By then the stress of these early days had taken their toll on the hospital’s first medical superintendent, Dr. Henry Oxley-Stephens. After a lengthy sick leave he retired in 1871.

In earlier days as a botanist he had discovered the round-headed leek or garlic, allium sphaerocephalon in the Avon Gorge. 

His liberal regime at the asylum hospital included social and cultural events and outings, involving both patients and staff.

It was a tradition that would continue during the various phases of the hospital’s history. As the Beaufort War Hospital from 1915-1919, then Bristol Mental Hospital until, under the NHS in 1960 it was renamed Glenside Hospital.

Dr Donal Early.

In 1993 it was merged with neighbouring Manor Park Hospital for geriatric care to form Blackberry Hill Hospital, which was closed year later.

Glenside’s Consultant Psychiatrist at its closure was Dr Donal Early. He had worked at the hospital since 1944 when he came over from Ireland. Much of this article is drawn from ‘The Lunatic Pauper Palace’, his detailed history of the institution, published in 2003. The founding father of the Glenside Hospital Museum, Dr. Early died in 2004.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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