Mason’s Madhouses in old Fishponds

A shameless plug for my upcoming book with Bristol Radical History Group

Joseph Mason 1711-1779

Long before Bristol’s Glenside Hospital  in Manor Road came into being, there were three versions of what became known as ‘Mason’s Madhouses’ in Fishponds. The area was then part of the parish of nearby Stapleton.

These ‘lunatic asylums’ provided a good living for several generations of the founder’s family, from 1738 to 1859. 

Self-styled Doctor Joseph Mason from Wickwar set up his first asylum at the junction of Glaisdale Road and College Road in 1740.

No remnants remain, but the business was so successful that by the end of the century he had commissioned Fishponds House, a sprawling asylum that stretched along Manor Road and Fishponds Road from College Road to Oldbury Court Road.

Later still the family would lease the equally grand Upper Fishponds House in what is now Beechwood Road, as a short-lived annexe for recuperating women patients.

Originally owned by Joseph Mason’s lawyer, the house had been used as a boys’ school on the edge of the disused quarries that gave Fishponds its name. It would return to use as a school, before past associations were obliterated when its new owner Alfred Robinson, of the DRG packaging family, renamed it Beechwood House. Traces of the estate in which it sat can still be found, notably a weeping willow tree in Beechwood Road.

The story of the family’s exploits, and their often colourful approaches to mental illness, form the basis of ‘No Cure, No Fee, boarding excepted’, the book I have been researching at the Glenside Hospital Museum over the last four years.

It is to be published this autumn by Bristol Radical History Group. We had hoped it would be back from the printers for a launch at the Museum on International Mental Health Day, 10 October but no such luck. This year’s theme is ‘Mental health is a universal human right’.

The ironic title of the book comes from one of the many adverts placed in local papers alerting the public to the family’s services.

Although lauded at different stages for their methods, the Masons had a chequered history and all was not always well in the madhouse. The founder amassed a great deal of property locally, and owned an extensive farm in St. George to which he sometimes took his patients. 

For the most part family members lived in the asylum, but Mason’s grandson Joseph Mason Cox developed a splendid family house complete with an orchard on the Downend Road. Overn Hill House is now the site of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints. 

Descendants of Joseph Mason were certainly better qualified than him, though some were not so good with money. And in changing times methods of care at the madhouse fell behind more enlightened approaches to mental health.

Fishponds House in the 1850s, with St Mary’s Church at 11 o’clock

They were Baptists and boasted their own chapel and daily prayers, and sponsored the Baptist church in nearby Downend. But they also formed a relationship with St. Mary’s Church in Fishponds once it was established in 1820.

Its curate William Mirehouse would play a fateful part in the downfall of the Mason dynasty.

As a result a public inquiry was held near Old Market, revealing some astonishing shortcomings which would eventually lead to the closure of Fishponds House.

By happy coincidence the full verbatim account of the public inquiry into Fishponds House was digitised by the Wellcome Foundation while I was researching the book. Hearing the actual voices of those involved added a human dimension to the story I was trying to tell, and provided a vivid insight into shortcomings of the asylum management.

‘Before Pinel’ – sketch donated to Glenside Hospital Museum

It heard from reformers like Irishman John Conolly who followed the French medic Phillippe Pinel who campaigned against the use of restraint mechanisms in asylums and for more more humane treatment regimes.

‘After Pinel’ – anonymous sketch depicting more humane treatments

Fishponds House was sold off at auction on Wednesday 4 May 1859 in the Full Moon Inn (now The Crafty Egg restaurant) on Fishponds Road.

For a time the building became Massingham’s Boot and Shoe factory but was demolished to make way for the houses, surgery shops and restaurants that now cover the site. Staff at the dentists that sits at what was the entrance to the asylum have reported strange sounds and phenomena, though none knew what previously stood on the site.

The furniture, equipment and crockery were auctioned off in July 1859, by which time work had started on Bristol’s Municipal Lunatic Asylum on Blackberry Hill. The premises is currently used by the University of the West of England (UWE) to train future generations of health workers, but UWE now plan to sell the extensive site, putting the unique Glenside Hospital Museum at risk.

An example of a rotation machine

My research took me down many rabbit holes which have made the book a fact-filled account of the bad old days but also a fascinating insight into the people and thinking of the time.

A series of panels tell the tales of some key personalities alongside unusual aspects of social and local history.

They include Daniel Defoe’s attempt to persuade the Queen Consort to investigate abuses in private madhouses; the application of ‘rotational therapy’, more a form of control than cure; and the formation of the Friends of the Alleged Lunatics Society, precursor to today’s MIND, by the son of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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