Inside Broadmoor in the 19th Century

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke by Richard Dadd
Richard Dadd. The painting he is working on is Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854/1858).
Dr William Chester Minor
Sir James Murray
Edward Oxford, the would-be assassin of Queen Victoria, is shown here as if taking a break from his decorating.
Contemporary watercolor of Edward Oxford's attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria. Oxford stands in front of the Green Park railings, pointing a pistol at Victoria and the Prince Consort, while a policeman runs towards him. One of the Queen's attendants is on horseback at left.

Richard Dadd

Richard Dadd was a successful young painter in the early 1840s when he accompanied a patron on a long tour of the Middle East, complaining that they never stopped long enough for him to draw what he saw. On his return he showed signs of mental disturbance. His father, who had a gilding business, went with him to Cobham, where the family roots were. They went on a walk in Cobham Park in the evening. There Dadd stabbed and killed his father – the attack was obviously premeditated, as Dadd had prepared his flight out of the country. In a coach in France, he attacked a fellow passenger with a razor and was apprehended. He claimed to be controlled by demons, and that his father was not his real father.

He returned to England and was tried for murder. He was found to be a criminal lunatic and shut away in Bethlem. He was moved to the new asylum of Broadmoor in 1863. Richard’s siblings suffered similarly. His brother George was admitted to Bethlem when Richard was fleeing after killing their father; and his sister Maria was insane by 1853, and in an asylum by 1859.

In the hospital he was allowed to continue painting, and it was there that many of his masterpieces were created. He remained, painting constantly and receiving infrequent visitors, until 7 January 1886, when he died from an ‘extensive disease of the lungs.’

Dr William Chester Minor

William Minor had worked as a surgeon during the American Civil War and his experiences on the battlefield led to paranoid, delusions. He came to London to recuperate in 1871 where once again he took up a dissolute life. Haunted by his paranoia, 17 on February 1987, he fatally shot a man named George Merrett, who Minor believed had broken into his room.  Merrett had simply been on his way to work and was walking away from his assailant. Minor was found not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity, but was given a life sentence at what was then called Broadmoor Asylum.

Minor’s life at Broadmoor was very comfortable.  His status as a surgeon was respected, and he was given two adjacent rooms, one for sleeping and one for him to paint, play the flute and read. Because of his pension from the US Army, Minor was allowed to buy steak, wine, brandy, newspapers and antiquarian books for his collection.  He hired other inmates to perform chores for him.  By day he enjoyed the freedom to stroll around the grounds and do what he wanted to, but at night his delusions persisted.  Even though he blocked the door with furniture, he believed that intruders poisoned or abused him and defaced his books.

In one of these of books Minor saw a notice from the editor James Murray asking for volunteers to help create the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Volunteers collected words from their reading to be included in the dictionary and submitted them with quotes from the books illustrating their meaning. This was the perfect occupation for an intelligent, educated bibliophile with lots of time on his hands, and it provided for him a connection to the outside world.

The doctor set about this task with voracious energy, meticulously copying words and quotations from volumes of books. He started working in tandem with the editor in Oxford writing him to find out which letter he was working on and then searching through his papers to send him words starting with that letter.

Over the course of 20 years, Minor made an incomparable contribution to the writing of the OED.  Murray called his efforts ‘enormous’, acknowledging that within a two year period Minor supplied at least 12,000 quotations.

Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman wrote:

‘In a sense doing all those dictionary slips was his medication; in a way they became his therapy. The routine of his quiet and cellbound intellectual stimulus, month upon month, year upon year, appears to have provided him with at least a measure of release from his paranoia. His sad situation only worsened when that stimulus was gone: when the great book ceased to function as his lodestone, when the one fixed point on which his remarkable but tortured brain was able to concentrate became detached, so then he began to spiral downward, and his life began to ebb.’

After 30 years in Broadmoor, Minor had been there longer than any other patient. His nightly torments, during which he claimed to have uncontrollable sexual relations with thousands of women, never abated.  He saw himself as a vile sinner in the eyes of God.

Edward Oxford

Edward Oxford was only a ‘pot boy’ of 18 years working in a public house, but he had serious delusions of grandeur.  He invented a secret society called ‘Young England’, but when this failed to bring him the glory that he felt he deserved, he hit on another way to gain notoriety. In the spring of 1840, he fired two pistols at the pregnant Queen as she was being driven with Prince Albert outside Buckingham Palace.

During his trial Oxford appeared to be oblivious for most of the proceedings. The prosecution presented much eyewitness evidence, while the defence case consisted of various family members and friends who testified that Oxford had always seemed of unsound mind, and that both his grandfather and father were alcoholics who had exhibited signs of mental illness. This carried a great deal of weight, as it was thought during this time that both drink and hereditary influence were strong causal factors for insanity. Oxford’s mother testified that her late husband had been violent and intimidating, and that her son was not only prone to fits of hysterical laughter and emitting strange noises, but that he had also been obsessed with firearms since he was a child. Various eminent pathologists and physicians testified that due to ‘brain disease’ or other factors, such as the shape of his head, Oxford was either a mental imbecile or simply incapable of controlling himself

There was no evidence that Oxford’s pistols were loaded, and he was acquitted as suffering from mental illness. He was sent first to Bethlem Hospital in London and later to Broadmoor.

His first years there were awful, but the system ameliorated during the middle years of the century and he was allowed access to the library and to useful activity. He became a painter and decorator and demonstrated his intelligence by learning six languages, three of them fluently.  In fact it is doubtful that he was ever mad, just a boy from a broken home with youthful delusions. However, both his father and grandfather had apparently shown signs of madness.

 In 1864 he was moved to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum and three years later released on condition that he emigrated to the colonies. He was put aboard a boat for Melbourne, Australia, where he changed his name to John Freeman and found work as a decorator. In 1881 he married a widow and moved to the smart suburb of Emerald Hill. He rose in society, becoming a churchwarden at the Cathedral, a friend of the Dean, and an invitee to the Governor General’s parties. He wrote a book called ‘Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life’, which was well received. He finally died in 1900, aged 78, and went to his grave without anybody in the colony knowing his real identity, not even his wife.

The 19th Century Asylum and Moral Treatment

RC Hartman

Broadmoor Documentry

Liam Doyle




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