Broadmoor Hospital in the 19th Century

One of the women's dormitories in Broadmoor, 1867
courtesy of Reading Libraries
The extent of Broadmoor as seen from the south, 1867
courtesy of Reading Libraries
Men's dayroom at Broadmoor, 1867
courtesy of Reading Libraries
James Hadfield shoots at George III, 15 May 1800
Band made of Broadmoor inmates and staff

Broadmoor has housed some of Britain’s most notorious criminals

‘Victorian doctors were surprisingly compassionate.They provided good food, healthy occupations, hobbies and uplifting surroundings. And it did work because some patients ended up well enough to go back to their families.’

Historian Mark Stevens


The Broadmoor site covered 290 acres on the edge of the Berkshire moors in the leafy countryside around Crowthorne, Berks, and was designed by Major General Joshua Jebb, a military engineer.

It was built after the creation of the Criminal Lunatics Act 1860, also called the Broadmoor Act. It drew attention to the poor conditions in asylums such as Bethlem Hospital or ‘Bedlam’. The Broadmoor criminal lunatic asylum was opened in 1863 with 95 female patients, many of whom had murdered their babies, due to what we now know as post-natal depression. A block for male patients followed a year later. The asylum was intended for the ‘safe custody and treatment’ of the criminally insane.

Famous Victorian residents

Some of the hospital’s most famous Victorian residents inluded Edward Oxford, the bar boy who shot at Queen Victoria; Richard Dadd, the brilliant artist and murderer of his own father; William Chester Minor, veteran of the American Civil War who went on to play a key part in the first Oxford English Dictionary; and Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Poisoner and frustrated lover from Brighton.

Started as a hospital, it became one of Britain’s most feared institutions. It has housed some of the most violent murderers in British history and its locked doors, high walls and sirens have, in the main, kept the public safe from some of the most dangerous individuals in society.

The Victorians were proud of Broadmoor where the criminally insane received the latest and best of treatments. They built the institution out of a sense of reponsibility when attitudes towards the criminally insane were entirely different.

Before 1800, individuals who committed crimes and were considered to be mentally ill or not responsible for their actions, even if found guilty, were frequently returned to the community. However in 1800 all this changed. Until then insanity was regarded as brutish or infantile, however the actions of James Hadfield changed all that.

James Hadfield or Hatfield (1771/1772 – 23 January 1841) attempted to assassinate George 111

Hadfield’s early years are unknown but he was severely injured at the Battle of Tourcoing in 1794. Before being captured by the French, he was struck eight times on the head with a sabre, the wounds being prominent for the rest of his life. After returning to England, he became involved in a millennialist movement and came to believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would be advanced if he himself were killed by the British government. He therefore resolved, in conspiracy with Bannister Ttruelock, to attempt the assassination of the King and bring about his own judicial execution.

On the evening of 15 May 1800, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, during the playing of the national anthem, Hadfield fired a pistol at the King standing in the royal box but missed. Hadfield pleaded insanity but the standard of the day for a successful plea was that the defendant must be ‘lost to all sense … incapable of forming a judgement upon the consequences of the act which he is about to do’. Hadfield’s planning of the shooting appeared to contradict such a claim. The defence chose to challenge the insanity test, instead contending that delusion ‘unaccompanied by frenzy or raving madness was the true character of insanity’. Two surgeons and a physician testified that the delusions were the consequence of his earlier head injuries. The judge, Lloyd Kenyon,  halted the trial declaring that the verdict ‘was clearly an acquittal’ but ‘the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large, must not be discharged’.

Parliament speedily passed the Criminal Lunatics Act 1800 to provide for the indefinite detention of the insane. Hadfield was detained in Bethlem Royal Hospital for the rest of his life.

Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum

As the 19th century wore on local asylems became reluctant to take on the criminally insane. They were equally unwelcome in prisons where they were felt to disturb their fellow prisoners. The government’s answer was to create a purpose built asylum for the crimanally insane. Those committed were either people who were found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity but were too dangerous to be returned to the community or prisoners who became insane whilst in gaol. Not guilty by reason of insanity applied to all crimes and only about 30% of patients were murderers. Society recognised that somebody could do something truly dreadful but not be responsible for the act.

Like many such institutions, Broadmoor kept copious and scrupulously detailed records of each patient and their treatments. By the end of 1865 there were about 500 patients from every social class and background. By the end of the century there were close on 200 female patients, 75% of whom were confined for infanticide. Although children were admitted, less than 3% ever entered the institution.

The Victorians believed that rather than punishing the insane, a more humanitarian approach was required. It was felt that by giving patients refuge in an asylum they would be able to remove the immediate causes of insanity from their everyday life. Nurturing the patients needs was believed to to help control their insanity. It was felt that daily routines brought about stability.

Attempts were made to stabilise the chaotic lives of patients by taking away the hurly burly of the industrial revolution, smells, noises, etc and putting them in a nice place with nice views and nice food. Patients lives were organised and structured with regular walks and prayers, chats and amusements, all designed to try and get them away from their notions, delusions and illusions. In a sense a quiet, purposeful haven of peace and sanity prevailed which became a fine example of Victorian social engineering.

One patient wrote to his sister:

‘It is a splendid block of buildings, pleasantly situated, has an extensive view and is very healthy. We have three doctors who visit us every day, and the patients spend most of their time exercising in the gardens, reading the daily papers, monthly periodicals, etc, there is also a well selected library, a cricket club, billiards, cards and other amusements. In the wintertime we have entertainments given by the patients, such as plays, singing, etc. We have a good brass band which gives selections of music every Monday evening during the summer months on the terrace opposite the chapel.

‘We have good food, plenty of clean clothes, good beds and bedding, and every comfort that one need expect are treat with kindness by the officials placed over us,and we have free conversation among the other patients.’

A typical day

6am prayers


Work or rest


Work or rest

All gather for tea and count the cutlery before the meal and count again after the meal.

Of course Broadmoor was there not only to treat the insane but to protect the general public and keeping patients under lock and key was also essential to protect the Broadmoor staff.

The 19th Century Asylum and Moral Treatment

RC Hartman

Broadmoor Documentry

Liam Doyle