Women’s Mental Health History

A Female Malady? Women in the Lunatic Asylums of Victorian London

Emma Jolly
Sep 19, 2018 · 6 min read

Throughout history, terms of madness such as ‘lunatic’, ‘idiot’, and ‘feeble-minded’ have appeared on the records of both men and women. Yet some historians argue that women were especially vulnerable to incarceration — particularly when placed in the asylum by husbands or fathers. Causes of madness often differed between men and women. Their experiences of the asylum also contrasted.

The 19th century heralded a new era in mental illness. Previously, lunatics were locked away in prisons or workhouses to protect the public; although the rich may have been hidden from view in private asylums. Even before Victoria became Queen in 1837, a new philosophy had begun to see lunatic asylums intended as places of cure. However, as laws changed (see the 1808 Lunacy Act), and large asylums were built, the 19th century saw increasing numbers of diagnoses of mental illness; and with that, increasing numbers of admittances to the new asylums. From 1845, it became compulsory for Justices of the Peace to house pauper lunatics in their county’s asylums, and from 1890, richer patients began to be admitted. The high numbers put pressure on staff, causing the gentle ethos of non-restraint to be abandoned, and an increase in the use of methods such as physical restraint, strait-jackets and padded cells.

Religious obsession, physical illness, tragic events, or love affairs were all stated causes of madness for women in this period. From 1858, some women were even incarcerated for asking for a divorce! And for pauper women, without home or money, there was often no escape from the asylum. Many women remained there until death. Arguments continue over statistics as to whether there were truly more women in Victorian asylums than men. However, in March 1879, Middlesex’s County Asylum at Hanwell housed a mere 728 males, in contrast to 1098 females (LMA ref. MJ/SP/1879/01/059).

As readers of Dickens will be familiar, 19th century women were portrayed regularly in literature as reaching for smelling salts for ‘nerves’, ‘swooning’, ‘agitation’ or ‘hysteria’. This latter condition became identified almost exclusively with women. In William Tait’s Edinburgh magazine, Volume 1, of 1834 (p.472), a man was described as being “seized with the female malady of hysterics . . .” Also, women who behaved aggressively, independently, or overtly sexually were vulnerable to accusations of madness. Passivity and intellectual inferiority were required, particularly amongst those in the genteel middle classes.

Sexuality and childbearing were key focuses of Victorian psychiatrists. Puerperal mania, which emerged after the birth of a child or abortion, one female-specific madness. Puerperal melancholia (post-natal depression) was also noted throughout the 19th century. A view that madness in women was rooted in the womb was defined as early as 1736 in Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium britannicum or a more compleat universal etymological english dictionary than any extant (T.Cox) as a furor uterinus or “the fury of the womb, a species of madness peculiar to women, exciting them to a vehement desire of venery, and rendering them insatiate therewith”. One alleged cure to female ‘hysteria’ was clitoridectomy — a barbaric act practised by Dr Isaac Baker Brown (1811–1873) in his private London clinic.

Inside London’s Asylums

SYBIL FORSTER (nee NICHOLSON) was born in Cumbria in 1829. After an affair with the son of local politician and land-owner, Sir James Graham, Sybil became pregnant. Her love affair appears to have collapsed under disapproval from Sir James, and Sybil fled to her sister in London. There she gave birth to George Frederick Graham in 1851.

Around 1855, Sybil suffered her first attack of ‘mania’. Despite this, in 1856, she married a warehouseman named Thomas Forster, and later gave birth to his daughter. By 1871, however, Thomas was living with another woman and Sybil had been placed in Hoxton House Asylum. From there she was transferred to Norwood Lunatic Asylum (Hanwell Asylum) in October 1877, weighing just 6 stone 9 lbs, and regarded as ‘dangerous’.

In 1878, the Casebook, females №4 (LMA ref. H11/HLL/B/19/027) described Sybil as talking to ‘invisibles’, and ‘strifing herself naked’. Furthermore, she was “untidy, restless and full of delusions”. Some of her later delusions concerned her belief that her brother was in the building, but that she was prevented from seeing him. Between November 1880 and January 1881, the Visitors’ Book (LMA ref. H11/HLL/B/32/016) reveals that she received no visitors. Sadly, her nearest contact was hundreds of miles away in Northumberland.

There are references in the Casebook to Sybil working in the asylum: in 1879, females at Hanwell were employed at needlework in the wards and workroom, in the kitchens, the laundries, and the officers’ apartments; or as helpers in the wards and servants’ hall. 632 of the 1098 female patients were employed in this way. Others were unemployed or too sick to work.

In June 1885, Sybil’s quality of life was poor: “She looks far from well, is pale & has lost flesh. Is very untidy, having her hair hanging down her back in a disorderly fashion, very dirty in her habits & seldom speaks. When spoken to answers in monosyllables.” Sybil never regained her freedom, and remained in the asylum until her death from pneumonia on the 8th March 1906. She was 74.

HANNAH CHAPLIN (nee Hannah Harriet Pedlingham HILL) was born in South London in 1865 and developed a career as a ballet dancer and music hall singer. Her story highlights the prevalence of syphilis as a cause of madness.

In the early 1880s, the teenage Hannah left her childhood sweetheart, Charles Spencer Chaplin, for local conman, Sydney Hawkes. Believing Sydney to be a landed aristocrat, she headed to South Africa for the initial phases of the gold rush. It is here that Hannah is believed to have contracted syphilis — possibly through working as a prostitute. However, prostitutes were not the only women to suffer from syphilis-derived insanity and this has not been proven.

On becoming pregnant with her first son, Sydney Chaplin, Hannah returned to Charles in 1884, and they were married on 22nd June 1885 at Walworth Parish Church. Suggestions of promiscuity persist, however. There is even a question over the true father of her famous son, Charlie Chaplin, whose birth (on the 16th April 1889) does not appear to have been registered. Hannah then left Charles for Leo Dryden, the father of her son, George Wheeler Dryden (b 1892), losing contact with both shortly afterwards.

Following a nervous breakdown and several years of excruciating headaches, Hannah’s syphilis was finally diagnosed at Lambeth infirmary in 1898. Not all those with syphilis developed the tertiary (third-stage) form with its dramatic signs of insanity — including psychosis, delusions of grandeur, abandonment of usual grooming habits, inability to earn money, destructive behaviour and trembling speech. This stage of the disease could occur up to 30 years after contraction of the original form.

From Lambeth, Hannah was transferred to Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum in Coulsden, near Croydon, with the diagnosis of syphilis (Lambeth Hospital Register of Lunatics ref. HI/L/B17/Vol. 16 p. 364). She was released, but readmitted in 1903 and 1905. Hannah began to suffer from hallucinations and, at periods in her incarceration, she was held in a padded room. Charlie moved her to the private asylum, Peckham House, but she was returned to Cane Hill in 1915 when the family defaulted on the payments.

In 1921, whilst suffering from dementia, Hannah was brought by the now successful Charlie to Hollywood to live near him, Sydney and newly-found Wheeler. She died in 1929, aged 65.


The National Archives — http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU +44 (0) 20 8876 3444

London Metropolitan Archives, Northampton Road, London EC1R OHB. Tel. 0207 332 3820 www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/lma

Bethlehem Hospital Records www.bethlemheritage.org.uk

Surrey County Asylums http://www.surreycc.gov.uk/sccwebsite/sccwspages.nsf/LookupWebPagesByTITLE_RTF/Surrey+History+Centre?opendocument)

Further Reading

Lisa Appignanesi, Mad, Bad and Sad: A history of the mind doctors from 1800 to the present (Virago, 2008)

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination (Yale University Press, 1979)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)

Richard Hunter and Ida MacAlpine, Psychiatry for the Poor, 1851 Colney Hatch Asylum, Friern Hospital 1973, A Medical and Social History (1974).

Kathleen Jones, Law and conscience, 1744–1845: the social history of the care of the insane (1955)

Lawrence C. Kolb, Modern Clinical Psychiatry, 8th edition (W.B. Saunders, 1973)

William Llywelyn Parry-Jones, The trade in lunacy: a study of private madhouses in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century (1972)

Roy McNab, Gold and Their Touchstone (Jonathan Bell Publishers, 1987)

Florence Nightingale, Cassandra (1860)

Roy Porter, Madness: a Brief History (OUP, 2002)

Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, madness and English culture 1830–1980 (Virago, 1985).

Muriel Sprott, My Ancestor was a Lunatic: using lunatic asylum / mental hospital records (e.g. Middlesex Lunatic Asylum records at London Metropolitan Archives). West Middlesex FHS Journal 20(4) 23–24 (December 2002)

Charles van Onselen, Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand: 1896–1914 (Longmans,1982)

Dr Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (JR Books, 2008)

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