William Godwin Coombs was initiated into the Golden Dawn in June 1890, choosing the German motto ‘Mehr licht’. There’s no evidence in the GD papers to suggest that he was a very active initiate; and a note on them says that he resigned in January 1894. At the time of his initiation, Coombs was living at Wyke House Isleworth; about which, more information below.
William Godwin Coombs was born around 1833. The surname is a common one in the Dorset/Somerset/Wiltshire area. William’s middle name, too, has a Wessex ring to it; though Godwin father of King Harold is thought to have been from Sussex. In the mid-19th century censuses the clan Coombs encompassed everyone from members of the landed gentry, living at Haddon House in Axminster, to agricultural labourers. William Coombs’ father Thomas occupied a half-way status within it: he was a farmer, living in Felton House, just outside Winford in Somerset, near where Lulsgate airport is now. William’s mother Eliza, née Elliott, had been born as far away as Huddersfield but Eliza’s mother, Harriet (or Harriett - the censuses don’t agree), who lived with the family when William was growing up, was also from Somerset, she’d been born in Nailsea, now part of Bristol. Felton House is a stone-built farmhouse in an L-shape, possibly late 17th century but with 19th century additions including a three-storey bay. You can see it at www.imagesofengland.org.uk. It is Grade II listed now. The Coombs family no longer lives in it; it has been turned into three flats. In William Coombs’ youth the household was a modest one, with only two servants - a man to work on the land, and a woman to help with housework.
William Coombs was the second of three sons and was not going to inherit his father’s farm. Instead, he studied medicine at St Andrew’s University, graduating in 1856. The General Medical Council (GMC), which licenses doctors to practice medicine in the UK, was not founded until 1859. Before that date, licenses to practice medicine in England were issued by the Society of Apothecaries. William Coombs was given his licence by the Society in 1856 and he also became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, England, in that year, which qualified him to work as a midwife.
Despite the amount of information on 19th century doctors and hospitals, on the web and elsewhere, I have had quite a lot of trouble piecing together William Coombs’ working life as a doctor because - in a very un-Victorian manner - he changed jobs frequently. He also spent several periods out of the UK, working perhaps, or just travelling; I haven’t been able to find out anything about these times in his life. Here’s the best list of his jobs that I can devise, from a variety of sources (see the Sources section for more details):
- house surgeon, Birmingham Lying-in Hospital
- assistant medical officer Devon County Asylum. Several medical journals announced his appointment to this post in November 1862.
- house surgeon, Torquay Infirmary and Dispensary
- assistant medical officer Dorset County Asylum
Coombs could have held the two Devon-based appointments at the same time, I suppose; or even the two asylum posts in adjoining counties. His entry in a medical directory published in 1877 reads as though he had held all of those posts by 1877; but gives his current address as the family home at Felton House Winford, as if he was not employed at all at the moment.
- assistant medical officer, Fisherton House Salisbury. Coombs was employed there by 1881 and was still working there in 1883; but he seems to have left the job by 1887
- Wyke House at Isleworth, definitely from 1891 to 1903, possibly starting earlier and leaving later.
William Coombs was still registered with the GMC until 1915, giving the address at which he died - 13 Scott Ellis Gardens, St John’s Wood north London, but I rather think he may have retired in 1903, when he was 70.
Even as scant a list as the one I’ve been able to compile does show that William Godwin Coombs
was fairly typical of the GD members, very many of whom were able to take advantage of the new kinds of work that resulted from the huge expansion of government and in the number of charitable institutions in the latter stages of the 19th century.
I’m assuming that the job at the Birmingham Lying-in Hospital was William Godwin Coombs’ first professional appointment and that he started work there soon after qualifying. The hospital changed its name in 1870 so I think he had moved on by then. The hospital had opened in 1842 in the Islington area of the town. It was run by a charity, and as well as the hospital there was a dispensary which treated children.
Coombs’ post at the Torquay Infirmary may have been very similar, in terms of daily routine and the kind of cases taken; though I haven’t been able to find out quite so much about the services the Infirmary offered. It too was run by a charity, as most hospitals were at this time, though unlike the Birmingham Lying-in Hospital it had its own, purpose-built premises, opened in 1851 on a site in Union Street, Torquay. The building is still there, though it has been turned into flats and renamed Castle Chambers. You can see it at www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1842628. The Infirmary’s first house surgeon, the marvellously-named William Wilking Stabb, retired in 1859; so this is a possible date for William Godwin Coombs being offered the job.
The Madhouse Act of 1828 began the professionalisation of the treatment of the mentally ill, by requiring most asylums to have a weekly visit from a qualified doctor; and asylums with more than 100 inmates to have a resident medical officer. William Godwin Coombs’ next change of employer took advantage of the expansion of employment begun by the 1828 Act. One of the only firm dates I have about William Coombs’ career is his appointment as assistant medical officer to the Devon County asylum in 1862 and I’m wondering if he held that and the Infirmary post together. Medical officers employed by Poor Law Boards did not at this stage have to have any specialist knowledge; because there was no way in which to get that knowledge, except by learning on the job: treatment of the mentally ill was hardly covered at all in most medical training courses. By this time, William Godwin Coombs was an experienced physician, and that was enough for the local Poor Law Board.
In 1845 two acts of Parliament, the Lunacy Act and the County Asylums Act, began a new era for the care of the mentally ill poor: one of more provision and more regulation. For the first time, under the two acts, Poor Law boards were required to house those diagnosed as suffering mental illness in purpose-built asylums; to assess new inmates quickly and treat them humanely; and to have these processes monitored by inspectors employed by a new government office, the Lunacy Commissioners. There were still enormous difficulties to be faced - the lack of understanding of mental illness (that’s still true, of course); where and how to house those deemed incurable; what to do with the violent and the criminally insane; and how to do all these things while keeping rates down. Nevertheless, the acts represented a big step on the road away from viewing the mentally ill as possessed by the Devil and treating them as less than human.
The county of Devon had no Poor Law board asylum until it was ordered to have one by the 1845 Act. However, the board then did the job thoroughly, financing an asylum capable of holding 800 inmates and standing in its own grounds, on a site at Exminster, just outside Exeter. It was designed by the architect Charles Fowler and his complex of buildings still exists, redeveloped as housing and renamed Devington Park. There are many pictures of Devington Park on the web, some even taken from the air, so that you can see the scale of it, and the interesting layout. Fowler’s design had a cube-shaped administrative building in the curve of a semi-circle of wards, with six wings jutting out in a fan-shape from the semi-circle. When William Godwin Coombs was appointed, his immediate boss was George James Byrne, who may have been an administrator rather than a physician, as he is not in the GMC Registers - an indication of the Poor Law board’s priorities, perhaps, in providing this new facility while not antagonising the rate-payers with ever-larger bills. Was this a problem between Coombs and his employers, I wonder?
Unlike Devon, the Poor Law authorities in Dorset had been operating an asylum since the 1820s, at Forston outside Dorchester where new wings had been added to an old manor house. William Coombs’ boss in Dorset was a qualified doctor and surgeon, Joseph Gustavus Symes. He had held the post of medical superintendent to the asylum at least since 1848, although he may also have been in private practice at the same time, which might be why he wanted an assistant. However, a second asylum building was opened at Charminster, in 1864; Symes’ address in 1879 was Charminster not Forston, so Coombs may have been needed to work in the original buildings. Symes seems only to have retired in 1887 or 1888 so he was in post all the years - whichever they were - that Coombs was employed at this particular asylum.
Perhaps it was the lack of possibilities for promotion that encouraged William Godwin Coombs to take a new job; or perhaps he liked a challenge. His next job was at Fisherton House in Salisbury, Wiltshire, run by the Finch family and by the 1850s it was the biggest privately-run asylum in England, with 700 beds. Although it was run as a private concern, Fisherton House took patients sent there by Poor Law boards from all over England. From 1850 until 1870 it was also the place that the criminally insane ended up. By the time Coombs took up his post, Broadmoor had been finished and the criminally insane were being sent there; but I still get an impression of Fisherton House as a place full of Poor Law boards’ hopeless cases. It must have been grim.
What would the typical tasks of an assistant medical officer in an asylum consist of? The mere existence of the 1845 acts indicates that mental illness was beginning the long trail from manacles to care. The 1844 Report had investigated two asylums which were run on very different lines from the norm - those at Lincoln and at Hanwell - and had used them as a template of ‘best practice’. Hanwell Asylum had particularly impressed the researchers. Its governor chose to employ more staff, and better-educated and better trained staff than any other asylum; but clawed back some of its higher wages bill by using some inmates to do work in the asylum; inmates willing and able to cooperate in this way were rewarded with beer and tea. And both asylums regarded physical restraint of individuals as a last resort, not as a normal part of the asylum’s routine.
But how far might Coombs have been able to apply these new ideas? The bedrock of his job was the early assessment and diagnosis of new inmates that the 1845 Lunacy Act insisted on; and he must have become an expert in detecting the typical signs of mental illness. This he will have had to do on the job, as mental illness as a specialism was in its infancy. In addition, all the publicly-funded asylums Coombs worked in had so many inmates and so few medically-qualified staff that I can’t believe he will have been able to do a great deal to help any one patient. And with so many people in close confinement, medical officers may have spent just as much time being concerned with symptoms of epidemics as they did looking for symptoms of psychosis. In any case, Poor Law Boards expected their Medical Officers to do administrative work as well as their medical tasks and these took up so much time that very little was left over for carrying out rehabilitation or research. James Crichton Browne was Medical Office at Wakefield Asylum from 1866 to 1876 and letters that he sent to Charles Darwin during those years continually bemoan the hours he spent every day writing reports and collecting statistics for his Poor Law Board employers and central government departments. Crichton Browne wanted to do research on his patients. Coombs may just have wanted to help them be better, but with admin taking up so much time, and the numbers of inmates overwhelming the possibility of cures, he may have despaired of ever making any real difference; because his next job was in a very different setting.
Wyke House as William Coombs knew it was the brainchild of Robert Gardiner Hill, whose work in the Poor Law asylum at Lincoln had attracted the notice of the 1844 Lunacy Report researchers. Gardiner Hill was one of the most vocal of those who advocated the abandonment of the use of physical restraints in the control of people with mental illness; and at Lincoln he had been able to demonstrate that it could be done without mayhem resulting. He also favoured small institutions, as being more likely to achieve cures, and it was perhaps this preference that made him give up his job with the Poor Law board and go into private medicine. Wyke House, in Sion Lane Isleworth, had been licensed for operation as a private asylum since the 1840s but in 1859 Dr Gardiner Hill and his partner Dr Edmund Sparshall Willett bought it and its sister-asylum Inverness House at Brentford, presumably with the intention of carrying out Gardiner Hill’s favoured regime in full. However, such innovations in a private asylum couldn’t be paid for by the rates.
As early as 1884, Wyke House had been described as an asylum “for Nervous Invalids of the Upper and Middle Classes”. Conditions for the patients throw those of the average Poor Law asylum into unflattering relief: they were allowed baths and showers, they were encouraged to go out into the extensive grounds, either on foot or by carriage; they could help in the gardens, play tennis, visit the farm; while inside there was a billiard table as well as the usual padded cells. Under Gardiner Hill and Willett these comforts continued and following the attempt in 1858 by the Bulwer family to incarcerate Rosina Bulwer Lytton at Inverness House they were widely talked of in the press and thus came to the attention of people who never otherwise would have heard about them - possibly including William Coombs, who had only just qualified when the scandal happened. Gardiner Hill and Willett advertised for potential patients in magazines likely to be read by the leisured and moneyed upper classes - the Ecclesiastical Gazette and The Athenaeum, for example. And as even the upper classes had the problem of what to do with their mentally ill, some of them sent their relations to Wyke House.
Robert Gardiner Hill died in 1878 and Willett became sole proprietor of Inverness House and Wyke House. William Coombs may have got the job at Wyke House through the St Andrew’s University connection - Willett also studied medicine there although he was several years Coombs’ senior. But Coombs may also have sought the job out as an admirer of Gardiner Hill’s ideas. Though Gardiner Hill’s work at Lincoln asylum had been in the 1830s, a lecture on it had been published in 1857, just after Coombs had passed his medical exams; and Gardiner Hill had published a book, essentially a justification of his methods, in 1870 - Lunacy, its Past and Present.
At no time between 1861 and 1891 was I able to catch William Coombs on the census in any of the medical posts he held and thus see him on the job. But he appears as a member of staff at Wyke House in the 1891 census. On that day Wyke House had 16 male patients. They included ex army and navy officers, a clergyman, a barrister and a surgeon; and their ages ranged from late 30s to 70s, with most being over 60. There were also 10 women patients; no profession was given for any of them nor any source of income with which to pay the fees; most were in their 60s so they were rather older than the male patients. I couldn’t help wondering, given these high average ages, whether the most common mental problem at Wyke House was dementia rather than any classic form of mental illness. I noted that none of the patients were identified on the census form by their full name; only their initials appear on it.
For the small number of patients, Wyke House had a large number of staff and I’m sure William Coombs appreciated the change from staff to patient ratios in a Poor Law asylum. All staff lived on the premises. The 16 male patients had seven male attendants to care for them; the 10 women patients had eight attendants, all women. All attendants lived as part of the household; with Dr Willetts as its head, still living on the premises with his family. Supervising the attendants were William Coombs as resident medical superintendent; and Harriett Edwards as resident lady superintendent. Harriett Edwards was not registered with the General Medical Council so she was not a doctor. Her qualifications, if any, and her experience, were of course not written on the census form. I would suppose she had been trained as a nurse and that at Wyke House she acted as a matron. I suppose, also, that William Coombs was senior to her in the Wyke House hierarchy and that she reported to him. Wyke House also had a large domestic staff - a butler, a cook, two housemaids, a dairymaid, a kitchen-maid and a scullery maid. Surely the Claridges of 19th century mental institutions!
From William Coombs’ time as an employee at Wyke House comes my one glimpse of the medical officer of an asylum at work. Maud Mary Roth was sent to Wyke House by the Lunacy Commissioners in November 1898 and William Coombs carried out the required assessment of her mental condition. (Did Willett ever carry out the assessments? If he did, wouldn’t that represent a conflict of interest?) Coombs’ report described symptoms which included delusions and hallucinations, and as a result of this evidence, Mrs Roth was kept at Wyke House continually from 1898 to 1919. Comfortable the asylum may have been, but she still doesn’t seem to have been allowed to leave; and her case wasn’t reassessed until 1920.
William Coombs was employed at Wyke House between 1891 to 1903 and possibly longer. I think it was the longest period he spent in any one job. By 1901 Dr Willett had retired and moved to Eastbourne. William Coombs is not on the 1901 census so I haven’t been able to discover whether anyone was appointed to replace Dr Willett, or whether Coombs became head doctor at Wyke House himself. He doesn’t seem to have bought Wyke House from Dr Willett; I suppose that in due course, it was sold to someone else. Perhaps Coombs retired at the time of the sale. He moved to 13 Scott Ellis Gardens, in St John’s Wood north London.
So that’s William Godwin Coombs’ career as a doctor. But where did it bring him into contact with members of the Golden Dawn? I haven’t really got an answer to that question. As far as I can tell, Coombs wasn’t a freemason; and so he wasn’t a member of Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia or lodge Quatuor Coronati number 2076, which were used by William Westcott as recruiting grounds for GD initiates, especially in the GD’s early years. Nor does Coombs seem to have been in the Theosophical Society - a second very common route into the GD. He never published anything, or gave any public lectures, either on his work or anything else, that might have drawn the attention of GD members to him. And he doesn’t seem to have been related to any of them. The only suggestion I can make is that it was through his work that he met some GD members, some of its doctor members, or its scientists - William Crookes was initiated into the GD in the same month as Coombs. That’s just a bit of speculation though.
William Godwin Coombs continued to be registered with the General Medical Council until 1915. He died, at his home in Scott Ellis Gardens, on the 20 June 1919. He had never married.
BASIC SOURCES I USED for all Golden Dawn members.
Membership of the Golden Dawn: The Golden Dawn Companion by R A Gilbert. Northampton: The Aquarian Press 1986. Between pages 125 and 175, Gilbert lists the names, initiation dates and addresses of all those people who became members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or its many daughter Orders between 1888 and 1914. The list is based on the Golden Dawn’s administrative records and its Members’ Roll - the large piece of parchment on which all new members signed their name at their initiation. All this information had been inherited by Gilbert but it’s now in the Freemasons’ Library at the United Grand Lodge of England building on Great Queen Street Covent Garden.
Family history: freebmd; ancestry.co.uk (census and probate); findmypast.co.uk; familysearch; Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage; Burke’s Landed Gentry; Armorial Families; thepeerage.com; and a wide variety of family trees on the web.
Famous-people sources: mostly about men, of course, but very useful even for the female members of GD. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Who Was Who. Times Digital Archive.
Catalogues: British Library; Freemasons’ Library.
Wikipedia; Google; Google Books - my three best resources. I also used other web pages, but with some caution, as - from the historian’s point of view - they vary in quality a great deal.
Sources specific to William Godwin Coombs:
For a general summing-up of the rise of the medical profession during the 19th-century, see chapter 1 of Shattered Nerves: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England by Janet Oppenheim. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press 1991. The chapter also covers the changes that took place as part of that process in how and where doctors were educated; and talks about the legislation that was passed that affected how and where they could practice. It makes the point several times that doctors working with the mentally ill, especially those working in Poor Law financed asylums, were regarded as second-class citizen doctors even by other doctors.
General Medical Council Registers, available via Ancestry.co.uk. The GMC started life in 1859 and that’s the date of its first Register. Coombs does not appear in the Registers before the issue of 1867.
Association Medical Journal published by the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association; issue of 1855 p1153 William Godwin Coombs became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons England 21 December 1855.
Association Medical Journal issue of 1856 p198 William Godwin Coombs of Winford Somerset had been admitted to the Apothecaries’ Hall on 28 February 1856.
Medical Times and Gazette issue of 1 November 1862 p477 William Godwin Coombs MD University of St Andrews MRCS England had been appointed Assistant Medical Officer to the
Devon County Lunatic Asylum at Exminster, where his immediate boss would be George James Byrne. Coombs’ current address was given as Haddon House Axminster.
Transactions St Andrew’s Medical Graduates Association volume 2 1869 pviii William Godwin Coombs was in its current list of senior members; current address Felton House Winford Somerset.
Medical Bibliography for 1877 p404 entry for William Godwin Coombs, whose current address is Felton House, Winford Bristol. It wasn’t clear to me from Googlebooks’ snippet exactly how the information was collected; so I’m assuming it was collected from the doctors themselves. Coombs’ entry described him as “late assistant” Medical Officer at Dorset Co Lunatic Asylum and at Devon County Lunatic Asylum. Other posts he had held were resident surgeon Birmingham Lying-In Hospital and house Surgeon Torquay Infirmary and Dispensary. No dates were given for any of these posts.
For the 1844 Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy; and the two Acts of 1845: //studymore.org.uk, run by Andrew Roberts, lecturer in sociology at Middlesex University. A very good, thorough site, based on and with long extracts from original sources; though I did find a couple of its links were no longer working.
Birmingham Lying-in Hospital
Good local history website //billdargue.jimdo.com/placenames-gazetteer-a-to-y/places-i/islington, is a History of Birmingham Places and Placenames, compiled by William Dargue. The district called Islington, self-consciously named for Islington north London, was built c 1780 on land belonging to the Church of England and held by rector of Birmingham. The lying-in hospital opened in 1842 in a converted house next to the Islington Glassworks. It changed its name in 1870 to Birmingham and Midland Free Hospital for Sick Children.
At www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov.uk I found a reference to an item in Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal ((I think that’s its correct name)) volume 9 no 3 issue of January 1845, giving the full title of the hospital as Birmingham Lying-in Hosp and Dispensary for the Diseases of Women and Children. Via google, a reference to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) issue 21 1907 saying that the hospital was run as a charity. At website www.bhamb14.co.uk/index_files/LOVEDAYSTREETMATERNITYHOSPITAL.htm a note that the original address of the lying-in hosp was St Mary’s Square; then it moved to Broad Street; it moved to Loveday Street 1906. When it first opened, there were 13 beds and only married women could use them.
Torquay Infirmary (originally known as Torbay Infirmary)
At www.devonheritage.org there’s a contemporary picture of the infirmary, from Devon County Council’s collection. Purpose-built and standing in its own grounds behind a gate, the infirmary opened 1851. At www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1842628 there’s a modern photo of it, now converted to flats and known as Castle Chambers; Union Street Torquay.
The //genuki.cs.ncl.ac.uk/DEV/Tormoham/Kelly1856.html website is compiled by Terry Leaman from Kelly’s 1856 Directory for Devonshire. The infirmary is in Tor Moham parish and is called TorBAY infirmary at this stage; it’s definitely the same place, the address is Union Street. The house surgeon at this date is William W Stabb.
A couple of items on the career of Dr Stabb:
The Lancet volume 1 1853 p561 medical news: a list of members of the Royal College of Surgeons England who have recently been licensed by the College to practice as midwives includes William Wilking Stabb, described as of “Ilfracombe”, at least at this date.
Medical Times and Gazette issue of 16 July 1859 p73 has a short item on the retirement of William Wilking Stabb from the post of house surgeon at Torbay (sic) Infirmary and Dispensary, which are run by a board of governors. The job of house surgeon was thus available in 1859.
Devon County Asylum to which Coombs was appointed assist Medical Officer in 1862; and he’s no longer working there by 1877. Wikipedia on Exminster says that the asylum opened in July 1845. It was built on a hill overlooking the estuary and Exminster at this stage is a village outside Exeter. The asylum had 800 beds and was built with six arms radiating from a central administration block. It closed in the 1980s; the site was redevelopd as housing and is now known as Devington Park.
The GMC does not having anyone called George James Byrne registered with them in the 1860s and 1870s.
Dorset County Asylum
It was built 1827-32 in the village of Forston near Dorchester, incorporating an old manor house. All the inmates were paupers, that is they had been sent there by the Dorset Poor Law authorities and were being paid for by its ratepayers. The 1844 Lunacy Report listed Dorset asylum amongst those existing asylums which never used physical restraints on patients. A second hospital building was opened at Charminster in 1864 and from that date the two sites were both in use. In 1881 the MO was Joseph Gustavus Symes.
On the web I found a series of Annual Reports of the Dorset County Asylum; the earliest of these was published 1865, the latest in 1886, with these years missing from sequence: 1866-72, 1875, 1877, 1882-83. A Thomas Coombs is listed as an author on the Annual Reports of 1881 and 1884-86 but not earlier or later. Assuming the Annual Report of 1884 to be typical, I looked at the contents and found that Thomas Coombs was working at the Asylum as a clerk - that is, clerk to the Poor Law Board. His contribution to the Annual Report was to prepare the statistics and the accounts. I tried to find him on 1881 census, to see if he might be William Godwin Coombs’ elder brother, but I couldn’t identify him.
A bit more on Dr Symes:
Gentleman’s Magazine volume 190 1851 p424 Joseph Gustavus Symes is described as a surgeon based in Devizes; the son of Rear-Admiral Joseph Symes of Crewkerne.
The Lancet volume 2 p348 issue of 6 October 1848 Symes is now Medical Superintendent of Dorset County Asylum; address Forston House Dorchester.
London Gazette 24 May 1887 p2876 legal notice folllwing the death of John Fox. One of his executors is Joseph Gustavus Symes of Dorset County Lunatic Asylum at Charminster.
Calendar of the Royal College of Surgeons England issue of 1888 p223 has J Gustavus Symes with an address in Weymouth.
Its archives are now at Chippenham in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. A blog at website //history/wiltshire.gov.uk has a query dated 9 July 2011 from someone chasing a relation who’d died as an inmate at Fisherton House. The reply to the query says Fisherton House and Laverstock House were 2 asylums in Salisbury both owned and run by the Finch family. Laverstock House opened in 1754, Fisherton House in 1813 originally for 75 patients. It always took in paupers, from all over England, including London; and in the 1850s it was the largest private mental hospital in England, with 700 beds. From 1850 until 1870 and the building of Broadmoor, it took the criminally insane. Its name was changed to Old Manor Hospital in 1920.
There’s a chapter on the life and career of James Crichton Browne (later Sir James Crichton-Browne) in Shattered Nerves: Doctors, Patients and Depression in Victorian England by Janet Oppenheim. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press 1991. Although depression and its treatment is the core of the book, it’s also very good on 19-century understanding of mental illness in general, and on the struggles of doctors to establish themselves as the experts on it, despite the plentiful evidence that they knew not that much more than their patients.
Wyke House asylum
Local history evidence found via google shows Wyke House had been a private residence in 18th cent; and a school in the 1820s. Local history website www.brentfordtw8 item on Inverness House Brentford put on website by Jim Lawes on 2 February 2005 says that shares in Inverness House as a limited company were issued by a Dr Costello in 1846 but in 1850 he was replaced in the company by doctors Bascombe and John Gregory. In 1859 Wyke House was licensed to R Gardiner Hill and E Willett. In 1867 the assistant medical officer at Wyke House was George Mickley; he had left the job by 1881. Wyke House seems still to have been registered as a mental nursing home in 1959.
In Medico-Chirurgical Review and Journal of Practical Medicine volume 41 1844 issue of 1 July p296 an article - not a straight-forward advert - on Wyke House refers to it as recently set up by Dr Costello as a model of modern treatment: “Wyke House Asylum for Nervous Invalids of the Upper and Middle Classes”. Article describes middle-classes and upper-classes as lagging behind poorer patients (ie those who have to go to a Poor Law asylum) as regards treatment for mental problems. At Wyke House, treatment “embraces all the modern improvement - baths, douches, padded rooms, chair and carriage outings etc”; patients were allowed outside, there were gardens, a farm, tennis, skittles, walks; and billiards inside.
The case of Rosina Bulwer Lytton. There’s plenty on the web about it; try Wikipedia. She also wrote about the incident herself, in two books. She was certified insane by a doctor on the orders of her estranged husband, Edward Bulwer Lytton, after she had heckled him at a political meeting. She was sent to Inverness House in June 1858 but the public outcry about what had happened to her was so great that the family gave in and she was allowed to leave the following month. At the height of the tumult, Robert Gardiner Hill had to issue a statement assuring the public that she was not being kept under restraint. The circumstances of Rosina being an upper-class woman definitely contributed to the outrage of the public.
Medical Times and Gazette Advertiser volume II no 531 issue of 1 September 1860 on its back page, an advert for Wyke House where it is described as “a Private Establishment for the care and recovery of Ladies and Gentlemen mentally afflicted”. Applications were to be sent either to R Gardiner Hill “late resident proprietor” but now of Eastgate House Lincoln and 8 Hinde Street Manchester Square; or to Dr E S Willett MD at Wyke House. The advert describes both men as proprietors of the establishment. Similar adverts appeared in Ecclesiastical Gazette 1859 p251; The Athenaeum 1860 p730; London and Provincial Medical Directory 1860 p836; Rapport du Comité Consultatif International Financial Conference League of Nations 1861 p671.
Times 20 November 1920 p6 report on a Lunacy Inquiry involving Mrs Maud Mary Roth, of independent means, who was in court to hear the evidence as to her own mental state; and she was considered to be sufficiently compos mentis to give evidence as well. The 1920 Inquiry heard that in November 1898 she had been sent to Wyke House on the orders of the Lunacy Commissioners. She had remained there until the September previous to the current Inquiry, when she had been moved to a similar institution in Hastings. It came out in the 1920 evidence that the current proprietor of Wyke House asylum was Dr Findlay Murchison. In 1898, Dr Coombs had given evidence as acting Medical Officer at Wyke House; he was asked to describe Mrs Roth’s symptoms.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
13 June 2012