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The Hereford Lunatic Asylum

(Historic Environment Record reference number 26936)

Until 1799 all pauper mental patients from Herefordshire were sent to the asylum in Abergavenny. Wealthier people made use of private establishments. In 1777 the governors of Hereford General Infirmary opened a fund for the construction of an asylum in the grounds of the hospital (Charles Renton, The Story of Herefordshire's Hospitals, Logaston Press, 1999, pp. 183-185). Nevertheless, it was not until 1799 that an asylum, built by the now famous architect John Nash, was opened. Unfortunately there are no surviving pictures of this two-storey building with room for 20 patients.

The Governors of the General Infirmary decided not to keep the asylum as part of the hospital but to turn it over to private management. The surgeon John Pateshall leased it for 21 years and ran it as a private madhouse, yet also admitting pauper lunatics. Once they had been certified insane by a parish medical officer, these pauper lunatics were paid for by the parishes via the poor law guardians.

Private patients could be admitted if two independent physicians certified them insane and the family was prepared to pay for their maintenance. This system sometimes led to abuse and it is alleged that many healthy people were locked away by greedy families or spouses who wanted their inheritances for themselves. All you had to do, supposedly, was bribe two corrupt doctors to sign the necessary certificates. The 1774 Act for regulating private madhouses was meant to put a stop to these practices but in reality it had little effect.

Herefordshire Record Office holds some Reports of Official Visitors for the period 1838-1852 (Herefordshire Record Office, CF50/193). These hand-written records are a good source of information concerning the daily affairs of the asylum. During this period, the asylum was managed by John Gilliland. The inspection report for 1838, for example, tells us that the institution was clean, ventilated, and that the patients were satisfied. One woman, Elizabeth Lewis, was kept in irons on November 6th because of violence. The entry for December 10th reveals that the diet was considered proper and good, that that were no complaints and that Elizabeth Lewis was still confined.

Some patients were employed in the laundry and in the garden. A surgeon, Mr. P. James, was called in to examine the patients and the recently deceased. On November 26th for example, one person died from "the effects of an epileptic fit" and another from a "rupture". Another patient was kept in bed with epilepsy and was given medicine.

The visitors were concerned that no Divine Services were held on the premises. Gilliland's reasons include the smallness of the establishment and the limited number of patients, whereby no more than two or three would be able to benefit from religious services at any one time. He did however provide a bible and a Book of Common Prayer.

Another useful source is the Register of Inmates 1823-53 (Herefordshire Record Office, CF50/193). This list includes the names of patients, their gender, age, marital status, occupation, place of residence, date of admission and by whose authority the patient was sent there, the date of any medical certificate and by whom signed, and when discharged: cured, not cured, incurable, or died.

The last admission to the Hereford Lunatic Asylum in the grounds of the General Infirmary was in January 1852, and the last patient was discharged in January 1853. The building was demolished in 1854 (Charles Renton, p. 186).

Until the new Hereford County and City Asylum at Burghill was completed in 1872, all patients needing institutional care were sent to Abergavenny.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2004]