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In the Spotlight: Christopher Long

Reading a series of posts such as these is almost bound to give rise to the false impression that Bethlem and the Maudsley have been solely populated by writers, artists and architects. We anticipated and cautioned against this from the outset. A truly representative notion of the people the hospitals treated could only be gained by trawling through the records of the bank clerks, mechanics, clergymen, farmers, engineers, dress makers, teachers, doctors, governesses, domestic servants, housewives and unemployed people who spent time as patients. For the most part, knowledge of the character and achievements of these and many others remained within the circle of their acquaintance, and did not prove enduring. There must be many stories of extraordinary courage, endeavour, fortitude and weakness, hope and disappointment, virtue and vice contained in the records of these ‘ordinary’ people of the past.

One story of which we recently became aware is that of Christopher Long (1902-1924), whose undergraduate studies at Cambridge University were cut short by psychotic illness and hospitalisation at the Maudsley in 1923. Long had been reading medicine at Cambridge but his real passion was speleology, or caving. In his first year, he spent all his time outside term exploring, extending and surveying Stump Cross Caverns near Pateley Bridge in Yorkshire, and in 1922 founded the University’s first caving club, the Troglodytes, into which he apparently herded all his friends.

Long’s admission to the Maudsley took place on 7 April 1923, a day after a suicide attempt which his friends and doctors put down to overstrain, depression and nervous breakdown. He came to the Maudsley as a voluntary patient but, perhaps not finding his time there therapeutic, discharged himself after three weeks and made for the Mendip and Quantock Hills in Somerset. There Long extended and surveyed Holwell Cave. Maybe work of this sort was more restorative to him than hospital treatment – or maybe his labours were fuelled by manic energy? Certainly by then he was self-medicating on the sedative chloral hydrate to combat his insomnia.

In the summer of 1923, Long returned to Yorkshire, where he was the first to discover White Scar Caves near Chapel-le-Dale. His preparations to open it to tourists were tragically cut short, along with his promising career, by his death at the age of 22 by overdose of chloral hydrate. At the subsequent coroner’s inquest, according to Dr Stephen Craven, “no evidence was presented that Long had intended to kill himself at that time” –the overdose may well have been accidental. In any event, caving had lost someone described by friends and colleagues as “a genuine enthusiast”, a “fine character” and “an indefatigable worker”.1

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Christopher Long (centre) and fellow cavers in 1922. Photograph first published in Cave and Karst Science, volume 37, no.2 (© 2010, British Cave Research Association), and reproduced with the permission of the Editors.