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Black Lives in Victorian Bethlem: John Flinn

BRH St Georges Fields Rear View b 1

A view from the south of Bethlem Royal Hospital at St George's fields. John would have been in the Male Criminal Ward, which was located in the annex of the building that sticks out to the far left on this photograph.

John Flinn is one the earliest identifiable black patients in Bethlem, though many of the details of his life remain unknown and obscured to us, despite the excellent work done by Keshia N Abraham and John Woolf in their book ‘Black Victorians’. Curiously, at a time when black Britons were a smaller percentage of the population, John’s ethnicity was not noted in the Bethlem records, and it is only his presence in other records and newspaper articles that allowed Abraham and Woolf to identify him.

John was born in the West Indies in 1829, and before his contact with the authorities had been working as a mariner. The merchant fleets of the 1800s were populated with many different people drawn from around the globe, and were oftens strikingly diverse and multicultural, and so John would not have been out of place. His trial records notes that he could not read or write, which again was not uncommon in the nineteenth century.

John had only been in England for a few months when he was arrested for burglary and sent to Kirkdale County Gaol in Merseyside. His behaviour in Kirkdale suggested that he was suffering from severe mental health issues, and he was transferred to Rainhill Asylum in Lancashire. Here he was noted as acting in a withdrawn way, standing ‘in a corner of the ward and [looking] at the ceiling his hands crossed before him’ and requiring assistance to use the toilet and to feed himself. His only points of outside engagement were the frequent fights he got into with other patients, and one such fight ended with him killing another man in 1860. 

At this point in time Bethlem was one of the few high security hospitals in Britain, and John was transferred there shortly after the fatal incident at Rainhill. After three years he was transferred to the newly built Broadmoor Hospital in 1864, together with the other ‘criminal patients’ at Bethlem, where he eventually died in 1902. What we can piece together about his life seems to come from lucid moments across the different institutions, though he was often characterised as being ‘incoherent’ or ‘unintelligible’.

John’s relatively short time in Bethlem would have been in the rather cramped ‘criminal wing’, visible on the above panorama as the bit sticking out on the left hand side. The Resident Physician at the time, William Charles Hood, was committed to making life in the Hospital safer and more comfortable for his patients, but struggled to balance his civilian patients needs with the requirement to confine the ‘criminals’. Although we know that Hood and the other staff would have tried to have made life as safe and as comfortable as possible, it must have been difficult to balance this when John Flinn was regarded as a ‘dangerous’ person, who according to his casebook notes seems to have struck other patients and members of staff. For the most part John was described as someone who preferred his own company, but the notes resonate with the wariness the staff must have felt around a patient they regarded as unpredictable with a ‘propensity to violence’.

John’s ethnicity and country of origin is not mentioned in his records at Bethlem. Abraham and Woolf have pointed out that there were racist elements in Victorian England and Victorian psychiatry, and that in not mentioning race the authorities constructed a veneer of impartiality to hide this. While this is certainly possible, in our experience its relatively rare for Victorian doctors to hide their views, and there’s not very much to suggest that the Bethlem doctors ever considered that their notes may have been kept for posterity. The silence may reflect an institutional discomfort with dealing with a person of colour, but they certainly reflect the 'arms-length' nature of many of the medical notes at this time, and show the difficulties in trying to use them to tell the stories of John and his fellow patients in the Hospital.

What is exciting to the Museum is that John’s case implies that there other hidden histories in the casebooks. John’s black skin was not a bar to him receiving treatment in Bethlem, and it means that we must consider that the population of the Hospital consisted of a more diverse and varied group of people than we have traditionally thought. Perhaps this should not be surprising- the London that Bethlem served was a centre of a world-spanning empire, after all- but it suggests that the kind of work Duncan Salkeld has undertaken with the Bridewell records could be applied to Victorian Bethlem too, uncovering a new richness and depth in the history of care in the Hospital.

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An extract from John Flinn's case records at Bethlem

For this blog we have drawn heavily on the chapter on John Flinn in 'Black Victorians' by Keshia N Abraham and John Woolf (2022, London) and we would commend this book to anyone interested in this area.