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The History of Chiswick House Asylum

During her research for a forthcoming website on the history of learning disability, Rosie Sherrington, Social Inclusion and Diversity Adviser for English Heritage, found the time to write us a guest blog on the lesser-known aspects of the history of Chiswick House:

Chiswick House is a neo-Palladian Georgian Villa in affluent west London. It is well-known for its beautiful gardens and architecture as well as its collection of paintings by Old Masters. It was built as a 'bold architectural experiment by (The Third Earl of) Burlington, a grand pavilion where he could display his art and book collection and entertain small groups of friends'.

Image: copyright Chiswick House and Gardens Trust

But did you know, that for a brief period in its history, it was a mental institution? Chiswick House Asylum was run jointly by the Tuke brothers and from 1892-1928 housed between 30 - 40 private patients. One of the main reasons that this history is not so well-known is that the two wings that housed the patients (and indeed many of Burlington's descendants) and many of the outbuildings were demolished by the Ministry of Works in the 1950s. However, the history of its time as a private asylum has not been entirely lost.

By law, asylum owners had to keep casebooks which were regularly inspected by the Commissioners in Lunacy. These have all been archived by the Wellcome Library and have been used as the basis of research to create web content as part of the English Heritage Disability in Time and Place web project. This involves creating approximately 40 web pages exploring the relationship between the historic environment and the history of disabled people in England from 1100- 1970 and will be launched on 5th December.

The Chiswick House Project is an offshoot on Disability in Time and Place, with a much more in-depth focus on one building and its grounds than the rest of the project, which offers a more general overview of spaces and places. By researching old photographs stored at the English Heritage Archive, talking to descendants of the doctors, curators at English Heritage and archivists at Chiswick House and Gardens Trust and analysing the casebooks, I was able to draw together a pretty interesting picture of life at the asylum. As is often the case, the handwriting in the casebooks is hard to read (doctors' handwriting hasn't changed very much!) but they offer us an interesting glimpse of life as a well-off patient of a private asylum. The casebooks also contain many letters from patients, allowing us to almost hear their voices from the past. For instance, Mrs X complained to Dr Tuke that her own personal nurse, who accompanied her to a holiday home for some recuperation, 'snores so much she keeps me awake half the night'. Mr Y similarly wrote to his doctor to state: 'Sir- for heaven's sake send me down brandy or something. I have never felt so ill in my life. If I had been at my own house I could have put myself right hours ago.' From his records, it is clear to see that Mr Y had a dependency on opiates and alcohol, and was at Chiswick House in order to 'dry out'. He never got his brandy. Patients, however, were treated very well: with many visiting the cinema, playing cricket with W.G. Grace in the Asylum team, staying at seaside hotels for short periods and enjoying the beautiful house and grounds.

Tukecricketc1875 1
The Tuke Family Cricket Team. Image: copyright David Tuke

It is clear however that many patients had a range of often very troubling illnesses, delusions and other mental health problems, ranging from 'brain lesions', to epilepsy, and from eating disorders to psychosis. While many of the treatments that were on offer (such as feeding by a nasal tube or the administration of bromides) have not survived the test of time, the care that the patients received appears to have been very good. Certainly, the patients and the families themselves appear to have demanded it! When both Tuke brothers died Chiswick House was given over to Chiswick Council and the grounds opened to the public until English Heritage (then the Ministry of Works) took the property on in 1948.