While many offenders in the nineteenth century were locked up in local and convict prisons, those that were deemed to be mentally ill may have found themselves serving time in an asylum. These had been created after the passing of the County Asylums Act in 1808 authorising, though not compelling, every country in England to establish a lunatic asylum for the insane poor.

One such institution was the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, later known as Stanley Royd hospital, built on open land to the north-east of Wakefield. The asylum opened in 1818 as a relatively modest building, but grew considerably over time, eventually providing accommodation for up to 2,000 patients.

The West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum was home to hundreds of mentally ill patients during the nineteenth century, admitted to the institution from the criminal justice system, where they had been accused or convicted of a variety of crimes. Here are some of their stories:


Francis Breton

Forty-one year old ‘Frenchman’ Francis Breton was admitted to the asylum on 24 November 1848. He was indicted for murder but was found to be insane.

Breton had become a ‘pleasure man’ and had already been detained in York Castle Gaol for 16 months. His asylum notes describe him as a man with dark hair, eyes and complexion, and with a ‘peculiar sinister expression of countenance’. He was, the notes stated, a ‘perfect madman’.

Breton had been indicted for the wilful murder of his daughter, Maria Breton, who it was claimed he had beaten to death with a poker.

He remained a dangerous individual during his time at the asylum, violently attacking another patient and attempting to escape. As the asylum had never been designed as a high security hospital capable of preventing patients like Francis Breton from being a danger to the public, he was removed to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Bethlem Hospital in London.

The staff at Bethlem discovered that the ‘Frenchman’ was actually Italian, and during his time there was described as quiet and well behaved, but still prone to occasional outbursts of violence, striking or biting fellow inmates and staff.

Breton was eventually removed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in 1865. During his time there he experienced no improvement in his mental condition, not knowing who he was, where he was, or where he had come from.

After a serious fall, during which he injured his perineum causing a haemorrhage from the urethra, he was admitted to the infirmary dormitory to receive treatment under the anaesthetic chloroform, which had been discovered in 1847. However, it was a technique that Broadmoor doctors had not performed very often, and while under the anaesthetic Francis Breton’s heart stopped.

Artificial respiration, another relatively new technique, was attempted and the medical team even tried stimulation with electric shocks, but were unable to revive him. Breton’s death was reported to the local coroner and the inquest cleared the Broadmoor medical staff of any wrong doing. The incident even made it into the medical journal, The Lancet.


Ann Layock

Unmarried servant, Ann Laycock, was admitted to the Wakefield asylum on 19 March 1850 from Sheffield workhouse, where she had been confined for some weeks for what was said to be her first attack of mania.

The 21-year-old Ann was seen as not just a threat to others but also to herself, so had to be restrained for her own safety. She was also placed on suicide watch. Records show that she would beat her head against the wall and bed, causing injuries and black eyes.

Although she improved in the first few months after being admitted, she still needed careful restraint. By mid-July of 1850 she had been employed doing needlework and her condition deemed to have improved enough of her to be removed to York Castle Gaol so that she could stand trial for offence she had allegedly committed earlier in the year – cutting and wounding with intent to murder. Ann was accused of attacking the wife of a man with whom she had an illegitimate child. The wife was pregnant and gave birth to the child soon after the attack.

Court records show that Ann was found to be insane by the jury and to be kept in custody. However, despite this judgement she was not returned to Wakefield but was instead retained at York Castle Gaol. She was listed there in the 1851 census.

What happened to Ann after that remains a mystery. As a criminal lunatic she may have been removed to Bethlem Hospital or Fisherton House Asylum, but does not appear in the archives for either institution.


Peter Douglas

Peter Douglas, a hawker, convicted as a ‘rogue and vagabond’, had been removed from the House of Correction, Wakefield, to the local asylum on 22 June 1863, under a warrant from the Secretary of State, Sir George Grey. He was believed to be suffering from dementia and was in a weak and reduced condition.

Notes from his physician at the asylum describe him as a very cunning and suspicious character and that it was difficult to detect his insanity. He would often claim to have spent short amounts of time in asylums but when questioned further would deny ever having spoken of his previous history.

It wasn’t long before Douglas had used his cunning to escape from the asylum, and was never recaptured. A patient escaping was not that unusual but one that was never caught and returned to the asylum was a much rarer occurrence. For that escaped patient to have been a convicted prisoner was, up to that point, unheard of.

Peter Douglas’ case must have been an embarrassment to Sir George Grey as there was a very real possibility that this cunning rogue, planning to escape, had fooled the prison authorities over his insanity so that he could be moved to the less secure asylum. He had even been allowed to work on the land outside the asylum buildings, making his escape much easier.


All information taken from Proper People: Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There by David Scrimgeour. (Reproduced by kind permission of the author)

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