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The Women of St Luke’s

A sepia landscape photo showing a complex and imposing building in the semi distance, to the front is finely mowed grass.
St Luke's Asylum was a complex Victorian building which housed those suffering from mental health problems and learning disabilities. Image courtesy of The Dorman Museum.

St Luke’s Mental Asylum

St Luke’s Mental Asylum was an institution that housed people who were living with bad mental health. Built in 1898, it was a massive Victorian complex with many different buildings that helped it to be self-sufficient. It had its own farm which produced food, a diary for producing butter and cream, gardens, bake house, laundry, and a house of the medical superintendent. It was effectively a town in itself.

The Victorian medical system in place to help those who had mental health conditions was in many ways very different to how we view mental health today. They used terms which today are considered defamatory, de-humanising, and insulting, but they used these terms as categories for different conditions.

Treatments were not often effective, and many people incarcerated in the asylum would live out their days and die there. They also had different ideas on what consisted as a mental health condition, such as hysteria (which was a term used to describe a woman who may be showing many emotions), and pregnancy outside of marriage (many women were put into asylums by their family who were too ashamed to have an illegitimate baby in the home).

A large room showing two rows of beds on the left side, the walls are light and ceiling is high. Two pieces of furniture stand at the far end of the room. Photo labelled 'A Dormitory'. Taken inside St Luke's Mental Asylum, Middlesbrough

 

Sepia photo showing the alter of the inside of a church with rows of pews in front and a large three way pointed stained glass window in the centre.

Interior of the Chapel at St Luke’s Asylum, Middlesbrough. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum.

 

Isabel Wright

The first reception order for St Luke’s Asylum was for the incarceration of Isabel Wright, a 59-year-old from Middlesbrough. Teesside Archives now houses the reception order and states that Isabel was of an ‘unsound mind’ caused by epilepsy. She had been this way for three months, talking confusedly about her life saying she had returned from Brooklyn, NY when she had never left the county.

Isabel was born in Ripon in 1838 and married a farmer in 1861. Her life seems to have been comfortable, moving to Middlesbrough sometime before 1871. Her next of kin on her Reception Order was her son-in-law George Dawson who was married to her daughter Annie.

 

Black and white image showing two women in the for ground in long dresses with puffed sleeves and white pinafore skirts on. They stand with their hands on their hips facing the camera. They are stood next to a row of skinks and their is some tub shaped machines to the back right. There are some other women behind them in the photo dressed in the same way looking directly at hte camera

Female patients working in the laundry at St Luke’s Asylum. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum.

Isabel died in 1899, possibly at St Luke’s, and left £147 to George Dowson, a significant amount of money for the time. We don’t know much about the treatment Isabel would have received from St Luke’s or how she would have viewed her treatment within the asylum.

We do know however that many of the patients at the asylum were put to work in many of the different areas of the building such as the laundry and the bakehouse as having a routine was considered vital to their mental health and wellbeing. However, this was also unpaid labour that could be considered exploiting vulnerable people.

Female patients have, historically, been treated worse by the medical system in mental asylums than male patients. In the days before huge institutions like St Luke’s mental asylums were more like prisons where social stigma ensured that people with mental health problems or learning disabilities whose families paid a fee to keep them incarcerated in the asylum.

Women were often the ones to be kept naked (it was believed the mentally insane could not feel the cold) and there was no protection from abuse by the attendants or male patients.

Teesside Archives now hold most of the admittance books for St Luke’s mental asylum and reading through them they show an incredible amount of information on the reason why these women were incarcerated in the institution.