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Guest post: Men, madness and the Victorian asylum

22 Feb, 2011

Stanley Royd Pathological lab

The pathological lab at Stanley Royd Asylum.


Despite leaving Wakefield for London, Jennifer Wallis never forgot the local building that was once Stanley Royd Asylum. Its history reveals much about society’s view of male mental illness in the last century.

Just outside Wakefield city centre stands a sleek flat redevelopment in an imposing Victorian building, complete with sash windows and old-fashioned lamps lining the pavements. It is only perhaps the regimented lines of windows and the peculiar circular layout that belie the building’s origins. This was once Stanley Royd Asylum, one of the first asylums to be built in response to the 1808 County Asylums Act, which encouraged counties to provide facilities for their pauper insane.

Despite leaving Wakefield for London three years ago, Stanley Royd stuck in my mind. And when I made the history of psychiatry the focus of my doctoral research, it was the obvious choice for case study.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Stanley Royd was something of a pioneer in the emerging field of biological psychiatry, with an in-house laboratory, research into cerebral localisation and a large collection of pathological specimens for teaching purposes. Its doctors strived to study the problem of insanity in new, scientific ways.

At the same time, the period was one in which masculinity, ‘manliness’ and ‘manhood’ were hot topics. Popular health manuals such as the fabulously titled The Virile Powers of Superb Manhood schooled readers in how to ‘be men’, both physically and in their everyday conduct. Male mental illness often stood in stark contrast to the image of the ideal man who was cool, controlled and responsible for his own actions.

My research follows the male patient through Stanley Royd from his admission to his discharge or death. Most men entered the asylum as a consequence of concerns about their behaviour, and not all of the reasons cited by family or acquaintances are what we would now consider hard evidence of an unstable mind. The reasons given for Joseph F.’s committal in 1885 for example, included ‘cutting flowers in someone else’s garden’ and ‘calling on the Vicar with no object’. Many men were noted as not having worked for some time, unable to fulfil the role of family provider, while others went too far in displaying their manliness through excess drinking or physical assault. Male patients then, were subject to a variety of discourses about their state of mind. At admission, those people closest to them gave their opinion of the problem, but once inside the asylum, men came under the gaze of doctors who reassessed their behaviour within a medical framework.

It is how this self-consciously scientific framework worked alongside more popular ideas about men’s role in society that I hope to address in my research. Recent campaigns by the mental health charity Mind and Men’s Health Forum have emphasised the need for a men’s mental health strategy, so it’s fascinating for me to see both the current and historical discussions of male mental illness, and to consider how some of Stanley Royd’s nineteenth-century patients might have fared today.

Jennifer Wallis is a first-year History PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, and the recipient of a Wellcome Studentship. She can be contacted at

Image credit: West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield. C85 1413

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