Book review: Proper People: Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There

★ ★ ★ ★

This text is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of psychiatric care. It covers the period 1818-1869, taking us through the biographies of mentally ill patients in Yorkshire’s West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield.

By means of a survey of many sources – case files, chaplains journals and discharge books, council archives and medical museums – the narrative takes us into the world of hospitalised 19th century patients and those who attended them.

Pages 149-152 tell of Mary Tinker, a 37-year old housewife admitted in 1843: ‘wild, rude and unceremonious’.

Discharged in 1845 she is readmitted in 1846. From 1848, there is a 14-year gap in her notes and, by 1875, there is recorded ‘little change’. Finally discharged in 1877, after 32 years of asylum care, we see Mary’s photograph: featureless but for her pale skin and her dark, accusative eyes.

Thankfully lacking authorial sentimentality or moralising, this is a highly recommended work.

David Scrimgeour | York Publishing Services | 480pp | £14.99 | ISBN 978099371509

Reviewed by Liam Clarke, visiting teaching fellow at the University of Brighton

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