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History of Psychiatry in Bristol


History of Psychiatry in Bristol

1: St Peter's Hospital

Almost 300 years ago in 1696 John Carey, a Bristol merchant published  “Proposals for the better Maintaining and Imploying the Poor of the City of Bristol Humbly referred to the consideration of the Mayor.”  The proposals were incorporated in the BristolPoor Act 1696 which established a new system of poor law administration in Bristol, “the prototype of the work house” which later became general throughout the country.  The new scheme led to the combination of all 18 parishes of the city in one area, with one building in which the destitute and the homeless poor would be maintained at one uniform rate, levied in each parish, carried to a common fund to meet the cost of relief.  In this institution the able-bodied would be compelled to work, the infirm would be well cared for, the young would be adequately trained, expenditure would be saved and litigation between parishes would disappear.  It also undertook to admit pauper lunatics, a unique step forward, rendered even more enlightened by the guiding principles, which were laid down, that they should receive treatment and not punishment, that they be provided with living conditions adapted to their needs, that their wards be floored with planks and adequately covered with straw and that chains were not to be used.

The first Workhouse adjoining the Bridewell was insufficient and it was decided, to buy for £800, the Old Sugar Housecurrently occupied by the Mint.  In 1698 it was opened as St Peter’s Hospital. The first meeting of the Corporation of the Poor was held on 20th October 1698.  In 1865 part of the premises were disposed of “reserving only the interesting and picturesque mansion for the Board and financial offices, all happily well-preserved and cared for by its Poor Law”  This happy state was shattered on 24 November1940 when the building and its contents were destroyed by enemy bombing.

St Peters   

Initially the treatment of lunatics in St Peter’s was enlightened. A medical consultant, Dr Dover, was appointed in December 1697. In the early years the lunatic ward conditions appear to have been good but having made these pioneering strides, Bristol ran out of steam. In 1827 there were three lunatic wards.  Ward 14 (Bedlam, female) Ward 16 (Upper Bedlam, female) and Ward 20 (Bedlam male).  In 1839 “paupers were mixed with lunatics, whether imbecile or violent with little or no protection” and “the present sleeping room for the lunatics was more likely to engender disease than to cure it, for a more melancholy department the writer has never seen.”  The population of Bristol continued to expand rapidly. The conditions in St Peter’s could scarcely have been worse. In 1844 the Lunacy Commissioners inspected all the mad houses and asylums in the country and expressed “almost unqualified censure” on 32 existing institutions. They described St Peter’s  unequivocally as “totally unfit for an asylum.”  They recommended that the entire body of lunatics ought to be moved to more spacious premises and to more healthy and airy situation.

In their 1847 report the Commissioners in Lunacy reported that 27 of the 64 patients admitted to St. Peters in the previous 13 months had died. They considered that “this mortality appears considerable.”  They recorded the failure of their repeated attempts to persuade the Guardians to provide suitable accommodation and concluded that “the wards and yards at present set aside for the Insane Poor of Bristol are totally unfit for the purpose” that “the present arrangement is utterly discreditable and unless the Corporation takes measures for its amendment, the condition of the Insane Poor of Bristol will require the intervention of some higher authority.”  

Year by year criticism mounted. The mentally ill of other counties benefited from the 1845 Act, but not Bristol. Continuing evasion of this responsibility by the Corporation led to increasing insistence by the Home Office.  A prolonged confrontation ensued.  Order after order from the Home Office was ignored.

Finally in March 1857, Fishponds was approved as the site of a new asylum. J. R. Lysaght, a local architect of Imperial Chambers, Bristol was commissioned to produce the plans. Work began tardily in 1858 and proceeded slowly.  When the first patients were transferred from St Peters to Fishponds in March 1861, the building work was still incomplete.




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Last updated: 01/31/12.