how facts and fiction intermingle in St John's Wood

The Woman in White
Alpha Cottages
Barry Procter
Laura with her nurse/keeper escaping
Estate map
Alpha Road
St John's Wood 1868
Sir Alexander Morrison
Advertisement for a lodger
1 Greville Place
Charles Lamb by William Haslett
Mary Lamb


St John’s Wood at the heart of treatment of lunatics in Victorian times

One of the most dramatic scenes in Victorian literature – the midnight appearance of the Woman in White on the Finchley Road and her walk with the hero down Avenue Road – puts St John’s Wood at the heart of any investigation about the treatment of mad people in the nineteenth century.  Author Wilkie Collins had lived with his father, RA landscape painter William Collins, at 20 Avenue Rd  and would have been aware of the Eyre estate’s involvement with the provision of houses for lunatics and their keepers. He was a friend of Bryan Walter Procter (1787 – 1874) and dedicated the Woman in White to him.

Procter was a solicitor and lived in a little gothic cottage, at the corner of Grove End Road opposite the house of Sir Edwin Landseer at 18 St Johns Wood Road.    He was a friend of Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt, and of Thackeray who had dedicated Vanity Fair to him. He was also a poet writing under the name of Barry Cornwall and at one time had been suspected of being Currer Bell, the author of Jane Eyre, until Charlotte Bronte was revealed as the author, and he was something of an expert on the treatment of lunatics. In fact, Thackeray had asked Procter to recommend a good private asylum for his ill wife and had been horrified at what he had seen, saying if that was the best he could not imagine what the others were like.  Procter had drafted the landmark 1845 legislation on lunacy certification and admissions procedure and was a Commissioner in Lunacy from 1832

Commission of lunacy

It was a 1815 report of the House of Commons Select Committee that had disclosed horrendous abuse in asylums, with maltreatment, disgusting conditions, use of chains and embezzlement of patients’ funds, and a Commission of Lunacy was set up where a person could ask the Lord Chancellor to examine whether a person was a lunatic. If the answer was in the affirmative he/she could be deprived of civil rights and someone be appointed to take care of their property.  This involved an Inquisition in front of a jury, held in a tavern or coffee house, with witnesses drawn from family and servants. These Inquisitions were attended by the public, with the appearance of the supposed lunatic a high spot in the trial, and were popular with the Press. The jury returned a verdict specifying the date from which person had been non compos mentis as this meant a contract made in the past could be annulled.

If they were judged to be sane, they were released. Wilkie Collins ignored these legal avenues in the Woman in White – perhaps because he had no faith in his friend Procter’s legislation, – and Laura had to escape with her friend Marion’s help.

The Eyre estate and asylums

Asylums were traditionally sited on edge of towns and cities and Walpole Eyre would have  willingly let land at the top of the estate be used for asylums – 25 acres were usually needed –  but by the late 1820s St John’s Wood was regarded as too close to London for such a large asylum.  However, the wealthy could pay for expensive non-asylum single patient private care, as in 1772, private “mad- house keepers” had been able to accept  a paying patients provided they had a signed certificate from a medical man. By the early 19th century  the  patient had to be certified by 2 physicians and his/her presence noted by Commission but the lodgings did not have to be licensed by the Commissioners in Lunacy.  The only exception to the need for a certificate was for an insane family member kept at home. The area round Alpha Road was particularly suitable for private patients for while it was outside London it was easily reached by omnibus by people anxious to visit their sick relatives and friends. Procter wrote that people should visit the insane frequently but unfortunately people are ashamed of their mad relative, and leave them to the care of chance. Alpha Road was the site of the cottage where Rossetti painted the Awakening Conscience so perhaps was an area where unconvential people could live together.

The Eyre estate refused to give licenses for running a mad house but no notice was taken if a house was used as such unless it became a nuisance to neighbours. For example, in 1832, someone had complained the premises at 1 Park Road were a receptacle for lunatics  and, in 1833, Mrs James at no 1 Grove Road receives lunatics into her house with her attendant – a lunatic is residing there at present who is  most violent and furious and creates so much distressing uproar by screaming and yelling and exclamations of murder.

“Mad doctors” and single patient care

Some “mad doctors”, such as Sir Alexander Morison (1779 – 1863), physician at Bethlem hospital,  believed in placing recovered patients in lodgings, and taking them back to asylum if they relapsed. Most up to date methods of moral treatment and non-restraint were good and were part of the prevailing  Evangelical belief in the role of the family as a place where each members true self should be shared and taken care of, though of course terrible abuse could be found. Most single patient dwellings were run by a widow or a  couple plus an attendant; these could be  acquired from various sources – most asylums had a call list and would send one out to lodgings.  It was claimed that  doctors paid attendants a yearly stipend, supported them when they were unemployed and then took 2/3 of wages when found work . It was relatively easy to hire a keeper who had worked at a private madhouse to look after a patient in a house. (In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester hires Grace Poole to look after his mad wife, Bertha, and she had worked at the Grimsby Retreat where her son was still a keeper. Charlotte Bronte based the Grimsby Retreat on the York Retreat, an asylum run by Quakers who believed in being kind to mad people, so Mr Rochester was really doing his best for Bertha.)

Dr Alexander Sutherland, a famous “mad doctor” who was physician of St Luke’s Hospital for the Insane, was discovered to have 185 patients in single care in St John’s Wood; in fact, whole rows of houses in Alpha Cottages and  Hanover Cottages were being  supervised by Dr Sutherland and a Doctor Monro.

Alpha road cottages

In 1858,  Sutherland appointed Dr Blandford, resident medical officer at asylum Blacklands House to be a superintendent officer for Alpha Road Cottages.  This must have continued for many years as various Chancery Lunacy inquisitions  mention Richard Sitwell of 26 Alpha Road (December  1859), Caroline Longfield of 29 Alpha Road(1868) and His Eminence Cardinal Edward Howard of Oakly House 16a Alpha Road – after a lifetime in Italy he had been taken ill and sent home to England  in July 1881- a serious illness came upon him which produced mental trouble and incapacitated him for all further work – had to live in quiet seclusion. Generally, fees in 1845 were about £150 pa and by 1875 £450 – 500 .

One of Sutherland’s patients, Mrs Parker, had been signed into care at 42 Alpha Road but the Commissioners in Lunacy discovered she was being abused by her nurse. These discoveries did not often happen as although, by 1853, there were 2 full time Masters in Lunacy at £2000 pa  they were unable to investigate every claim of wrongful imprisonment and, of course, there could have been unknown family members confined at home without the authorities ever hearing of them

Satellite organisations grew up in the area such as Messrs Lar and Lane who were medical agents and lunatic asylum registrars,  the Lisson Grove Association of Attendants on Persons bodily and mentally afflicted  and the St John’s Wood and Portland Town Provident Dispensary, 96 St John’s Wood Terrace, founded in 1845. The building of Marylebone station and the destruction of all Alpha Road houses may have signalled the end of an era  which saw St John’s Wood as a haven for the mentally afflicted.

Case histories

John Murray, Duke of Atholl

Born in 1778, John, Lord Tullibardine,  was the eldest son of 4th Duke. He suffered from a bi-polar disorder and was very excitable one moment, reflective the next. In 1798, he went to Portugal with his regiment, accompanied by Dr Alexander Menzies but showed alarming symptoms, either from heat stroke or a blow on head, and Captain James Murray, a recruiting officer for  the East India Company, wrote to family physician Sir Walter Farquhar saying Lord Tullibardine was talking to himself, violent, trying to escape over garden wall and convinced he had been guilty of mutiny in Lisbon. The future Duke  never recovered and first lived in Hoxton with a Mr Warburton, then with Captain Murray as his keeper at 1 Greville Place and was still there in 1844, in a padded room with no windows that he could break to escape,  Later, Patrick Macintyre and his wife Phoebe (was a flower painter to Queen Adelaide) plus two male and two female servants, took over the care of the Duke. The Duke  died in September 1846

Mary Lamb

Mary Lamb was a well known writer of children’s literature and a kind “aunt” to several real children, but she had murdered her mother on 22 September 1796 and was sent to a madhouse in Islington where she was kindly treated. In 1795, her brother Charles had been a patient at Hoxton House, East London, and Mary went there later.  It was a large asylum where the proprietor had a private house, there was a separate department for paupers, a department for privately paying patients and an elite house for the rich.

She emerged in April 1797 and lived as a single patient at a house in Hackney. In April 1799, her father died and  Charles then looked after her;  they both recognised  when her attacks were coming on and she would go back to an  asylum for a while. In 1815, the management of her illness was co-ordinated by another writer, Thomas Noon Talfourd, son of a proprietor of an asylum in Fulham.  She spent the rest of her life in this way until Charles died, when she lived in a private house as a single patient, spending her last years at 41 Alpha Road, St John’s Wood with Mrs Parsons, where she was able to go out and visit friends and attend dinner parties, and she moved to  40 Alpha Road in October 1842.  Mrs Margaret Parsons was one of three daughters of a Welsh clergyman who, on his death, all became nurses at Warburton Asylum Hoxton and later ran houses for single patients. The other two sisters were Miss Jane Parsons and Mrs Trueman.

In 1830 Charles Lamb had written to his friend Basil Montagu that Mrs Parson is patronised by Dr Tuthill who can speak for her character. Trueman has been a keeper at Warburton.  Himself and wife are willing to undertake the entire charge at £200 a year. They propose to take a cottage near Regent’s Park to which by omnibuses you can have short and easy access at any time. And, in fact, it was Procter, in 1841, who drove to Edmonton to visit Mary Lamb and this resulted in her moving to Margaret Parson’s house in St John’s Wood.

Mrs Cumming

Mrs Cumming was a rich elderly woman who ran the estates she had inherited in Wales from her parents; because they had disapproved of her husband, the estates had been left to her for life only and she had to pass them on to her two daughters. In 1846, she became convinced they and their husbands were trying to confine her to a madhouse and had to stay with friends, frequently moving so the children could not find her. For their part, they said that she had turned strange in 1840, using strong language, looking dishevelled and having rages. After one inquisition into her state of mind, which found in her favour, she came to live at Gothic Villa, 59 Queen’s Road (later Queens Grove) in a house she had bought from her solicitor, Robert Haynes. (Anne Catherick and Walter in Woman in White walk past the end of this road in the first chapter of the book). Again forced to go on the move, her family caught up with her in Brighton and the Lord Chancellor agreed to an informal medical examination of her mental state by Sir Alexander Morison and Dr William King and they issued a certificate enabling her to be taken to an asylum in Brixton.  By January 1852 she was allowed back to Gothic Villa while an inquisition took place at the Eyre Arms in the Finchley Road.

Mrs Cumming was able to attend at the Eyre Arms on the first day but after that she was interviewed at Gothic Villa because of her disabilities, with the Commissioners and jury crammed into her living room. Of the 19 doctors who testified, 10, including Sir Alexander Morison and Dr Monro, said she was of unsound mind, while 9 said she was perfectly competent to manage her own affairs. The sixteen day inquiry cost Mrs Cumming £6,000 and the jury found that she had been of unsound mind since 1 May 1846. However the Lancet led the charge in describing the outcome as an outrage, and Mrs Cumming was allowed to return to Gothic Villa. The Lord Chancellor visited her there and reported that she was completely rational. A third inquiry was proposed but Mrs Cumming died on Midsummer Day 1853.

With thanks to Sarah Wise’s book Inconvenient People – Lunacy Liberty and the Mad-doctors in Victorian England and to Mireille Galinou’s Cottages and Villas.
















This page was added on 09/09/2015.

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