“Space, Asylums and Their Communities”

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Steven J. Taylor

(University of Leicester)

“Space, Asylums and Their Communities”


Paper presented to the conference:

"Mapping Humans: From Body to Cosmos"

13-15 September 2011, Oxford


Third Annual Conference of the Berendel Foundation, in association with the University of Leicester and the Cantemir Institute at the University of Oxford


Summary: This paper will map the experience of being a pauper child lunatic in the nineteenth century in three crucial ways. Firstly through the ideas and rhetoric of those observing afflicted children, secondly, by tracing their physical encounters with the institutions of the Poor Law and finally in a broader geographic sense of inter and intra-regional reactions to child lunacy. Taking the first point a key issue to be addressed will be how insane children were perceived, both at professional and lay levels, and how these perceptions shaped experiences and relationships with nineteenth century institutions. Using extant asylum records the voices of medical men, family members and neighbours will be examined to ascertain contemporary views of dealing with lunatic children.

A second focus will map the ‘journeys’ of insane children through the nineteenth century welfare system. Primary focus will be on the asylum but the nature of nineteenth-century welfare provision means that this institution cannot be considered in isolation. Running parallel with these interactions a third focus will provide a medical map of child experiences on an international level. This paper will highlight how children encountered the physical space of the asylum, and the experience of being sent overseas, as examples of attempted treatment. This combination of social and medical mapping will produce a detailed understanding of how children were thought of during the nineteenth century and the spaces they occupied.

The final section of the paper will consider the regional responses to child lunacy. Mapping how authorities accessed asylum provision. This will show a wide variation of how asylums were utilised at regional level but also will provide an intriguing discussion of intraregional attitudes towards insanity.

Through the mapping of lunatic children this paper will seek to answer a number of key research questions. For instance how were children perceived within the institution and community? What mental spaces did they occupy and how did this perception influence the treatment of insane children? What interactions existed between official and lay concepts of insane children and how can these be mapped to better our understanding of insanity during the nineteenth century?

Short Bio: Steven J. Taylor, PhD Candidate, Centre for Medical Humanities, University of Leicester. His research examines the admission of children to pauper lunatic asylums in England between the years 1845-1907. Of particular interest are the various social and economic circumstances that led to families seeking the route of asylum care for their offspring and how these differed at inter and intra-regional levels to create a variety of asylum systems operating in England and Wales under centralized legislation. He has recently published his first article, ‘“All his ways are those of an idiot”: The Admission, Treatment of and Social Reaction to two Idiot Boys of the Northampton Pauper Lunatic Asylum, 1877-1883’ in Family and Community History, vol15/1, pp.34-43, and presented at the Social History Society Conference 2012.

[Recorded and edited by Simon Wilson]



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