In my last post I mentioned that Selwyn Leeks, who ran the child and adolescent unit at Lake Alice Hospital in New Zealand, had a great-grandfather who was the proprietor of a private asylum in West Malling, Kent, England. In fact, the licence for the asylum was held at different times by Leeks’ great-grandfather, his great-grandmother, his great-great-grandfather and his great-great-grandmother. (In those days women, although not allowed to enter the medical profession, could hold asylum licences, just as they could hold licences of beerhouses and public houses.)
Anne Goad has recently written a PhD thesis that “examines lunacy provision in Kent between 1774 and 1874 from the perspective of the anti-psychiatrists of the 1960s and 70s.” (Managing the Mad: Lunacy Provision and Social Control in Kent, 1774–1874, Anne Elizabeth Goad, Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Queen Mary University of London in September 2020). The author has herself experienced psychiatric treatment in Kent:
“In this thesis I have found it helpful and productive to use my modern experiences to examine and understand the nineteenth century context. Thus regarding the role of staff I found the maintenance of order far more important than any show of empathy. Mental health nurses facilitate the smooth running of the ward and ensure patients dress, eat and attend doctors’ appointments where instead of understanding they are once again fobbed off with often large doses of mind-altering medication.” (page 14)
The thesis is dedicated to, amongst others, my great-great-grandfather who spent some time in Barming Heath, the public asylum in Kent:
“This thesis is dedicated to all the patients incarcerated in the Kent County Lunatic Asylum at Barming Heath from its opening in 1833 to 1874, especially those whose names feature in the text.” (page 5)
Presumably my ancestor was not interesting enough to feature in the text.
The thesis contains a 17 page section on West Malling asylum (pages 39-56). It was set up in the 1760s by the influential physician William Perfect, who was not an ancestor or blood relative of Leeks. Goad describes how Perfect used galvanic electrical treatment in his asylum:
“Also a novelty in the eighteenth century was the use of electricity to treat lunatics and Perfect owned a machine which he made use of when all other treatments had failed. He described some cases of treatment by electricity in the latter chapters of Annals of Insanity, suggesting his acquisition of the device was made towards the close of the century. Although he conceded that electricity afforded usually only partial or temporary relief, he gave details of three cases where the cure had been total. Thus, Mrs E.W., who had been reduced to a miserable state of melancholy by the death of her husband, had not responded to any of the usual methods of treatment. Electricity was tried as a last resort with shocks passed through her cranium once a day for a month. This produced an improvement, allowing the patient to dress and feed herself. The shocks were then increased every second, third or fourth day, but not confined to the head, for a month longer, after which she was released home cured with no return of her disorder.” (page 41)
Goad traces a line, albeit not a straight one, from these early experiments with electricity to the invention of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) by Cerletti and Bini in 1938. (page 41-42)
After Perfect’s death, the West Malling asylum passed into the hands of his son George, who became bankrupt in 1815, and the asylum was then bought by Leeks’ great-great-grandparents Jane and Robert Rix. Jane had worked as an attendant at the asylum for 25 years. (page 49-50)
Jane and Robert’s daughter, Mary Ann Rix (Leeks’ great-grandmother) married William Perfect’s grandson and was widowed young. In 1850 she married naval surgeon Thomas Harvey (Leeks’ great-grandfather), whose father, James Lowry, originally from Ireland, was also a naval surgeon. James Lowry left a memoir of his naval service, which has recently been published by descendants under the title of “Fiddlers and Whores”. Leeks’ grandmother, Minnie Lowry, was born in 1861.
It was while Jane Rix (Leeks’ great-great-grandmother) held the license, in 1844, that the West Malling asylum was criticised by the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy, when an inspection discovered six patients sleeping in an outhouse. This episode “gave rise to section 63 of the Lunatics Act 1845 which made it an offence to conceal from or neglect to show to the visitors any part of a licensed house.” (page 52)
The 1881 census sees Leeks’ grandmother, 19-year-old Minnie Lowry, living in the asylum with her father and stepmother. (It was common practice in those days for the proprietors of private lunatic asylums to live on the premises.) Patients included two clergymen, a solicitor, a sculptor, a silk merchant, an army captain, and a shipbuilder.
In 1883 Minnie Lowry married her first cousin, Edward Lowry Leeks. Edward was the son of a solicitor and had entered the Middle Temple after graduating from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. But he evidently decided the law was not for him, as his occupation is given as medical student on the 1881 census. He doesn’t appear to have become a doctor either, and describes himself as “gentleman” on his marriage certificate. At some time between 1883 and 1896 Minnie and Edward emigrated to New Zealand; a bankruptcy notice sees them living in Masterton in 1996, with Edward’s occupation given as clerk. An article about the bankruptcy in the Wairarapa Daily Times (13 March 1996) said that Edward had “never had permanent employment since he came to the colony”. The couple had two daughters, one of whom died in infancy, and eight sons. Three sons, and their son-in-law, were lost in WWI.
Had Leeks, I wonder, heard stories as a small boy from his grandmother about growing up in the family asylum, stories that might have inspired him to take up psychiatry – with such disastrous results?