Stafford County Asylum (St. George’s Hospital) in the 1970s (

Staffordshire’s Asylums and the Patient Experience

Staffordshire Archives and Heritage, alongside partners the Wellcome Trust, are carrying out a project to shed light upon the history of Staffordshire’s three County Asylums; Stafford (opened in 1818), Burntwood (1864) and Cheddleton (1899).

The project will focus on the patient experience as we catalogue case records from the period 1818-1960. The major research resource produced by the project will be a database of information extracted from the case notes that can be used for medical and social history research. In addition, we will create an online index to aid family historians. Whilst access is restricted to records which are less than 100 years old, earlier material is available for research. During the 2 year project we will also create a touring exhibition and offer a series of talks at venues across the County about the history of mental health care in Staffordshire.

The three asylums are a rich seedbed of historical interest, as they were founded during different phases of mental health provision in England. Stafford, which followed in the wake of the 1808 permissive County Asylums Act, was one of the earliest County Asylums and was highly regarded as an innovative institution. Burntwood was constructed during the phase of compulsory provision after the 1845 Lunacy Act. Cheddleton, built at the end of the century, represents the mature Victorian institution, which functioned as a small self-sustaining village, with its own cultural and sporting clubs run for staff and patients.

The records of these three institutions are remarkably consistent and well preserved, with only a lacuna in the records of Stafford between the 1840s and 1870s. Their catchment area was large, and allows us to analyse how mental health provision interacted with farming, coal mining and heavily industrial areas. The story of asylums, as Staffordshire shows, is not purely one of provision for paupers; the range of varied stories, classes and experiences held within the records shows that Staffordshire, whilst having its own character, can also be claimed to represent a ‘case for the ordinary’ – an English county with much that was typical as well as particular.

This blog aims to provide a platform for some of the interesting items and ideas which we find during the length of the project, material useful to both history enthusiasts and also academic researchers. We hope to tell some of the stories of the people who became patients in the asylums, the staff who cared for them, and the institutions themselves – their communities and their bricks and mortar. The project team, our academic partners and their students, and others interested in the history of asylums will be making contributions, which will hopefully lead people towards some fascinating areas of a long hidden social and medical history.

Tracing the medical and cultural histories of mental health and its treatment brings to the fore many questions, and many individual stories. Questions of the social meanings of mental ill health, occupational stress, how gender affected people’s experiences, and how asylums functioned and the roles they performed will all be explored in these pages.

Project Team and Project Board

Pictured above are members of the project research team, and the members of our project board who are helping to advise us and shape our research and its outcomes; left to right Prof. Alannah Tomkins (Keele Univ.), Dr. Leonard Smith (Univ. of Birmingham), Prof. Jonathan Reinarz (Univ. of Birmingham), Dr. Steve Cunniffe (research assistant), Dr. Rebecca Wynter (Univ. of Birmingham), Anita Caithness (project archivist), and Joanne Peck (project archivist). Behind the camera is Rebecca Jackson, the project lead (hopefully she will appear in later posts!).