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Secrets From The Asylum

  • Episode: 

    1 of 2

  • Transmission (TX): 

    Wed 20 Aug 2014
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    9.00pm - 10.00pm
  • Week: 

    Week 34 2014 : Sat 16 Aug - Fri 22 Aug
  • Channel: 

  • Status: 

The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing into the public domain until Tuesday 12 August.
Secrets From The Asylum
“There’s something very dark and very taboo about asylums. I didn’t realise I had such fear of these kind of places until we just drove up to it.  I’ve got a feeling once you came in here, you didn’t come out.”  Ray Winstone, Actor
The lunatic asylum was an inescapable landmark of Victorian Britain, which inspired fear and shame in equal measure.  The Victorians locked away thousands of people classified as ‘lunatic’, ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’, in the hope of treating them humanely and restoring them to the outside world.  But by the end of the 19th century, these institutions had become warehouses for the insane and for many families, the stigma of an association with the asylum created secrets and lies.
In a brand-new two part series, Ray Winstone, Sue Johnston, Lesley Joseph, Al Murray, Claire Sweeney and Christopher Biggins find out why an ancestor in their family spent time in an asylum and uncover long buried secrets, which make up part of their family history.  
In episode one, actor Ray Winstone visits the spectacular Colney Hatch Asylum in North London where his great-great grandmother’s Hannah Stratton’s first husband James was committed in 1875.  Comedian Al Murray follows in the footsteps of his great-great-great grandfather and “Vanity Fair” author, William Makepeace Thackeray, to discover the lengths he went to, in order to save his suicidal wife from the horrors of the asylum.  And Claire Sweeney discovers how senile dementia and old age mental health was treated in the Victorian era. 
Ray is on the trail of his great-great grandmother Hannah, whose husband James died at Colney Hatch Asylum, in the 1870’s.  He discovers that James had threatened to kill Hannah and she was left with no choice but to have him committed.
Ray says: “I mean for a woman to actually to do that it must have been tough. Because you’re putting your old man away.”
Once inside the asylum, his condition deteriorated fast. James’s patient notes state that he became increasingly violent, noisy and destructive, at one point even tearing out his own pubic hair.  His mental decline was caused by General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI), the final and fatal stage of syphilis. 
At the time, general paralysis of the insane was considered a morally degenerate disorder, caused by an immoral lifestyle.  Hannah was forced to cope with the double stigma of a husband in the asylum and the shame of GPI.  
Syphilis is only sexually infectious for around two to three years, but it can take around 20 years to develop into GPI, so Ray discovers that James must have contracted the disease as a young man.   The first infection, contracted as a young man, would eventually kill him.  After five healthy children, it’s likely he caught a second bout, which was passed onto Hannah.  Their sixth baby was sadly born with congenital syphilis and died at three months old.  Ray is sad to discover that James suffered a terrible death at such a young age in the asylum, as a result of his syphilis.
Ray says: “He was 36 years of age? That’s horrific.”
He wants to discover what happened to Hannah and how she managed to care for her five children after James passed away, at Colney Hatch.
Ray says: “I’ve never been confronted by anything like that before. You’re told someone in your family has been in an asylum is hard enough. And to find out you know, syphilis. That’s a scary thought. I mean I feel for the man, this man’s died an agonising death and I want to know whether he’s given that disease to my grandmother and then maybe I’ll know why we didn’t have this information you know. Maybe the shame. Shame destroys people you know and that’s something that I need to find out.”
Comedian Al Murray’s great-great-great grandfather, Victorian novelist William Thackeray was just 29 when his beloved wife Isabella had a breakdown at the age of 23 and tried to commit suicide by jumping overboard on a ship. Determined to save the mother of his two daughters from a lifetime in the asylums, William sought numerous treatments and therapies.  
The couple travelled to the Maison de Sante, an exclusive private asylum in France where doctors had pioneered an innovative treatment called Moral Therapy, which involved daily routine of exercise, occupation and amusement.   
Al says: “It’s a total crisis, his family’s fallen apart, his career isn’t established yet, it’s costing him a fortune, and they’re saying ‘Well, we’ll keep her on for six or seven months of trial’ and he doesn’t even know if it’s going to work.”
However, after five months Isabella’s French doctors admitted defeat and William immediately took her home.  
Al says: “He isn’t just putting his wife away, he wants to be with her.  In fact, he’s busting her out of the asylum”
William then enrolled Isabella for a fashionable treatment called hydrotherapy.  Patients were forced to sweat in blankets and endure buckets of ice-cold water, as the spa doctors believed water could purify the body.  
Al says: “This sounds like the sort of thing Gwyneth Paltrow would pay a lot of money to do.”
Again, this treatment failed to improve Isabella’s condition and William decided to seek help from a more controversial therapy.  Animal Magnetism involved the laying of hands on the body and this slight sexual taint caused it to become quite scandalous in Britain.   It is indicative of William’s desperation that he would consider such a morally questionable treatment for his young wife.  
Al says: “It’s a cruel world you’re living in where you’re having all this stuff dangled in front of you.  So far the top doctor hasn’t worked and now he’s with a quack that he’s not expecting to work.  He must be thinking at this point, ‘Well we’re in now until she dies or I die, this won’t stop. There's absolutely no suggestion that life is going back to normal now.”
After five years and a small fortune, William was losing hope that Isabella would ever recover.   A friend recommended an English asylum to him but after visiting, William was so horrified, he was determined that Isabella would never end up in such an institution.  
Al reads some of Thackeray’s writing where he says, ‘Do you remember just after the baby was born and my dear little woman looking so happy and pretty?  Oh for those days. I’m getting weary of being alone’.
Al says: “This is a broken man writing.  And reading someone’s hope being extinguished is tough.  I’m thinking about what would I do in this situation. I have two girls, similar age gap, you’d worry about what to do about them.  He’s lonely, his children are upset, and his wife’s lost to him. It’s agony.”
Al wants to find out what became of the couple and where Isabella ended up being cared for.  
Actress Claire Sweeney is shocked to see official documents labeling her step great-great grandfather, John Sweeney, a lunatic.  
Claire says: “It’s quite shocking.  It just seems weird to have like a family member’s name here with the words lunatic, you know.  We don’t call anyone lunatics these days.”
John lived most of his life on the Isle of Man with his wife and daughter but Claire discovers that at the age of 71, he was placed in Ballamona Asylum.  Claire wants to find out whether John’s old age was part of the problem.
Claire says: “I’ve just had it with my other grandma who’s just died of dementia.  She wasn’t a lunatic, she was ill.  That could have been his problem.  It was an illness and suddenly at the age of 71 he’s branded a lunatic.”
Further information reveals that John was suffering from senile dementia.  There were no specialist institutions for old people with dementia. The Sweeneys faced the timeless problem of how best to care for an elderly relative, but with limited options they had little choice but to have John certified a lunatic and sent to the asylum. 
Claire says: “But this is an illness and he’s branded a lunatic.  It’s so awful to see those words on the paper.”
Claire’s grandmother, who recently died from dementia, received medication and loving support.  Claire is struck by the stark difference in care John received, just two generations previously.   
She learns how the population of Victorian asylums exploded, swelled by conditions such as epilepsy, learning disabilities and dementia, which would be treated very differently in today’s society.