Press Centre

Secrets From The Asylum

  • Episode: 

    2 of 2

  • Transmission (TX): 

    Wed 27 Aug 2014
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    9.00pm - 10.00pm
  • Week: 

    Week 35 2014 : Sat 23 Aug - Fri 29 Aug
  • Channel: 

  • Status: 

    Last in series
The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing into the public domain until Tuesday 19 August.
Secrets From The Asylum
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 two, Al Murray finds out how ideas about inherited insanity meant his family member Laura Stephens was branded an imbecile and institutionalised from a young age. Lesley Joseph goes on a deeply personal journey to uncover a painful family secret about an aunt whose very existence was kept secret for years. Sue Johnston revisits the asylum where she had worked in the 1960s and Christopher Biggins discovers the truth behind his great grandfather’s time in an asylum. 
Christopher Biggins’ great grandfather Isaac Parsons was admitted to Wiltshire Asylum in 1915, aged 46. He discovers that Isaac’s mental disorder was categorized as ‘mania’ and the cause was ‘prolonged mental stress’.  
Reading Isaac’s medical notes, Christopher says: “’Talks constantly, one subject of conversation running into another without intermission’. Well I understand that totally, that’s a family trait!”
Christopher visits the asylum where his great grandfather was treated. He discovers that the pauper lunatic asylums were initially built to help patients recover. But by the time Isaac would have been admitted standards had dropped and the asylums become like overcrowded warehouses for the insane.
Christopher says: “It just sounds like the most horrible place in the world!” 
During WW1, conditions in the asylums worsened as doctors were sent to the front, food rationing affected vulnerable patients and some institutions were requisitioned. While Isaac survived the impact of WW1, Christopher is horrified to discover that he died in the asylum in 1919 and spent some of his last few months in a padded cell.
Christopher says: “Oh no! Oh that's terrible! So he never went back to his family?  Oh my god, I'm quite shocked. He died in a lunatic asylum.”
Isaac’s cause of death was listed as General Paralysis of the Insane, the final fatal stage of syphilis. The disease was rife in those days and Isaac would have contracted it from his service with the British Army in India. A death from syphilis carried a stigma and Christopher realises this was probably why Isaac’s time in the asylum had been kept a family secret. 
Christopher says: “Auntie Vi who I was closest to, she must have been a teenager or in her twenties when this was happening. She was a very snobby, straight-laced woman that I knew. So she would never have ever admitted that her father a) was in an asylum and b) passed away with general paralysis of the insane.” 
Having already discovered the story of his great-great-great-grandfather William Makepeace Thackeray and his wife Isabella, in this programme Al Murray finds out about their granddaughter, Laura Stephen. Laura was the daughter of Minnie Thackeray and the writer, Leslie Stephen and suffered from a learning disability. 
In those days she was categorized as an imbecile and a potential embarrassment to her intellectual father and at the age of 22 was admitted to the Royal Earlswood Asylum.
Al says: “So this is her admission certificate. ‘Has been an imbecile from an early age’. I keep seeing that word and it’s rather offensive. ‘Maternal grandmother insane, supposed cause of disease - hereditary’.  But Laura has a learning disability. She’s not a lunatic, this is different.”
The longer Laura stayed at the asylum the more she deteriorated. Al discovers that Laura is put in the asylum at a time when people were increasingly afraid that the so-called mentally deficient would breed and pass their condition onto the next generation, affecting Britain’s racial stock. The idea became a movement advocating the segregation or sterilisation of people with learning disabilities which was supported by Winston Churchill when he was just a young politician.
Al says: “This is really frightening, and not a distant cousin of Nazi thought.  If you’re going to institutionalise people for life… you’re not that far off sterilising them and you’re not that far off from murdering them.”
Al discovers that Laura’s learning difficulties meant she was consigned to a life-time of institutionalised care and died without ever leaving. 
He says: “74 years old, so from when she was 22. What a story.  What a life.”
Lesley Joseph’s aunt Annie Mundy also spent nearly her whole life in an asylum and died there in 1985. For many years, Lesley did not know that her aunt existed. 
Lesley says: “It was a taboo subject really. I don't know where this edict came from that said 'this is not to be discussed'.”
Lesley discovers that her aunt was first treated in the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Once a notorious madhouse nicknamed Bedlam, by the early 20th century Bethlem provided first class mental health care and Lesley discovered that her grandfather was determined to get her in there to give her the best of hope of a cure. 
Lesley discovers that her aunt was suffering from a condition called “dementia praecox”, which in today’s terms is schizophrenia.
Lesley says: “That diagnosis is much more welcome than thinking that she’d been shut away because she was displaying the wrong sort of behaviour to her parents.” 
Bethlem did not provide long-term care.  After a year patients had to leave so Annie was sent to the county asylum at Colney Hatch. Once Annie was transferred there, she never left institutionalised care.  She spent over 60 years in the asylum, and died there aged 85.
Lesley says: “Staying here for 60 years until it was practically knocked down around her. That’s a long journey. I’ve got to feel that maybe I do know her a little better.”  
Sue Johnston worked as a ward orderly at an asylum just outside Lincoln in the 1960s while she was a drama student.  At the time anti-psychotic drugs were being used in asylums. They were the first effective treatment for mental illness but had powerful side effects making patients appear very sedated. 
Sue describes her first day working at the hospital and seeing the patients who were taking these drugs 
 She says: “An awful lot of them were zombified. There was a whole section who were sort of characterless and faceless.  They’d been shuttered down in a way.”
Part of Sue’s job was taking patients down for Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT) which was invented in the 1930s to treat schizophrenia but was used on a variety of illnesses by the 1960s. Her memories of the patients getting the treatment were quite distressing.
She says: “When they came back they’d gone.  It was quite shocking to see somebody wiped of personality.  Dead eyes. It became part of the job I hated.”
Sue visits a modern day ECT ward to discover how the treatment has changed over the years.