May 14, 2013
Author Mark Stevens reveals the secrets of Broadmoor
Broadmoor Hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire has an enduring fascination. Originally known as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, the doors opened for the first time on 27 May 1863 and as the hospital celebrates its 150th anniversary, author Mark Stevens unlocks the past and brings to light the cases of its first inmates.
Mark Stevens is the senior archivist at the Berkshire Record Office and is responsible for the Broadmoor Hospital Archive. His passion for the individuals who spent time there during the Victorian era has led him to share their stories. He kindly agreed to answer some questions about his work.
As an archivist you must come across many fascinating documents and artefacts. What drew you initially to explore the Broadmoor archive in more detail?
I guess I already had an interest in the subject matter – we’d taken in the archive of the old Berkshire county asylum a few years before Broadmoor came in. I think anyway that mental health is one of the last taboos, and then here before me, laid out in these old case books were the summaries of people’s lives – real people – who had suffered an episode of mental illness. Here were their worries, hopes and fears. It was utterly compelling. Then the Broadmoor archive is just the same only more so, because the nature of the patients’ circumstances – their domestic life laid bare at a trial, then hospital care for decades after – often give you a cradle to grave story of the sort of person we often find difficult to understand. You pick up a file and there is someone’s life story before you. It’s like a tragic version of ‘This is Your Life’, really, though if all the stories have unhappy beginnings, a few of them do have slightly happier endings. Anyway, the whole thing sort of draws you to it, really. I found myself in a pull that I couldn’t escape.
Yes, to a certain extent the book is the things that people might expect to read about. Some of the patients are already well-known, people like Richard Dadd and William Chester Minor. What I’ve tried to do is add a new take on those well-known tales while including more of the things that I wanted to research. What really struck me was just how ordinary and everyday most of the patients were. Dadd and Minor were exceptional, and I thought that by focusing on them, the reader gets a rather skewed impression of Broadmoor. The true story of Broadmoor is actually found in the boy or girl next door rather than the occasional tortured genius. Mental health problems can affect anyone and I wanted to show that has always been the case.
I’m particularly interested in the plight of the female inmates at Broadmoor. Do you think that the women were more likely to be victims of circumstance than cold-blooded criminals?
That’s a question that I don’t think has an easy answer. I reckon that it probably depends on what sort of case you tend to empathise with. I’d probably say that virtually all the patients at Broadmoor were the victims of circumstance, but that’s the nature of my reaction to their stories. There is arguably a distinction to be made between those found insane at trial and the convicts who had gone mad in prison – I suspect that the general public will have less sympathy for the latter, by and large – but that distinction existed on both the male and female sides. I can show you habitual troublemakers of either sex as well as male and female parents who have killed their families to ‘protect’ them from some imaginary suffering.
What was the most challenging aspect of preparing the material for your book and writing up the individual cases?
Converting facts into a readable narrative, definitely. Researching a case is one thing, but turning it into a story is something else entirely. What do you draw out, what do you push into the background, how do you shape character, all that sort of thing. I feel that I am only beginning to learn my trade on that one. It helps to have an editor, of course, because having another person’s input forces you to focus rather than go off on tangents.
Publication often brings forth new information. Have any facts or new sources come to light that give further insight into the subjects of the book?
I think that my version of the Christiana Edmunds story is the fullest yet written, and I do feel that I’ve got closer to her true character than some of the other pieces that I’ve read. The only published work I took a little issue with was Simon Winchester’s very heterosexual reading of William Chester Minor. I think Minor’s sexuality is not so easily defined and I have tried to maintain a more open mind about what made Minor the man he was.
The main ‘new’ thing about the book is all the case histories that make their debut in it. You will get a chance to meet a lot of new Victorian men and women if you read it. It’s their cases that took me longest to work up, of course, but I hope those are the bits that really give ‘Broadmoor Revealed’ a wow factor.
Do you have a ‘favourite’ case or character from Broadmoor’s colourful history? Or is there a story that has particularly haunted you after the research was complete?
I feel an incredible attachment for everyone that I’ve written about. No one is in the book that I did not want to put there. You can probably tell from the new stories which cases I especially like, as there is a little more detail about those people. I’ve also got plenty of favourite cases still to be written up, but they all follow the pattern of being ordinary people living everyday lives.
The depth of feeling I get from the book takes my breath away at times. I find it all very affecting. It’s the little details, I guess, that really hit you: I think of the few minutes when a young wife who, having failed at suicide, laid out her children’s bodies before making tea for her husband; or of each letter from a daughter to the man who had killed her mother, telling him of her new life in the workhouse and her siblings’ progress. These people lived and loved just like any of us, and they never allow me to forget that. I find it impossible to think of them in abstract. I feel very strongly that I want to look after them and try to do them proud.
Broadmoor still exudes an atmosphere of grim fascination. What do you hope will be the impact of your book, as it draws near to its 150th anniversary?
There’s been surprisingly little written about Broadmoor over the years. I’d guess that most people’s impression of it is a newspaper one, often associated with some dreadful crime or controversy. It’s a rather partial image, and I’d like to try and round that out if I can. At the end of the day, it is just a hospital. A special one, I grant you, but everyone there is being treated, and it’s no surprise to discover that some patients are in ruder health than others. I guess if I can get people to take a second look at the place, beyond the headlines, then that would be a great impact.
Your second book, ‘The Victorian Asylum: A Patient’s Handbook’ is due for publication next year. Do you have plans for further work on the history of Broadmoor?
I hadn’t really intended to write ‘Broadmoor Revealed’, to be honest with you. It just sort of happened based on things people asked me to do over the years, so it’s become my guidebook. The ‘Handbook’, which I’m working on at the moment, has a similar origin, and once again that is going to be full of useful details that any tourist might like to note. What I want to do next is stay a while in one place and go much deeper into the culture. I’m going to do that with another two Victorian Broadmoor books. I’m going to be a bit coy about the contents, but hopefully you can tell by now that I like stories about people and so you won’t be surprised to hear that both those books are going to be people books.
I find the whole subject captivating – now I wait to find out whether others will too.
Many thanks to Mark for such an inspiring interview.