Historical Honey is delighted to host this wonderful Q&A session with Mark Stevens, author of Broadmoor Revealed. Firstly, let us introduce you to the brains behind the book…
Mark Stevens is a professional archivist, who has worked in his home county of Berkshire for the last 15 years. After studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Mark went on to study at UCL as a postgraduate. For the past decade, he has been responsible for looking after extensive collections relating to Victorian mental health.
Mark lives in Reading with his family. When he is not busy archiving or writing, he acts as a school governor. He is an ardent follower of Reading FC and an occasional golfer. Broadmoor Revealed is his first book.
HH: What were your main sources of inspiration behind writing Broadmoor Revealed?
MS: In terms of motivation to write the book, it was all about the hospital. Did you know that it was possible to be captivated by a special hospital? Well, that happened to me. About nine years ago we [Berkshire Record Office] took in the Broadmoor archive. I was just blown away by the detail within it – details of people’s lives, their hopes and losses. And not really exceptional people – not the geniuses or monsters that sometimes characterise the place – but just everyday people. People like you and me. So when the time came to write about the archive, I wanted to write about those people. And the book came out of that.
The book is supposed to be a tour guide to notable sights in Victorian Broadmoor: well-known patients, patients from overseas, the women’s side, escape attempts. I don’t think I would point to any one book as inspiring that, though I was reading ‘The Football Man’ by Arthur Hopcraft at the time and I think that did have an influence on what I wanted to do. Hopcraft was writing in 1968, at a point when little serious attempt had been made to dig deeper into social fascination with the national game. You could argue that Broadmoor is in a similar position today. Hopcraft wrote an appreciation of what bound the elements of his community together and I thought I could try and do the same.
HH: What do you think it is about the treatment of the criminally insane that really sparks the interest of the masses: is it just plain morbid curiosity, or do you have any other theories as to why it is such an interesting subject?
MS: It’s curiosity based on fear – not that there’s anything necessarily negative about that. Fear is a very powerful thing. With a place like Broadmoor, it’s partly a fear of the dreadful things that people can do to each other; shocking things that we can’t fathom. Then linked to that is the fear of mental illness. And mental illness is still something of a great taboo. We don’t find it easy to discuss, probably because we don’t have many answers to the questions that it poses. No matter how many great minds are deployed to fight against mental illness, we still don’t fully understand it or – more pertinently – know how best we can avoid it. And that is the very sobering thing about Broadmoor, because it suggests that any one of us might fall foul of the disease, and be powerless to stop ourselves doing something dreadful. I can understand if people are frightened of that.
HH: I can imagine the differences would be stark, but can you explain three major differences in how we treat the criminally insane from when Broadmoor was opened 150 years ago?
MS: Actually, you might well find that less has changed than you think. Broadmoor was set up to provide treatment for its patients and public protection to wider society. Both those aims still hold good. Victorian asylums practised ‘moral’ (as in morale) treatment of patients – which very loosely meant trying to create an atmosphere conducive to mental wellbeing. In practice, that meant opportunities for industry and fresh air, with a healthy diet and the notion of routine. These days we tend to accept those ideas as being beneficial for mental health, even though we might not expect moral treatment to solve all our mental health problems.
But yes, there are some big differences. Firstly, the range of interventions available to doctors today is much greater. Drugs, talking therapies, MRI diagnostics: you have to contrast those with the sedatives, purgatives and bottle of brandy that were in the Victorian medicine chest. Whether more interventions equals better treatment is, of course, a topic for debate, and you’ll find plenty of lively discussion from modern practitioners and service users.
Secondly, the Victorians believed strongly in removing patients from the community, and from the triggers of their insanity. This is where the asylum played its role as ‘refuge’ for those suffering from mental illness. Victorians were strongly into environmental causes of mental illness as much as physical ones; another subject that provokes much debate today. But the outcome was one where, by default, the asylum became a patient’s community. Some patients ended up at Broadmoor for decades; these days, the average stay is around six years, with the aim being to make patients well enough to be moved to a medium-secure unit as soon as possible.
Lastly, anyone following the Ian Brady tribunal recently would have been aware that the modern patient – no matter who – has a voice in their own diagnosis. Rewind to the Broadmoor of the 19th century and there were no tribunals or hearings into a patient’s case. The medical superintendent decided whether you were sane or not, and what he said went.
HH: How did you go about researching the different individuals featured within the book?
MS: There are basic core sources which I would look at for each patient: a trial or newspaper report, a file of hospital papers, a list of medical observations. Sometimes those pointed to other sources either in the archive or elsewhere. Once I’d read the core sources I had an idea of the story arc for each patient, as well as some insight into their character and how they probably responded to things. I tended to transcribe or at least summarise each document while I was reading them, and then I’d have all the details ready for when I started to write.
HH: Is there a particular case that captured your attention the most?
MS: Some of the characters are well-known, of course: Richard Dadd the artist, and William Chester Minor the lexicographer and so on. I think that people expect to see them feature in a book about Victorian Broadmoor. But my interest was not really in cases like that. I think we have a surfeit of books about the intellectual, middle-class mad, and the last thing I wanted to do was conform to that literary stereotype. My interest was much more in the cases that were resolutely ordinary. I think that it is in these that you find the most extraordinary stories. I’m quite fond of saying that the true story of Broadmoor is not to be found in geniuses or monsters, but rather in the boy or girl next door. I guess I set out to prove that.
William Chester Minor helped to create the Oxford Dictionary whilst in Broadmoor
It’s the little things that get to me the most. Kitchens, for example. One of my mums, Catherine Jones, became convinced that her husband’s farm was ruined, and that the family would become destitute. Everyone knew she was unwell and tried to keep an eye on her. One day she went outside with her newborn baby for a few minutes and smothered it. Her husband, too late, had noticed she was gone and ran round their house looking for her. Then she walked in the kitchen with the dead child. I wonder what he was feeling as he saw her walk in the door? Or another mum, Margaret Davenport, who killed her children and then cooked tea for her husband as she waited for him to come home. What was going through her head while she was in the kitchen? Those are the sort of details that follow me around.
Mary Ann Meller: Meller spent three years in Broadmoor after attacking her Housekeeper.
HH: Were there any cases that didn’t ‘make the cut’ that you would have liked to include?
MS: If I’d had time before the 150th anniversary, I would definitely have written up a chapter on Broadmoor and the British Empire. There are some good stories in that one, and some interesting observations on military service, commonwealth and privilege. Maybe I’ll write that up separately one day.
There are other cases that I think merit books in their own right and I still plan to get round to them eventually.
HH: Have you been overwhelmed at the success of the book so far?
MS: It’s quite a humbling experience, having people interested in something that you’ve written. I feel that I ought to say a personal thank you to anyone who has bought the book. I’m very grateful to all of you.
The whole point of the book was to try and get people to take a second look at Broadmoor, and see a little more than just the headlines. You asked earlier about the differences between Victorian Broadmoor and now, and I think that one of those is how we perceive mentally ill offenders. If you read the old trial reports, they often try to rationalise a patient’s motive. Modern reports often look to apportion blame. Maybe if the book encourages debate about our own response to Broadmoor, then that would be success.
HH: Your new book, ‘The Victorian Asylum: A Patients Handbook’ is due to be published next year. Do you have plans to write about any other subjects?
MS: Yes, eventually. But it might take some time. I’ve found a theme, and I would like to do some variations on it. I have two more Broadmoor books largely researched but that need writing, and for each I would like to use a different style and to play around with narrative structure. I find the subject utterly fascinating, and I can’t see me leaving it anytime soon.