The nineteenth century has been assigned many titles. To some, it was the age of revolution, to another the age of progress, whilst another has regarded it as the age of improvement. Having read Pamela Michaels fascinating study of mental illness in north Wales, two other less positive titles come to mind: this was the age of the institution, or even the age of fear.
To control their society, Victorians placed their faith in total institutions. Prisons controlled crime and criminals. Workhouses controlled poverty and paupers. To control the problem of the insane, asylums or mad houses were created across Wales. By the 1820s, there were three private asylums in Wales. They were joined by the Haverfordwest asylum in 1824, the North Wales Asylum (1848) and the Monmouthshire County Asylum (1851). 1864 saw the opening of the Glamorgan County Asylum at Bridgend and the following year, after much dispute, the Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire Joint Counties Asylum opened its doors at Carmarthen.
These Asylums were established as curative institutions, designed to restore the mentally ill to health and to society. But these noble hopes were soon dashed with the realisation of the hopeless, intractability of mental illness in Wales. The human refuse of Welsh society was swept into these forbidding and foreboding buildings and the asylums became custodial institutions, museums of madness.
Pamela Michael offers a fascinating insight into the establishment of one of these institutions, the North Wales Mental Hospital in Denbigh. Dr Michael carefully traces the development and organisation of the institution from its establishment to its poignant closure. Though the main thrust of the book is on policy and practice, attention is also given to the patients and their personal histories. These tragic life stories tell us much about the fears and the phobias that bothered and broke the individual in north Wales. The asylum was not isolated from society, rather it reflected the problems that society suffered from. Alongside the sad cases suffering from inherited congenital problems were the sadder cases of people whose identities had gone soft on them. These were the people who suffered from moral failings, worries about their religious delusions and a host of other vexing problems, which had been inflicted by society. The delusions of many men that they were king or rulers indicate that a crisis of masculinity could exist even in rural, remote North Wales. The experience of Owen Parry of Llanymawddwy reveals the pernicious effects of syphilis on Welsh communities. In the tears of these people were the fears of their society.
This excellent book provides a valuable insight into a netherworld which existed in Wales and deserves a wide readership.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgement should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddior adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.