Digitisation of the Retreat Archive

Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive digitisation project are being made available throughout the course of the project via the Wellcome Library.


We are pleased to have been invited by the Wellcome Trust to be a part of a large digitisation project which aims to provide online access to the records of several private mental asylums across the UK.  Our contribution to this project is to digitise the archive of the Retreat. The digital images and archival catalogue will be made available online through a web interface hosted by the Wellcome Trust.


About the Retreat archive

The Retreat Archive relates to the one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients. The Retreat was founded by the Society of Friends and opened in 1796. The archive itself includes administrative, financial, staff, estate and patient records and consists of bound volumes, loose papers, maps, photographs, artefacts from the museum and a small number of paintings.

"The Retreat is one of the more heavily used archives in the searchroom here at the Borthwick and it is fantastic to have the opportunity to make it available online to a wider audience. Researchers will have the opportunity to cross search the Retreat archive with documents from comparable institutions in the UK, increasing its value as a resource for research." Jen Mitcham

Archives in one of the strongrooms

The Retreat archive currently occupies over 98 linear metres of shelving in our strongrooms and we estimate that digitisation will produce somewhere in the region of 430,000 digital images and will take three digitisation staff two years to complete.


Digitisation will be carried out by staff within the digitisation team at the Borthwick Institute in consultation with our conservation team to ensure that these unique and irreplaceable documents are handled appropriately throughout the digitisation process. Though we recognise that the existence of digital surrogates can help preserve an archive in the long term, the digitisation process itself can be stressful to the documents unless due care is taken.

Access to the archive

The purpose of this project is to enable wider access to the archive of the Retreat, which played such a pivotal role in the reform and development of the treatment of mental illness. While we are carrying out digitisation, some disruption to access to the documents via the searchroom is inevitable. If you wish to access original material from the Retreat archive once archive digitisation begins, you are strongly advised to contact us in advance and let us know which elements of the archive you wish to see. Access will be possible for those documents that are not currently being prepared, digitised or repackaged.

The project will run from June 2014 to April 2017 and the digital images will be released on a rolling schedule.

Further information

We have published information about the project and the contents of the archive in several blog posts.