The Retreat Collection

The collection

The Retreat Collection is an intact working specialist library on insanity comprising around 300 works. Books date from the 17th to the early 20th century, and cover a wide range of material particularly relating to psychiatry and mental illness including:

  • Theories of insanity
  • Institutions
  • Care of the insane
  • The brain
  • Criminal lunacy
  • Phrenology
  • Mental hygiene
  • Mental deficiency
  • The controversies at the York Lunatic Asylum

It is of interest to medical historians in the way that it reflects the contemporary ideas and practices which formed the treatment of mental illness.

The collector

This is the working library of Retreat founders and staff including William and Samuel Tuke, George Jepson and other medical superintendents. The Retreat was founded by and for the Society of Friends and opened in 1796 with 12 patients. It attracted attention for its success in pioneering mild methods of treatment of the insane under superintendent George Jepson (1797-1823). In the 20th century the Retreat was known for its willingness to explore new treatments and in pioneering greater professional training for its nurses.


The Retreat Collection was transferred to the Borthwick Institute for Archives in 2001. The printed books became part of the Rare Books Collection at the University of York. The whole collection is still owned by The Retreat.

Collection access

All of the material in the collection is catalogued and can be accessed via the Library's online catalogue. Items can be consulted in the Borthwick Reading Room and copies can be made subject to copyright. Material cannot be loaned outside the University of York without the permission of the stakeholders.

Related collections

Further information


Anne Digby Madness, morality and medicine; a study of the York Retreat 1796-1914 (1985)