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Inside the asylum: Material life in lunatic asylums in Victorian and Edwardian England

Jane Hamlett - asylum photo

Wednesday 10 May 2017, 3.00PM

Speaker(s): Dr Jane Hamlett, Royal Holloway, University of London

Sociology open lectures

This talk will explore the material worlds of ‘lunatic asylums’ (as they were known to contemporaries) in Victorian and Edwardian England. The asylum often figures in the popular imagination as a dark and forbidding place, in which inmates were incarcerated indefinitely. However, recent research has revised this picture, examining the agenda behind the treatment and care provided for patients. In this talk Dr Hamlett will examine the material culture of the asylum – using a survey of surviving archives to show how asylums were built and planned, how they were organised on an everyday basis, and the routines and rituals by which patients lived. While the built environment was used to control patients, it could sometimes allow small freedoms, and material goods such as personal items and clothing might be the means of building or maintaining a sense of self within the institution.

The talk focuses on six institutions that she studied in depth including three public asylums for pauper patients, Hanwell, Brookwood and Long Grove; institutions for middle and upper-class patients including Ticehurst, Holloway Sanatorium and Bethlem Hospital, as well as the criminal lunatic asylum Broadmoor. The built environment of these institutions were often remarkably different and were shaped by contemporary ideas of class and gender. However, from the mid-century, they were all heavily influenced by prevailing ideas of middle-class domesticity and they developed surprisingly homelike interiors, often decorated in the style of a middle-class parlour or drawing room. While the imposition of domestic life was the ideal in these places, an investigation of their day to day material operations reveals a turbulent, battered and patched material world in which discipline and order often failed. Where possible she will explore patient responses to their environments, and in addition to the records produced by the institutions themselves Jane will draw on a rare cache of patient letters to show what patients thought and felt about the material worlds that were created for them.

Speaker biography: Dr Jane Hamlett is a Reader in Modern British History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her early research explored the material culture of the Victorian middle-class home and was published in her first book Material Relations: Middle-Class Families and Domestic Interiors in England, 1850-1910 (MUP, 2010). She recently led the ESRC-funded At Home in the Institution Project at Royal Holloway, examining the material world of asylums, schools and lodging houses. Her second book At Home in the Institution: Material Life in Asylums, Schools and Lodging Houses in Victorian and Edwardian England came out with Palgrave in 2015. She is currently leading a new AHRC-funded project on ‘Pets and Family Life in England and Wales, 1837-1939’. At Royal Holloway she is Deputy Head of Department for History and co-directs the Centre for the Study of the Body and Material Culture.

Please note the change of room from that previously advertised. 

Location: Room B/B/006, Biology

Admission: is by free ticket only. Please book below.

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