‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’: an exhibition by Professor Rab Houston

Blog written by Professor Rab Houston. Professor Houston has worked at the University of St Andrews since 1983 and is Professor of Modern History, specialising in British social history.

Professor Rab Houston

‘Prisoners or Patients?’ is the latest part of a major project I began in 2016 to use the lessons of history to stimulate awareness of mental health issues in the modern world.

Using free podcasts, social media, public talks, and photo exhibitions of asylum and prison patients I tried to reach out to sufferers and those close to them, medical professionals, and anyone with an interest in what is the fastest growing diagnostic category in global healthcare. I did this using history because it is, I think, uniquely useful for enabling empathetic engagement.

William Porter, convicted of housebreaking and theft.
Image: National Records of Scotland

People a century or more ago seem very different to us. The rationale behind the photo exhibitions is that the further you get from an event or a person, the harder it is to know what they were actually like. The more you can keep of the physical reality, the more you keep of the mental reality. Seeing someone’s face engages us straight away, and then you begin to question why their image was taken. In this case it was because of a crime. What were their family circumstances? How did those around them see their mental state? Did they get a bad break or make a bad choice? How did the justice system deal with those who were not responsible because they were insane? What therapies were available to treat someone who went mad? All these steps draw us into a material world that is different to our own – but a mental world that is more familiar than we might think, because the combination of genetic predisposition and life-stresses that produce mental disorders was almost certainly the same in the past as in the present.

Britain’s present-day prison system was created by the Victorians. They built not only penitentiaries, some still housing prisoners, but also a national system of administration. What were called ‘criminal lunatics’ became part of an integrated system during Victorian times, rather than anomalies in both justice and health care. Perth Prison’s Criminal Lunatic Department was created to house the most seriously disturbed offenders from across Scotland, and it was the only facility of its kind until what is now The State Hospital, Carstairs, opened in 1948. 

Margaret Hunter or Beaton, convicted of killing her young son
Image: National Records of Scotland

The problems the justice system faced then were similar to today. How to identify whether someone really was mad or feigning insanity in hope of more favourable treatment? Where to put criminal lunatics to prevent them from harming themselves and others? How to balance the needs of society with the rights of individuals? How to help prisoner-patients recover and re-enter the community? Prison communities of all kinds had much higher levels of mental disorder than the general population in Victorian times, something which remains true today.

There are differences too. Victorians thought that institutions were the key to most social problems, whereas their successors today prefer smaller scale solutions. Most of the drugs now used to manage mental problems have only been available since the mid-20th century; Victorians had only sedatives and hypnotics. We have different ideas about the status of women and children, and the acceptability of violence in interpersonal relations. But the difference is not as crude as we might think. The Victorians knew about social issues and mental disorders, dealing with them as best they could by the standards of their times. The past really is another country, where they do things differently. We should respect their efforts, even if, ultimately, we ourselves choose to do things differently.

What does all this mean? The famous British historian G. M. Trevelyan once wrote movingly:

‘The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact, that once, on this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another; gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at dawn.’

A body belt used to restrain a prisoner’s arms and hands. Restraints like this were used in all UK prisons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Image: National Records of Scotland

The exhibition helps us to reach out to them across time and to see ourselves and those around us in a different, more sympathetic light. It allows us to learn more about mental health through the lessons of history. Because we are all migrants through time.

The exhibition showed at the National Records of Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival (August 2019) and was part of the official Fringe program. Between now and the end of 2019 it will be in various Scottish prisons, The State Hospital Carstairs, and on display at a UK forensic psychiatry conference. The project runs until the end of July 2020.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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