Broadmoor Revealed

Mark Stevens reveals what life was like for the criminally insane, over one hundred years ago. From fresh research into the Broadmoor archives, Mark has uncovered the lost lives of patients whose mental illnesses led them to become involved in crime. Discover the five women who went on to become mothers in Broadmoor, giving birth to new life when three of them had previously taken it. Find out how several Victorian immigrants ended their hopeful journeys to England in madness and disaster. And follow the nail-biting numerous escapes, actual and attempted, as the first doctors tried to assert control over the residents. As well as bringing the lives of forgotten inmates to light, this thrilling book reveals new perspectives on some of the hospital’s most famous Victorian patients. Mark has kindly shared some of his insights about Broadmoor and the people who have passed though it's doors over the past 150 years.

How did you first become interested in Broadmoor?

Like a lot of people, I’d always known the name but little more about the place. That changed in 2004 when my workplace took in the historic Broadmoor archive. Part of my job became promoting the archive for research use, and I found that it challenged the way I felt about Broadmoor and about mental illness. In many ways, mental illness is the last taboo, but here before me was something that confirmed how widespread it was. Within the archive were hundreds of stories of people who had suffered catastrophic episodes of mental illness. It was like a tragic version of 'This is Your Life'. I felt that I wanted to write about these people and that maybe that would encourage other readers to take a second look at Broadmoor.

How does Broadmoor differ from standard prisons?

Well, that is a common misconception, of course: it's not a prison. It's a hospital, and always has been. Within the walls, there are doctors and nurses, wards and dayrooms, clinics and treatments. Where it differs from most hospitals is that it is very secure, and what makes it particularly special is that its patients are virtually always referred from the justice system. For the first fifty years of its life it was unique in that, and even now there are only a total of three special hospitals in England – with Rampton and Ashworth being the others.

Can you describe some of the more fascinating cases that you came across during your research?

For me, the story of Broadmoor is to be found in ordinary people. I'm quite fond of saying that you won't make sense of Broadmoor if you think only in terms of geniuses or monsters - the way that we often frame our thoughts about the mentally ill - but that rather you must think in terms of the boy or girl next door. Sadly, many patients have harmed their nearest and dearest, and I guess for me that is the fascination.

How does the irrational thought process lead you to hurt the people you love most?

In my book, probably the saddest cases were the mothers who had killed their own children. One, a Welsh housewife called Catherine Jones, became convinced her family was destitute, so she suffocated her baby to stop the child from starving. It was nonsense, of course, but it seemed to Catherine a perfectly rational decision.

What’s the most infamous/interesting incident that you know of that has happened in Broadmoor?

I can only choose one? That’s very harsh! Well, I'm very fond of an escape attempt by Richard Walker in 1865. Walker - a postman who stole the post – was determined to try and run away. He tried three times before he gave up. One night, he went to enormous trouble to first remove a piece of glass from his window, then use a bolt from the frame to hammer out the iron window bars. Once outside, he made it over two walls in the dark before taking a horse from the stables and galloping away. It was a very cunning plan, except that Walker had forgotten to take any trousers with him. Naked from the waist down, the first local he met took him in for breakfast, sent word to Broadmoor and Walker was back inside before lunch. I think that if nothing else, this suggests that escaped patients are not necessarily something to fear.

How has the treatment of patients changed over the last 150 years?

I think in terms of the ethos of the place, little has changed. That overwhelming duty to provide public protection, but also treatment and compassion has always been at the core of the Broadmoor mission statement. And some of the old Victorian ideas - occupational therapy, fresh air, routine - are still practised as common sense things for good mental health today, both inside and outside psychiatric hospitals. The big medical difference is in the range of diagnostic tools and interventions available today. Since the Second World War, there has been lots of innovation in mental health. It started off with things like electro-convulsive therapy and drug treatments, and has moved on to include talking therapies and even MRI scans. All the Victorian doctors had in their medicine chest was the occasional sedative, and plenty of rhubarb to ensure healthy bowels. Why do you think some inmates have been forgotten while others have become infamous? That’s a really difficult question to answer. It comes back a bit to geniuses and monsters, I think. Some patients come in with a high profile - I'm sure you can think of examples - and people naturally maintain a curiosity in their cases. Sometimes patients develop a high profile long after admission. There are two key audiences that have determined who gets remembered: one is a true crime audience, of course, but the other is a social history one. The former tends to like a bit of horror, while the latter has been fascinated by the educated mad. There’s a bit of both in my book, though I’ve also tried to tell some extraordinary tales of ‘my’ rather ordinary people. Who knows, in time maybe some of these patients will become well-known too.

Could there be some patients in Broadmoor who should be in a standard prison?

As you might expect, there's always been a constant judgement about that sort of thing. There might equally be some patients who would be better off in medium or low security psychiatric care. Like any hard cases, there are always difficult decisions to be made around the margins. If you go back in time it was really just the Broadmoor doctors who made those decisions, but since the Mental Health Act 1959 there's been a wider system of hearings and tribunals. I'm sure you'll have been reading about Ian Brady's tribunal last week - well, that sort of thing goes on all the time. I say in my book that in Victorian times there was a revolving door returning as many patients to the prison system as entered through it. That was true 150 years ago and I'm sure it is the same today.

Do you think that people who live in the area have anything to fear?

I often think that fear of the hospital increases in direct proportion to how far away you live from it. As a society, I think it is true that we fear places like Broadmoor - more now than the Victorians did, certainly. It's largely a fear of the unknown, and also a fear of mental illness, which as I say remains something of a great taboo. I'm hoping that Broadmoor Revealed does something to make people think about that. As regards the locals, I know that they don't walk around in fear. For example, they treat the weekly alarm more as an old friend than a source of terror. I know also that the hospital understands the trust we all place in it and that it tries hard not to let us down.

How does the staff cope with being around potentially violent and psychologically unstable or manipulative patients?

I guess you'd have to ask a member of staff to get a proper answer to that one. But I know that the nursing staff are all trained in psychiatric care, and have vast experience of managing psychiatric patients. They know what to watch out for and how to deal with it. It may sound surprising, but the atmosphere around the place is friendly and calm. The staff care passionately about what they are doing and they are determined to do their best - both for their patients and for the rest of us.

Did you visit Broadmoor for your research and if so how did it make you feel?

Yes, I've visited Broadmoor on many occasions, though always as a guest rather than as a researcher. I've always been made to feel very welcome - both by staff and by patients - and I have never felt unsafe. I actually find it very humbling. I think of the incredible range of emotions that the place copes with – both within and without the walls – and then I see that it has been quietly doing that for 150 years, and is going to carry on doing it well into the future. And then I think that for any institution to last that long it must be doing something right.