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The Idiot Colony at Caterham.        

By William Gilbert. received permission from the Metropolitan Asylum Board to visit their establishment at Caterham, I left London one fine morning in last December for the purpose of examining the building and inquiring into the management of the institution. Possibly the reader may conceive that a desire to occupy myself for a whole day in a building containing one thousand six hundred imbeciles and harmless lunatics, whose misfortune I was incompetent in the slightest manner to relieve, betrayed somewhat of a morbid taste. This, however, was hardly the case.was actuated rather by a desire to witness the gigantic efforts which I had been informed were made at Caterham to relieve such an immense amount of human suffering. Indeed, I laboured under a certain alarm lest the scenes I should witness might prove too painful to me. This alarm increased as I neared the building, till at length it became positively oppressive. My fear, however was groundless. True, there was a vast amount of misery within the walls of this immense establishment; but the painful sensation which I had felt in a short time became lost in the interest and admiration excited by the untiring humanity, and the admirable skill and discretion displayed in the management of the patients.will not stop to give any lengthened description of the building itself. As the reader may imagine, it is of immense size. The facade, though destitute of that meretricious ornament which architects of the present day are inclined to heap on buildings intended for charitable uses, is in good taste and by no means unpicturesque. The blocks of buildings in the rear, dedicated to the use of the patients, are unpretending so far as architectural elevation is concerned, but they to be well constructed; each being three stories in height, with numerous long windows, so as to insure a perfect ventilation.entering the building I was soon joined by Dr James Adam, the physician and official of the establishment, and Mr George White, the superintendent.delivered my credentials, the doctor proposed that I should at once visit the buildings, wards and offices, and have their uses explained as we proceeded. questions that I might ask, he assured me should be fully and candidly answered. The dinners for the patients were now ready, it was suggested that I should first visit the kitchen. This is a vast lofty hall in the centre of the building. Had it not been for the smell of cooked food which pervaded the place, and the fact of my having been told that it was a kitchen, I should hardly have recognised the uses to which it was devoted. Not a particle of fire was to be seen anywhere, and yet dinners for 1,600 persons, not including the staff of assistants, had been cooked in it. Stoves, , cauldrons, and other apparatus were heated by gas, which is manufactured on the premises. All the roasting, and baking, were done in closed, so that the smallest possible quantities of odour escaped into the hall. cauldrons, heated also by gas, were in the centre, and were used for boiling fish, vegetables, and puddings, and for making soup. There were also huge cylindrical machines, the uses of which I did not understand, as they were not in operation at the time of my visit. But I was informed that they were for making tea, and cocoa for the patients, tea being given them in the evening, and coffee or cocoa for breakfast. I should also mention that a most scrupulous cleanliness was discernible, not only over the whole of the vast kitchen, but in every machine and utensil used for cooking. now examined the food, all of which appeared to be of excellent quality, whilst the cooking was perfect. There were roast and boiled joints, minced meat for the aged and epileptic, several kinds of fish, and custard and other puddings, besides excellent ragouts of Australian mutton, stewed with fresh vegetables of different descriptions. All was cooked in a manner that would not have disgraced the chefs of the Carlton or Reform Clubs.Dinners were now given out to persons in the corridors to be taken into the wards. To accomplish this the whole kitchen staff of officials was in active operation.inquired of Mr White, the superintendent, how many cooks were employed. "About" he replied "four or five are regular cooks or paid assistants; the other 26 are." Yes reader, these  well-cooked dinners were the handiwork of 26 idiots,(poor creatures, who at home would not have been trusted to put a kettle on the fire) superintended by three or four skilled servants. And the cooking was not only done by complicated gas machinery, but the gas itself had been manufactured on the premises by the patients, superintended by a few skilled artisans.Quitting the kitchen I was conducted by the superintendent into the store-room of the victualling department. How shall I describe it ? It was hardly a shop, and yet it was not a warehouse. It appeared to contain as much provisions as the Civil Service Stores, yet not of such various descriptions. There were chests of tea, piled on one another some eight or ten feet from the ground; huge quantities of cheese, butter, sugar, treacle, whole flitches of bacon, and scores of tins of Australian preserved meat. To prove the quality of the latter, a ten lb tin was opened, and its contents, which presented a solid mass, in form something like brawn, was severed in the middle for my inspection. Certainly meat of finer quality could not be imagined. There were also large tins of ground coffee and cocoa, ready for the next morning's breakfast. I particularly noticed many huge balls hanging from the ceiling, and I was told that each of these - 180 in number, was a Christmas Plum-Pudding  for the patients. Nothing could exceed the order, cleanliness, and regularity of the arrangements.was now conducted into the bakehouse, which in size corresponded with the kitchen and the store-room. Here, again, I found the labour of the patients utilised as thoroughly as in the kitchen. Nor was it unskilled labour. The machinery employed for kneading the dough, and shaping the loaves, was of a most complicated description; and yet I was told, the patients were so well sued to their work, that an accident had never occurred among them, either from the machines in motion, or from the fire of the ovens. The quality of the bread, I need hardly say, was excellent. My next visit was to the laundry, and here  my surprise was as great as in the kitchen and bakehouse. No fewer than 86 women were employed at the time.these six were professed laundry-maids, the others female patients. Although the place, which is a large, lofty, well-ventilated hall, was a scene of great bustle, yet the most perfect order and regularity prevailed throughout. The heavier portion of the washing was done by machinery. Some of the machines, from their size and the force employed, were not without danger; and yet because of the excellent training no accident had ever occurred. Of the enormous amount a labour got through in the laundry some idea may be gathered from the following fact. Noticing a heap of linen in the centre of the hall, in size somewhat resembling an overturned hay-load, I inquired whether that was the accumulated linen that had been used during the last week?  Last week Sir said one of the laundry-maids. Why, that is yesterday's washing alone. We wash every day the used linen of the day before. many articles do you on average, wash daily, I inquired.daily average Sir, is about two thousand the quality of the washing, it was excellent, - certainly if a snow-white colour is any test, nothing could be better. Noticing some caps very neatly got up, I was told that they belonged to the female patients employed in the laundry, who, profiting by the opportunity afforded them, employed some little portion of their time in this very pardonable love of personal adornment. The doctor now conducted me to the female wards. The block I first visited consisted of three floors. The ground-floor was used as the day-room of the patients, eighty in number. They were then assembling for dinner, and took their places at the four tables (twenty at each) with the greatest order. A paid official superintended at either end of the table, served the portion to each patient, and carefully watched their behaviour. I inquired whether any difficulty or jealousy arose upon points of precedence or such-like among the female patients."Hardly ever Sir" replied the

Superintendent. "They are as a rule, very well behaved."

I next visited the two upper, or, sleeping wards. The bedding and appointments appeared to be of excellent quality, and a scrupulous cleanliness pervaded the whole.

Each ward contained beds for 40 inmates. They are under the constant supervision day and night; two nurses having the care of every 40 patients during the day, and these in the evening are relieved by two others.

I then, in company with Dr Adam, visited several other of the female wards, in all of which I noticed the same regularity, comfort, and care. It being near Christmas at the time of my visit, the whole of the female wards had been decorated with wreaths and mottoes applicable to the season, and with artificial flowers, all made by the patients under the superintendence of the nurses. Some of the wreaths and groups of flowers were not without artistic taste. Among the mottoes was one of very frequent occurrence - "God bless the Prince of  Wales, and may he soon be restored to health"

Another proof that every class of the population sympathised with His Royal Highness in the misfortune which had fallen upon him.


I inquired of Dr Adam whether any other of the inmates were employed in useful occupation besides those I had seen in the kitchen, bakehouse, and laundry. In reply he told me that by far the greater part of the work, both skilled and unskilled, of the immense establishment was performed by the idiots and lunatics; the latter being of that class of patients in whose case it is hardly possible to draw the line between imbecility and insanity. As the whole system adopted in the asylum for the amelioration of the patients is carried to such a degree of perfection - the machinery, though complicated, yet acting harmoniously as a whole - a short description of the theory in addition to the practice may not be uninteresting to the reader. As I understood Dr Adam, it appeared to be nearly as follows :-

Although the history of the great mass of the patients who are brought into the asylum is generally but little known, they are evidently drafted from the poorest portion of the population. The sources from which idiocy, and idiocy combined with insanity, are derived, are evidently want, intemperance, poverty, irregular living, and in an immense number of cases, habitual drunkenness in the parents. In fact, it may unhesitatingly be stated, that the most prolific cause of idiocy among the poorer of

Our working classes is drunkenness in the parents. Generally speaking, the case is still further exaggerated by the persecutions and petty annoyances to which many of them have been subjected. To this may be attributed the irascibility and ill-humour they show when they are first admitted; for the idiot, as proved by the effect of the treatment in the asylum, is not as a rule irritable, or wickedly disposed unless under provocation. The first efforts of the superintendents on the admission of fresh patients is to cure them of this irritability and quarrelsomeness. The method adopted, though simple in the extreme, is exceedingly efficacious. No arguments are used to show the poor creatures the wickedness or folly of their behaviour; no threats of punishment are held out to them. The only discipline used is that of unremitting kindness, and thus the exciting cause of irritability being removed, their temper gradually smoothes down, and in a very few weeks after their admission into the asylum favourable progress is noticeable. And I may add, so efficacious is this gentle treatment, that there is not in the whole establishment a lock-up room for refractory patients, or any other means of punishment or physical restraint whatever.

But the wandering life, the privations, sorrows, and persecutions which these poor creatures have endured, have caused in a majority of cases a great deterioration of their original mental faculties, slight as they were. The system adopted to remedy this is to try to fix the mind on some definite object combined with labour. For example :

In one of the female wards, I noticed that some of the windows had netted curtains, and was informed that these had been made by a poor old lady, who, when she entered the asylum was irritable and irascible to a troublesome degree. Nor did she appear capable of fixing her thoughts for five minutes on any one subject. At last, by some chance, she became possessed of netting materials, and it was noticed that when occupied with these she was much quieter. A clue was now discovered to the amelioration of her condition, and the doctor asked her whether she would like to net curtains for the whole of the ward. She willingly agreed to do so, and, a quantity of cotton having been provided, she commenced her apparently interminable labour, working on hour after hour, not only pacified, but much pleased with her occupation.

After some days a decided improvement was noticed in her tone of mind, and she soon became as tractable as any patient in the ward.

The reader may possibly imagine that in course of time and by practice the old lady would be able while occupied with her work, to turn her mind to other subjects, and the   concentration of thought at first attained would thus be lost. But such is not the case. Although persons in perfect mental health may go mechanically through the operation of netting, their minds occupied during the time on some totally different subject, the weak kind of the idiot is fixed constantly on the work, and a healthier tone is soon developed. The same rule is adopted with all the other patients capable of occupation, whether male or female. Those who are drafted off to the kitchen are employed solely in cooking, whilst in the other departments the same individuals are generally kept to the same labour, and their thoughts being thus concentrated on one occupation, the general tone of the mind become healthier.

The reader would hardly believe what perfection in several branches of skilled labour has been reached by these poor creatures, the majority of whom, prior to their entrance into the Asylum, had never done a day's useful labour in their lives. Take one example from among many: Dr Adam conducted me into the female workroom, where the dresses of the patients were cut out and delivered to the different wards to be made up. It was a long and lofty room, in which  were many large tables, covered over with linen and woollen cloth. I forget how many idiots were being employed there at the time, but they were very numerous, and, although superintended by two or three professional dressmakers, the dresses were not only made by themsleves, but cut out likewise. The reader may be curious to know the quantity and quality of work done in this co-operative idiot dress establishment. The following items, which I received from the superintendent of the department, will give some idea of the magnitude of the operations carried on in it. During the year 1871 the patients had made no fewer than 1,729 petticoats, 1,816 aprons, 4,537 caps, 1,729 dresses, besides the whole of the linen used in the establishment, - such as sheets, table-cloths, chemises etc, in all amounting to 18,115 articles.

On the male side the same order and regularity prevailed as on the female. In the workshops I noticed several persons employed on labour which, at first sight, it seemed hardly possible that the idiot's mind could be brought to understand, or his hands to perform. Shoemaking and tailoring employed a great number. Noticing in the workshops of the shoemakers some very dangerous looking knives, I inquired whether it was not imprudent to leave such weapons in the hands of those who might use them offensively. I was told, however, that no accident had ever occurred among the workmen, and that the knives and awls had never been used as weapons of offence. Besides those at work in the shoemaker's shop, I found that no fewer than 79 were employed in the cleansing and general economy of the wards, 17, in the upholsterer's shop, 121 in the grounds, besides several others in the gas-house, the engine-house, the engineer's office, and the mess room, amounting altogether to 300 of the male patients. These added to 452 of the female idiots and lunatics, make a grand total of 752 patients employed in what may be termed skilled and profitable labour. The remaining portion of the inmates are either too old, too infirm, or too young to be made useful, though the labour of many of these is occasionally utilised to the fullest degree consistent with their well-being and health.

I afterwards visited the garden and grounds, and the engine house. Here again I noticed specimens of gardening that might not have disgraced the market-garden grounds of Fulham. Yet by far the largest portion of the labour had been performed by poor creatures, who, till they entered the Asylum, were probably ignorant of the way to handle a spade. I was also shown a piece of ground of about 3 acres which was being laid out for a cricket-field - the draining and all other work being done by the idiots. In fact, there is no doubt that in the course of a few years the whole of the grounds, about 80 acres, will be brought into very profitable cultivation by the patients, and thus still further carry out the co-operation principle so noticeable in the Caterham Asylum. Nor is this system of co-operation merely a benefit to the health and comfort of the patients themselves; it is a great advantage - and  will shortly be more so - to the metropolitan ratepayer. So admirably does this system work, that, notwithstanding the good food, good cooking, and excellent clothing bestowed on the inmates, the cost of each adult is not more at the present time than 1s-1d a day; being less, in point of fact, than the cost of a pauper child in the Union schools at Sydenham or Hanwell.

Two other subjects remain to be noticed - the care and management of the adult idiots.

In one of the courts in the centre of the building stands a large, handsome, well-fitted chapel, in admirable order. Here prayers are said morning and evening by the chaplain, and service is performed twice on Sundays. No patients are requested to attend, it being left entirely to their own inclination. Possibly the reader may be of the opinion that a subject so serious ought not to be left to the unguided discretion of the idiot patient. But even, if without compulsion the idiots were advised to attend service, it would be difficult, to obtain better or better conducted congregations than are to be seen every Sabbath-day in the chapel of the Asylum.

Even of those occupied in labour no fewer than 300 attend, daily, morning and evening prayers. On Sundays the chapel is filled to overflowing, the whole 600 seats being occupied, and many others would willingly attend were there room. And be it understood that the idiots do not go to chapel with the purpose of obtaining the favourable notice of either the chaplain, physician, or superintendents, but solely from their own love of religion. True, it is possible that they would be unable to explain many of the prayers offered up, and that some do not clearly understand even one; yet there is a certain quiet, speechless worship among them, exceedingly curious as well as interesting to witness. One portion of the service is performed by the idiots in such a manner as might serve as an admirable example to many of the congregations in our fashionable London churches. The singing is excellent; and, although the hymns are of a very simple description, the singers keep in good time, and well together.

It is a singular fact that, while all taste for other branches of the fine arts seems to be unknown or uncared for by these idiots, their ear for music is as acute as that of any portion of the population. Nothing pleases them more than to hear a song well sung.

It must not be imagined, however, that serious employments alone are found for the idiots and lunatics in the Caterham Asylum. There are, on the contrary, few communities of the poor who have so much amusement provided for them. In one of the wards I noticed a stage, with the proscenium of a theatre, the curtain down. I inquired whether they had any theatrical performance, and who were the performers.

"We have them occasionally" said Dr Adam. "but not very frequently. The performers, however, are not the patients, but artists engaged for the occasion."

Entertainments such as those given by Mr and Mrs German Reed at the Gallery of Illustration, in Regent Street, are much enjoyed by the idiots; and any portion of the performance which particularly claims their attention is rewarded by loud and uproarious applause. There seems something almost electrical in this lavish applause. Unfortunately, from the plan of the ward, fully one-third of the audience are unable to see or hear, yet this by no means detracts from their enthusiasm. Those who are the worst placed are as well pleased as their more fortunate companions. How little the real merits of the performance are understood and appreciated by the audience may be judged from the fact that the delight they exhibited at the feats of a number of learned dogs and monkeys far exceeded that shown at the more intellectual pastimes provided for the.

Another of their great treats is the weekly ball which takes place on Wednesday evening. Some few of the patients are musicians, but the principal performers are the officials. In all the different wards I passed I noticed books (the Bible invariably) picture books in considerable variety; and newspapers, not always of the latest date, or apparently much cared for unless illustrated. In fact, it would be difficult to suggest anything left undone to promote the happiness of the patients, that is consistent with the rights of the rate-payers by whom they are maintained.

My last visit was to the children's ward. Possibly this department was the most painful of all to witness. It was indeed lamentable to see so many poor children (fully sixty in number) condemned to pass their life within the walls of an asylum. And in the majority of instances this was from no fault of their own, nor from unavoidable misfortune attending their birth, but from the drunkenness of their parents. I inquired of r Adam whether he considered that the immense buildings at Caterham as well as Leavesden were not in excess of the exigencies of the metropolis, especially when so many other asylums, both public and private, were in existence. He replied that this was not the case; and that vast as were the asylums of  Hanwell, Colney Hatch, Leavesden, Caterham, Bethlehem, St Luke's and others, for the reception of the imbecile and insane, they were still too small for the numbers of applicants waiting for admission. At Caterham they were full to overflowing, and he understood that all the other asylums were in the same condition. I have since learned that so great is the number of patients in excess of the provision made - vastly as this has been increased of late years- that the ratepayers of Middlesex will soon be called upon to spend 200,000 for an additional asylum, capable of holding 1,000 persons; and that, should insanity and idiocy increase in the proportion it has been doing for some years past, the new building will hardly be finished before the attention of the magistrates will be called to provide still further house accommodation for the idiots and the insane of the metropolis. Such being the fact, might not the magistrates, while entertaining the question of building fresh asylums for the reception of the victims of drunkenness, do well to take some steps to diminish the number of public-houses ?

But to return to the children. Their condition was possibly more to be deplored than that of the adults, because no healthy occupation could be found for them. As it was a cold day on the occasion of my visit, they were all in the wards; and though playthings and picture-books in abundance had been found for them, they had a listless appearance which was exceedingly depressing. I inquired whether they were generally tractable, and received the same answer as I did when I put a similar question respecting the adults; - When first they come to the asylum they are generally fractious and irritable, but by quiet and kindly treatment their tempers rapidly improve.

In these wards I met with two cases of that fortunately rare malformation of the skull known as microcephalis - human beings born with so slight a portion of brain, that they have scarcely more perceptible brow than is to be found in the superior species of the canine race. Of the two children so afflicted in the Caterham Asylum, one was a boy between 4 and 5 years old, the other a girl about 9, both children of the same mother. As the latter was asleep at the time of my visit, I did not disturb her; but the boy, when he saw me, appeared somewhat alarmed, and gazed in a terrified manner around him till he saw the head attendant of the ward, who, noticing the poor little fellow's frightened loo k, advanced towards him. As the warder took up the child, the latter placed one of his arms round the man's neck, and the frightened expression vanished, one of perfect security taking its place. He looked at me now without the slightest fear, and even smiled.

With the best willingness to detect any objectionable feature in the Caterham Asylum and its management, I could find but one- its distance from London. Many friends of the patients, all of whom were poor, might on this account be deterred from visiting them as often as they would otherwise do. This objection was readily admitted by Mr White, the superintendent; but at the same time he told me that it had been greatly modified by the charity and kind feeling of the Board of Directors of the South-Eastern Railway Company. When brought under their notice that the railway fare deprived many of the poor patients of their greatest treat - a visit from their friends - the Directors, with a liberality worthy of all praise, made a reduction of forty per cent in the third class tickets to all persons visiting their relatives in the Asylum. The result is that the number of visitors has increased threefold since the reduction was made.

And now, with thanks to Dr Cortis, the Chairman of the Caterham Committee, to Dr Adam, to Mr White, and to all the officials, and last, not least, to the Directors of the South-Eastern Railway Company for their liberality and humanity, I take my leave of the idiot colony at Caterham.

Source: From - Good Words  1872 Vol 13 pp 271-277  
Submitted by Alan Longbottom

The Idiot Colony at Caterham.
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