Broadmoor Hospital archives

by John Heritage

Some of the staff at Broadmoor are trying to form a museum. Would you like to help? It was a proposal out of the blue but I jumped at it. I had lived in Crowthome since 1965 but knew nothing of our grim neighbour up the hill. The opportunity to look inside the hospital was too good to miss, quite apart from my curiosity about the history of Broadmoor.

At the first meeting, and scarcely daring to hope for permission, I asked if I might see the documents. I was taken to a large panelled room in which assorted crates of paper and books were piled to a height of about seven feet along a wall about thirty feet long and to a width of several feet. It was an untidy heap and it was immediately obvious that the books near the bottom and standing on their edges were being seriously damaged under the weight of several feet of paper above them. It was also quickly apparent that many of the documents were of national significance. The hospital had first received patients in 1863 and since that time there had been no record management system and nothing had been thrown away deliberately but neither had anything been saved deliberately. When a cupboard was filled with paper, its door was locked and another cupboard found. After more than a hundred years, there were document hoards in roof spaces, under stairs, in long forgotten cupboards and unused rooms.

Broadmoor Old Gate

Broadmoor Old Gate

Somehow during the following meeting of the Broadmoor History Society, I was given the task of listing what was in the accumulation. Our initial aim was a discussion with the Public Record Office about what should be done. That was in 1992 and by 1995 the nine tons of paper had been listed, sorted and archivally boxed on shelves. More importantly perhaps, representatives of the Public Record Office had given their blessing to our progress and plans. During their first visit, they described the documents as being ‘a national treasure’ and our own views were vindicated. I think that we were all surprised by the variety and richness of what we found; leather bound volumes, oil and water colour paintings by a nationally famous artist, early maps of the area, photographs, files and loose sheets of paper.

Broadmoor was the first custom-built criminal lunatic asylum in the world. It was originally conceived as a national establishment but it also served the empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I found that there were no precedents for an establishment having both medical and penal motives for its existence. It took many trials to find a set of headings under which to catalogue the almost random assortment of items which were found. There was a copy of a Privy Council notice authorising the building of Broadmoor and signed by Queen Victoria. There were letters from high ranking Government officers (sometimes in Australia, India or Nigeria for example), records of patients and staff giving extraordinary details of their lives, journals of Superintendents and correspondence dealing with civil defence problems for an asylum in time of war. At the other end of the scale, there was a tea-chest of stores chits; scraps of often undated papers showing perhaps a gas-mantle, a toilet roll or six dusters and authorised by incomprehensibly scribbled initials. Another crate contained failed applications for employment files. The applications included photographs, security checks with previous employers and neighbours and supporting letters of character. A gold-mine for descendants if they were indexed - but why would the hospital retain them when the application failed?

Two major tasks are presently underway: the creation of finding aids and decisions about closure periods for different classes of record. Until such processes are complete there can be no possibility of general access although this must be a long term objective for the bulk of the collection. An index of employees was an early ambition and is now essentially complete from 1862 to the mid 1920s with patchy coverage thereafter to about 1950 when responsibility for Broadmoor was transferred from the Home Office to the Ministry of Health. This index already covers salary and wage ledgers and other classes of record are gradually being added to it. If anyone knows that they have an ancestor who was employed at Broadmoor, their pay, title(s), roles, promotions,

The Terrace, Broadmoor

The Terrace, Broadmoor

misdemeanours and so forth can be easily provided. Similarly, building alterations, management structures, policies, the holders of key posts and the interactions of the Commissioners in Lunacy, Councils of Supervision, Boards of Control within Broadmoor are now easily accessible. A review of legislation impacting on Broadmoor and forensic psychiatry has been completed. The responses of the Home Office to unexpected or unusual demands during two world wars (including the presence of enemy prisoners of war and the dropping of a stick of H.E. bombs across the site) provide interesting sidelines.

The problem of access to patient information is much more complex and unresolved. Medical records seem likely to remain closed for ever except to bona fide medical researchers. Exceptionally, and subject to medical counselling, such information may be interpreted to genuine next-of-kin. As a policy, the hospital will not engage in any discussion of named patients with anybody on a routine basis. The hospital has an indefinitely long duty of care to its patients and their families, which it takes very seriously. There is a body of opinion which considers that criminal lunatic non-medical records are so sensitive that whereas lunatic or criminal records are opened after three generations this is not sufficiently long to protect the descendants of Broadmoor patients. Four generations (125 years) has been proposed informally as a minimum closure period but no formal consideration has yet taken place.

There have been one or two extraordinary exceptions where the ethical committee of the hospital has judged that it is in the interest of the patient and his or her family to release non-medical information. One of these led to the publication of the book The Surgeon of Crowthorne, where a patient made a contribution to world literature in spite of his mental illness and his isolation from the world. Another concerned an internationally famous painter whose fanciful pictures have given pleasure to thousands. Their families are able to feel proud of such relations as a result of their lives and mental illness being put into perspective. Another taboo area concerns security. Access to recent maps, plans and photographs is restricted to the extent of being inaccessible to all but a very few members of staff.

Some of the foregoing, coupled with the rather secretive image of Broadmoor held by some, ought not to discourage genuine students having a reasonable and serious interest in its historic affairs. A recent enquirer telephoned me recently. He knew his grandparents’ names but nothing more and their surnames were so common that searching for them was likely to be unsuccessful. Their family papers had been destroyed during the war and he was at a loss to find a starting point. He had a number of family folk-memories which might or might not be true but which were of no immediate help. He believed that his grandfather had begun life in Scotland; that he might have fought in the war (but which one?); that he might have worked at Broadmoor but had no idea of when. As we spoke, I looked in our staff index and because his grandfather’s given names were somewhat unusual, I found him immediately. By the end of ten minutes I had given him a date of birth, the fact that he had fought in the Crimean war, his date of entry to Broadmoor, his pay and increments, title, promotions (and one demotion), date of retirement after an assault. Better still, I was able to tell him that his grandparents must have met at Broadmoor because I found her too. She was a laundry maid and we found her date of birth and employment details. She had been obliged to leave Broadmoor when she married so he could guess at a likely date for that too. The caller was understandably almost speechless by the time that we ended the conversation and he hurried away with the intention of discovering from the 1881 census where his two grandparents had been born.

There are at least two other aspects to making enquiries to a place like Broadmoor, in addition to the enquirer’s own motives. Firstly, records become more complete if they are linked to external events and secondly our efforts to improve the safety of precious records are worthless if the records are unused. It gave me enormous satisfaction both for the hospital and for myself to unlock a door to the past for the caller. If anyone knows of an ancestor who worked at Broadmoor and would like to know more of his employment there, a letter addressed to me at the hospital will be answered to the best of our ability.

Additional information