The best books on the history of English mental health

Mark Stevens Author Of Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum
By Mark Stevens

Who am I?

I’m an archivist, really, masquerading as a writer. For my day job, I am in charge of archives from across England’s Royal County of Berkshire, spanning from the twelfth century to the present day. I have care of collections from Reading Gaol – of Oscar Wilde fame, the conservators of the River Thames, and also Broadmoor Hospital. The latter was built in 1863 as the first criminal lunatic asylum for England and Wales. It’s a place where true crime and social history interact. My book tries to paint a picture of individuals who did dreadful things but also had a life beyond their mental illness.

I wrote...

Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum

By Mark Stevens,

Book cover of Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum

What is my book about?

On May 27th, 1863, three coaches pulled up at the gates of a new asylum, built amongst the tall, dense pines of Windsor Forest. Broadmoor's first patients had arrived. In Broadmoor Revealed, Mark Stevens writes about 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 numerous escapes, actual and attempted, as the first doctors tried to assert control over the residents.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Surgeon of Crowthorne : A Tale of Murder, Madness and Love of Words

Why did I love this book?

This is another Victorian Broadmoor book and also one that lives well beyond the walls. William Chester Minor, a wealthy and educated New Englander, was a Broadmoor patient who dedicated his hospital life to assisting with the first Oxford English Dictionary. Simon Winchester weaves together Minor’s story with that of James Murray: two eccentric obsessives who bond over common labour. The book puts the idea of criminal lunacy into a wider perspective and also succeeds in making a potentially dry, academic topic into a page-turning read.

By Simon Winchester,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Surgeon of Crowthorne as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An extraordinary tale of madness, genius and obsession, discover the true story of the two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary - and literary history!

The compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand of those words.

But when the committee insisted on honouring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, a millionaire and American Civil…

Book cover of The Wicked Boy: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London

Why did I love this book?

Although Kate Summerscale is best known for The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, this is a book to read for those interested in mental illness and crime. The boy of the title is indeed a child – one who killed his mother and entered the asylum at the age of eighteen. The influence of Victorian social media – the penny dreadfuls and sensational journalism – feels relevant as today’s youth are lambasted for similar fascinations. The story ends far from Broadmoor and provides hope of recovery from even the most desperate and tragic situations.

By Kate Summerscale,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Wicked Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book!

From the internationally bestselling author, a deeply researched and atmospheric murder mystery of late Victorian-era London

In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London -- for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the…

Book cover of Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England

Why did I love this book?

I like to write about public Victorian asylums – where the bulk of English people with mental illnesses were admitted.  But the counterpoint is the private system, where the poor, rich mad spent their time in nice surroundings with wacky treatments. Sarah Wise captures this perfectly through a real-life investigation of the people in the attic – think Jane Eyre, or The Woman in White – and how the law sought to protect them.

By Sarah Wise, Sarah Wise,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inconvenient People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A must-read for those who work in the mental health industry, I think most people will find it both eye-opening and provocative.” ―The Guardian

The phenomenon of false allegations of mental illness is as old as our first interactions as human beings. But it took the confluence of the law and medical science, mad-doctors, alienists, priests and barristers, to raise the matter to a level of “science,” capable of being used by conniving relatives, “designing families” and scheming neighbors to destroy people who found themselves in the way, people whose removal could provide their survivors with money or property or…


By Catharine Arnold,

Book cover of Bedlam

Why did I love this book?

Long before the Victorian asylums, there was Bethlem – London’s ancient hospital for lunatics. Like Broadmoor, Bethlem also looked after high-profile criminals, but within a private and charitable institution that was mostly for the capital’s waifs and strays. Bedlam gives you a sense of how mental health developed as a concept from the medieval period to the present day.

By Catharine Arnold,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bedlam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Bedlam!' The very name conjures up graphic images of naked patients chained among filthy straw, or parading untended wards deluded that they are Napoleon or Jesus Christ. We owe this image of madness to William Hogarth, who, in plate eight of his 1735 Rake's Progress series, depicts the anti-hero in Bedlam, the latest addition to a freak show providing entertainment for Londoners between trips to the Tower Zoo, puppet shows and public executions.

That this is still the most powerful image of Bedlam, over two centuries later, says much about our attitude to mental illness, although the Bedlam of the…

Book cover of Closing The Asylum: The Mental Patient in Modern Society

Why did I love this book?

In England, the Victorian asylums were built as beacons of hope, infused with optimism. But by the late 20th century virtually all of them had gone, unloved and unmourned. So what happened? Peter Barham takes you through the rise and fall of England’s national mental health service.

By Peter Barham,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Closing The Asylum as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Though they had mostly all been closed by the turn of the century, the passing of the old Victorian asylums is still a matter of enduring controversy. First published almost thirty years ago, in this acclaimed book Peter Barham draws on examples from history, the contemporary mental health scene, and his own extensive research, to examine the changing fortunes of mental patients in the era of the asylum and beyond. Barham argues that an obsession with severe and enduring mental health problems should be a matter of urgent social obligation and concern. In a prologue to this new edition, he…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mental disorders, psychiatric hospitals, and murder?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about mental disorders, psychiatric hospitals, and murder.

Mental Disorders Explore 146 books about mental disorders
Psychiatric Hospitals Explore 36 books about psychiatric hospitals
Murder Explore 828 books about murder