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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Simon Winchester,

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

Why 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.

The Wicked Boy: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London

By Kate Summerscale,

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

Why 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.


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

By Sarah Wise,

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

Why 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.


Bedlam

By Catharine Arnold,

Book cover of Bedlam

Why 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.


Closing The Asylum: The Mental Patient in Modern Society

By Peter Barham,

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

Why 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mental disorders, England, and murders?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about mental disorders, England, and murders.

Mental Disorders Explore 85 books about mental disorders
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Murders Explore 292 books about murders

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times, Tombland, and Thunderstruck if you like this list.