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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Simon Winchester

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.


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The Wicked Boy: An Infamous Murder in Victorian London

By Kate Summerscale

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.


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

By Sarah Wise

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.


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Bedlam

By Catharine Arnold

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.


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Closing The Asylum: The Mental Patient in Modern Society

By Peter Barham

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.


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