The Tukes’ Asylum in Chiswick

by Pamela Bater, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 14 (2005)

For over 90 years there was a private asylum in Chiswick for the mentally ill. Between 1837 and 1892 it was at the Manor House in Chiswick Lane and then, from 1892 to 1928, at Chiswick House. It was run by the Tuke family and noted for its humane treatment of patients, some of whom were well-known names at the time.

Chiswick House when it was the Asylum. Note:the two wings were demolished in the 1950s

Chiswick House when it was the Asylum. The two wings were demolished in the 1950s

The care of the mentally ill was quite heavily regulated in the 19th century. Most people had no choice but to consign mentally ill relatives to one of the big county asylums. People with money, though, did have a choice. A relative could be cared for on a one-to-one basis or in one of the old charity or registered hospitals. Or they could be cared for in a profit-making, private ‘licensed house’ i e, a private asylum. Here, patients were treated as individuals with a large number of staff to look after them; they sometimes even brought their own staff. Entertainments were laid on and patients were taken on outings. All asylums were inspected annually by the Commissioners in Lunacy (replaced in 1913 by the Board of Control). The Tukes’ Chiswick asylum was no doubt similar to the asylum at Ticehurst, Kent where the Lunacy Inspectors commended ‘the great comfort which prevailed in every part of the establishment… the fact that this is a private asylum, is as far as possible, veiled by the comfort and elegance of the house and furniture.’

Thomas Harrington Tuke, 1826-1888 (courtesy of David Tuke)

Thomas Harrington Tuke, 1826-1888 (courtesy of David Tuke)

Manor House Asylum
The Manor House was a large mansion which stood in Chiswick Lane where Wilton Avenue and adjoining roads are today. It was built in the late 17th or early 18th century and was known as Manor Farm House until the 19th century.

The proprietor of the Manor House Asylum was Robert Bell, who was not a doctor, but worked with his brother-in-law Edward Francis Tuke MD, of Dublin as physician. At some point Edward Tuke got into debt and had to flee the country and in 1849 his son, Dr Thomas Harrington Tuke, at the age of 23, became the licensee of the asylum along with his mother.

Dr Harrington Tuke, who gained his medical qualifications at St Andrews, also had consulting rooms in Albemarle Street, W1. He wrote several professional papers on various aspects of insanity, gave evidence to at least two parliamentary enquiries and appears to have been consulted in a number of high-profile cases, including that of Arthur O’Connor, the man who made an attempt on Queen Victoria’s life in 1872.

Two of Dr Harrington Tuke’s sons also became doctors: Dr Thomas Seymour Tuke (1856-1917) and Dr Charles Molesworth Tuke (1857-1925), both of whom trained at St George’s Hospital. They assisted their father at the Manor House until his death in 1888 and ran the asylum almost until it closed.

The 1881 Census shows that the Manor House Asylum contained 36 patients and 39 servants, as well as Thomas Harrington Tuke, his wife and five of his children. In 1877 fees averaged £280 per year. The patients appear to have had a good deal of freedom to arrange their days and were entertained in the evenings. A surviving document shows that in the month of November 1890 there were three smoking concerts, one evening concert, two conversaziones and one general entertainment, all lasting from 8.30pm to 10pm.

Two famous inmates of the Manor House Asylum were the Chartist Leader, Feargus O’Connor, declared insane in 1852, and committed to the Manor House where he died in 1855, and the artist Edwin Landseer who was suffering psychiatric problems compounded by alcohol. He was certified in 1872, and died there the following year. The Tuke family own sketches penned by Landseer on Dr Tuke’s note-cards using left and right hands simultaneously.

The family have also seen correspondence relating to Charles Dickens. Dickens is said to have approached Dr Harrington Tuke to investigate the possibility of having his wife committed to Manor House Asylum. Dr Tuke refused on the grounds that there was no evidence that Catherine Dickens was mentally ill. This correspondence is now lost so it is not possible to verify the story but, given Dickens’ known treatment of his wife, it is entirely credible.

In 1892 plans were afoot to widen Chiswick Lane which involved demolishing the Manor House and so Dr Thomas Seymour Tuke and Dr Charles Molesworth Tuke moved the asylum to Chiswick House. The move must have been a big upheaval for the patients. They seem to have been moved in over a period of months rather than all at once. The patients’ case notes have an entry for Mr A for 6 December 1892, ‘He is to be transferred on the 8th but it is considered inadvisable to inform him.’ And on 9 December: ‘Transferred today. Went very quietly’. There is a sigh of relief on the notes of another patient: ‘has been moved to Chiswick House…has not broken any windows.’

Chiswick House Asylum
The terms under which the Tukes rented Chiswick House from the Duke of Devonshire were complex as the estate was divided into three areas, each of which was the subject of a separate lease. At the same time as these leases were negotiated Charles Molesworth Tuke took out a separate lease on a plot of land at the Duke’s Avenue entrance to the grounds on which he built the Gate House as his family home.

Thomas Seymour Tuke 1856-1917 (Courtesy of David Tuke)

Thomas Seymour Tuke 1856-1917                 (Courtesy of David Tuke)

Chiswick House in 1892 still retained its two 1788 wings. It is thought that Dr Thomas Seymour Tuke lived in the west wing and that the east wing contained a surgery, consulting room, a nurses’ mess, various pantries and perhaps some accommodation for staff and patients. The house’s original stable block, known as the Grosvenor Wing, contained between 40 and 50 rooms, presumably for patients. Another stable block housed other patients, perhaps those who posed a danger to themselves or others since it was called the ‘Acute Wing’. The Italian villa itself was preserved intact and used for Tuke family functions such as weddings, balls and fetes, and for charitable events.

The only clues we have as to how the rooms were furnished come from the catalogue for the sale of the house contents in April 1929. Two of the bedrooms are described as having floor coverings of linoleum, iron and brass bedsteads with sprung mattresses, a chest of drawers, a glass, a commode, armchair, toilet basin and ewer. One sitting room possessed a pile carpet and rug, orange curtains, three easy chairs, two more chairs, two walnut tables, a music rack and a piano.

The Annual Reports of the Commissioners in Lunacy and the Board of Control paint a picture of a well-run establishment. In 1896 they state that ‘the rooms are warm and comfortable’, and in 1905: ‘we can report in generally favourable terms on the personal condition and dress of the patients’ and ‘the house continues to be maintained in very good order’. In 1928, when the inspectors visited on a dull and chilly November day, they commented that ‘the open fires burning in so many rooms are very welcome.’ The reports mention frequently how extensively the gardens were used by patients – during the 1898 inspection ‘the majority of patients were in the grounds’. The reports give the number of patients (around 30 every year) and make clear that there were no vacancies.

Charles Molesworth Tuke, 1857-1925 with his youngest brother and sister (Courtesy of David Tuke)

Charles Molesworth Tuke, 1857-1925 with his youngest brother and sister (Courtesy of David Tuke)

The people living at Chiswick House enumerated in the 1901 census were Dr Thomas Seymour Tuke, his wife, daughter, two relatives and three servants, plus 34 patients, evenly split between men and women, and 48 staff. The staff consisted of 11 attendants (male), one pantry boy, 12 nurses (female), one lady companion, two matrons, one parlour maid, seven house maids, one hall maid, one cook, two kitchen maids, two scullery maids, five gardeners and two coachmen. Other staff lived in the grounds – the head gardener and his family in The Lodge, an attendant, cook and boarder in Kent Cottage and a female nurse and boarder in Paxton House.

A third Tuke brother was involved with the asylum in Chiswick House; Frederick William Tuke acted as secretary and accountant. He lived off the premises in Chiswick Mall and married Mabel Sich of the family that ran the Lamb Brewery in Church Street.

When Thomas Seymour Tuke died in 1917 his obituarist wrote: ‘His personal tact with patients led to them looking upon him as a trusted friend even more than a doctor’. Charles Molesworth Tuke lived until 1925. Like his father and his brother he appears to have been both respected and loved. His obituary reads: ‘The phrase “Tuke of Chiswick” is known and respected far beyond the bounds of psychological and general medicine. He made for himself a name that will be lasting and that stands for all that is best and most human in the treatment of insanity. He worked to make the atmosphere of Chiswick House that of a private country house, and to disassociate it from all appearances of an institution’.

Charles Molesworth Tuke’s death appears to have precipitated the closure of the asylum, along with the Duke of Devonshire’s desire to sell the land. The asylum, by then licensed to a Dr D I O Macaulay and a Dr W J Coyne, closed in 1928. The patients (or most of them) were transferred to two houses in Pinner under the care of Dr Macaulay and Dr Coyne.

The patients
The case notes for the asylum (housed in the Wellcome Library) tell us something about the patients themselves. They were from the upper and middle echelons of society, with a sprinkling of titles – Lady A, The Honourable Colonel B, Sir C etc (where records are less than a hundred years old it is not permitted to print names in full). One patient whose name can be given because he figures in a report in The Times is Maximilien Emilus Henry de Cetto. He was the ‘son of the late Baron de Cetto, formerly Bavarian Minister at the English Court’. He died at Chiswick House in 1910 leaving an estate worth around £12,000.

The case notes do not generally give a diagnosis of what the patient was suffering from, but they do offer long descriptions of symptoms and behaviour. Lady C, for instance, was difficult to deal with because she insisted on ‘her rights as being the Messiah’. Another patient thought he was the Emperor of Germany. Some patients were suffering from conditions such as epilepsy which are now treatable with drugs. Others were depressed or had suffered a breakdown. One or two might have been alcoholics as there is a mention of ‘overuse of stimulants’. Treatment was largely based on listening and talking to patients rather than using drugs, although chloral was used as a sedative.

Patients were encouraged to exercise in the grounds. A child who was allowed to play in the grounds in the 1920s recollects ‘the occasional resident, walking arm in arm with a nurse – uniformed and with a long white veil.’ More alarmingly, there is a reference in the case notes to Sir G who ‘is fond of cutting down trees’. The Tukes, who were keen cricketers themselves, constructed a cricket pitch near the Staveley Road entrance to Chiswick House and patients were encouraged to play against teams from outside. There were tennis courts, and there may also have been a golf course.

Patients were allowed out individually with an attendant and documents show they attended matinees, went sculling on the river, visited Richmond Park and the White City Exhibition. In 1924 the inspectors report that ‘fourteen of the ladies and eleven of the gentlemen engage or amuse themselves in light fancy work or in reading, writing, painting, or with music… or in indoor games such as billiards, cards etc.’ Church services were held at Chiswick House conducted by the Vicar or the Curate and leave of absence to visit relatives for a few weeks was encouraged. Despite the doctors’ best efforts it was difficult to fill the patients’ time. Dr Harrington Tuke is on record as saying ‘it is like a country house on a wet day; there is no occupying them.’ We don’t know anything about the meals provided but Mr C is recorded as much enjoying his allowance of wine, so one assumes that the food was also of a reasonable standard.

What strikes one forcibly when reading the case notes is the concern and compassion shown by the doctors. The Tukes were devoted to their patients. In evidence to a parliamentary enquiry in 1877 Dr Harrington Tuke stated that ‘I have not left my dwelling for anything except professional business for eight years… it is one of the most difficult professional duties that a man can undertake and requires his whole time and his whole attention to do it at all.’

If you had the misfortune to be mentally ill during the 19th and early 20th centuries then Chiswick House would have been an enlightened and humane refuge.

The many sources consulted include the Annual Reports for the Commissioners in Lunacy 1892-1913; Annual Reports of the Board of Control 1914-1928; Case Books of the Manor House Asylum and Chiswick House Asylum 1884-1925; Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Lunacy Law 1877; British Medical Journal and The Lancet. The author is particularly indebted to David Tuke, grandson of Frederick William Tuke, for his family recollections of the Chiswick House Asylum, and to Carolyn Hammond for researching documents relating to the Tuke tenancy of Chiswick House in the Chatsworth Archive Office.

Pamela Bater is a retired librarian who has lived in Chiswick for 25 years. She became interested in the history of Chiswick House after becoming a volunteer gardener there.

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