The Tuke Family and their Chiswick Asylums

by Keith Poulton

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 1 (1980)

During the 19th century there was an important change in the prevailing attitudes towards the treatment of people who were mentally ill. The Tuke family, who maintained asylums in Chiswick for nearly 100 years, played a part in the development of these more humane ideas. Rather than keep their patients under restraint by strait-waistcoats, handcuffs, hobbles and coercion chairs, the Tukes allowed their patients to move around freely, sometimes away from the asylum, and took great care to maintain their general health and comfort.

Dr Edward Tuke originally came from Ireland; in the 1830s he and his wife Mary ran an asylum at Homerton which he had to give up in 1837 through ill-health. At this point the family took the lease on the Manor Farm House, a late 17th century building in what is now Chiswick Lane. The licence to operate the asylum was held in the name of Robert Bell, Mary’s brother-in-law.

Edward Tuke died in 1844. His two sons – Thomas Harrington Tuke (born in 1826) and Edward Harrington Tuke (born in 1827) – both became doctors. In 1849 the licence of the asylum was taken by Mary Tuke, with Thomas Harrington Tuke acting as the physician to the asylum.

One of the major figures in the ‘non-restraint’ system of treating the mentally ill was Dr John Conolly who had applied his theories at the new Middlesex County Asylum at Hanwell. Thomas Harrington Tuke had studied under Conolly and married one of his daughters. Two of their sons in turn became doctors – Thomas Seymour Tuke (born in 1856) and Charles Molesworth Tuke (born in 1857). It was under the supervision of these two sons that the asylum was moved from the Manor Farm House to Chiswick House in 1893 where it stayed until 1929.

Chiswick House

From the Census of 1851 we can learn that the Tukes had 5 female nurses, 5 male servants, a cook, a housemaid and a laundress to look after 5 elderly female patients and 8 mainly elderly male patients.
These male patients were gentlemen from the professional classes; amongst them were a schoolmaster, a banker, a surgeon, a stockbroker, two merchants and a Captain and a Major from the East India Company. It was part of the Tukes’ methods to have a very large number of attendants to ensure that the patients remained under supervision while still remaining at liberty.

From the licensing records of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy we find that accommodation at the asylum was increased to take a maximum of 40 patients in 1875. At Chiswick House they were licensed to take 35 patients.

Perhaps the Tukes’ most famous patient was the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor MP who was pronounced insane after a scene in the House of Commons in 1852. But it is from the family papers of another patient, Charles Johnston, that we can learn details of the running of the asylum. These papers are deposited at the Greater London Record Office. Charles’ brother Edward was charged 10 guineas for a consultation with a Dr Jolly to certify his brother’s condition and he paid more than £300 pa for Charles’ maintenance at the asylum.

A letter from Charles to his family, written in 1863, may be unreliable but it is our one eyewitness account of the asylum. In parts it is confused, but he says:
“….. Dr. Tuke has lost his wife but there is a son and a mother who take much pains to make the people happy and thoroughly happy in their different parties …….. and there are a carriage or two to make a variety and sometimes to take them out for their health…..To give you an idea the people and servants are full of labour and as to provisions it is almost too good, having fish, soup and every good thing at breakfast, lunch and dinner ….. I am well and am not anxious to run away from this pleasant place where they make me quite at home and insist upon my remaining ‘in their society…..’.”

In the 1980s the Wellcome Library purchased 6 casebooks and a collection of letters relating to the Tukes’ Asylum at Chiswick House

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