The histories of mental illness and disability are closely linked. This is because our understanding of conditions such as epilepsy, depression, insanity, cerebral palsy, speech problems and learning disabilities was different in the past. Most early county asylums received patients presenting a wide range of these conditions as doctors and attendants tried to identify the cause of illnesses, treat symptoms and provide necessary care.

Although most of the documents we hold at the Surrey History Centre were created by the people charged with caring for patients and not written by the patients themselves, these fascinating records still allow us to trace the ways in which care was provided from the early eighteenth century until almost the present day.

Holloway Sanitorium, Egham
Surrey History Centre ref. 3473/3/1/p142

Just as the documents show how treatment has changed over the centuries, they also contain the words used at the time to describe different conditions. The word ‘Asylum’ was understood to mean a place of care and refuge, although it was later replaced by hospital, sanitorium or institution. Many of the terms used in the documents are now termed as offensive and can be hard for some people to read. Diagnoses and descriptions of illness have changed quite radically over the years and so it is important to remember that, by using terms such as ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’ or ‘defective’ and labelling conditions as ‘mania’ or ‘melancholy’, the doctors were not being deliberately offensive. These were the ‘politically correct terms’ of their day, laid down by the 1844 Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy.

Please use the links below to find out more:

Disability history in Surrey

Mental Health history in Surrey

Surrey Heritage working with disability and mental health groups in Surrey

Leave a Comment

Comments posted using the form below will be published on the website. It is therefore recommended that you do not include any personal details or contact information in the comment.

If you have a question and want to provide personal details we recommend you use the 'Contact Us' form instead.

Your email address will not be published but it may be used to contact you with a reply to your comment. Required fields are marked *