Sent to the asylum: Victorian women locked up because they were suffering from stress, post natal depression and anxiety
2012-05-15 0:00

By Wendy Wallace |

These days, work stress, postnatal depression and anxiety are addressed with compassion. But just a few generations ago, the women who suffered from these conditions, were confined to an asylum.

The compelling portraits shown here, taken by Victorian photographer Henry Hering in the mid-19th century, have a haunting quality.

But apart from the women’s pensive expressions and drab clothing, there is little to indicate that the photographs had been taken in an asylum. If you took away the period gowns and hairstyles, their mournful faces might be looking out of the window of a bus or café today.

Then, however, women could find themselves labelled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions – from postnatal depression to alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity (‘moral insanity’).

Emma Riches. Diagnosis: Insanity caused by childbirth.

Eliza Josolyne. Diagnosis: Insanity caused by overwork

These photographic records exist because some influential doctors, including keen photographer Dr Hugh Diamond, believed that the then new science of photography could help to diagnose mental illness by capturing what he called the ‘exact point that had been reached in the scale of unhappiness’.

The idea that your face could be used to read your mind – and that how you looked in a photo could determine your fate – fascinated and horrified me. I was already interested in mental health. As in most families, there have been mental health issues in mine.

In the late 1960s, my gentle grandmother was plunged into a serious depression after the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack. A daring and sporty young woman, who grew up in a lively family, she found the loneliness and grief of widowhood in her 50s unbearable.

I was 11 or 12 when she became ill; the stigma around mental distress was stronger than it is now and my parents tried to protect me from it. But I noticed how Gran’s round shape changed to a drastically reduced outline and was aware of my parents’ worried conversations about her, of emergency phone calls and sudden dashes to see her in hospital, where, I later found out, she was admitted more than once after attempts on her own life.

Women could find themselves labelled insane and locked up for infidelity

Women were thought to be at particular risk of mental illness caused by supposed disorders of the reproductive system. Cases of melancholia associated with the menopause were treated with leeches to the pubis. The male doctors of the day saw ‘hysteria’ – from the Latin for womb – everywhere; almost any form of behaviour, such as excited chattering with other women, could be diagnosed as hysteria.


Read the full article at:

Novels about women in Bedlam reflect the scary truth
Fictional portrayals of women’s life in the Victorian and Edwardian asylum system are the best way of learning about the harrowing experience of being branded a "lunatic"

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