Archives of Lost Voices: Patient Publications in Hospitals

[This story was published on December 12 on The Still Point blog. Read the original story at thestillpointjournal.com/2016/12/12/archives-of-lost-voices.]

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where this PhD project began, but it certainly grew out my involvement with the Graylingwell Heritage Project. This was a Heritage Lottery Funded community, heritage and arts programme which charted the history of Chichester’s Graylingwell Hospital. I worked as an administrator, voluntary researcher and oral history interviewer for the project while studying English and Fine Art at undergraduate level. I’ve had a life-long love for the historical, particularly the nineteenth century, and I found Graylingwell Hospital’s heritage absolutely fascinating. I didn’t anticipate the huge impact that this project would have on my work (and life), but now, as a PhD student, I can fully appreciate how it has shaped my career.

Built in 1896 as a mental health facility, the hospital was formerly known as the West Sussex County Asylum, and has had a significant impact upon Chichester’s local community as a place of employment throughout the last century. As a medical institution, Graylingwell Hospital has played an important role in the history of mental health treatment in the UK and the development of psychiatry in the 20th century. It is also noted for the important role it played in national history as a war hospital during the First World War, providing care for injured servicemen from 1915 to 1919. The hospital closed in 2001.

The Wishing Well, the magazine produced by the patients of Graylingwell Hospital, various dates.
The Wishing Well, the magazine produced by the patients of Graylingwell Hospital, various dates.

A student of art, English and history, I naturally became very interested in The Wishing Well, which was a magazine printed and distributed by Graylingwell’s Occupational Therapy department between 1946 until at least 1960. These magazines, which are currently held at the West Sussex Record Office, were a creative showcase for the patients of Graylingwell, and include prose, poetry, and written reports on every facet of Hospital life. Visual art features heavily in these magazines, including paintings, woodcut prints, and cartoons.

Having been completely unaware that these types of patient-produced publications even existed, I undertook some research (by which I mean poked about on Google) and was surprised to see that there was little to no scholarship on magazines or journals produced by mental health patients in hospitals. In fact, I couldn’t even find any sort of list or archive outlining the different patient publications that have been produced throughout history.

As I’ve been individually hunting for these publications, a world of patient creativity has opened up – and although I originally thought the earliest magazines dated to around 1900, I’ve been surprised at exactly how far back some of them date. 170 years ago, in fact, a mental health patient created a periodical about his life at Connecticut’s Hartford Retreat. Since then, teams of service users at hospitals across the world have worked with members of staff to create magazines, journals and pamphlets about patient life within sanatoria or ‘asylums’.

I’ve been referring to these creative outputs as ‘patient publications’, by which I mean pamphlets, magazines, journals, leaflets and any sort of creative material which was made by those who lived or were treated at mental health hospitals, institutions or asylums during this period.

Under the Dome, the in-house produced journal of Bethlam hospital, date unknown
Under the Dome, the in-house produced journal of Bethlam hospital, date unknown

I’ve found that the concept of a patient-produced publication has an elusive but interesting history – prior to the dawn of the National Health Service, any such publications would require approval from the medical superintendent as well as the visiting committee. The visiting committee’s role would include restricting any undesirable material which may have brought the hospital into disrepute, and possibly censoring candid accounts or other visual expressions. Alongside other in-house low-key periodicals, sometimes overseen by chaplains, there are other examples of patient artwork and writing available in local archives.

These publications contain valuable creative voices which deserve to be heard, and I determined to explore how these unique publications gave service users a platform and encouraged creativity. I formed a project proposal around piecing together a history of these types of publications, exploring how the existence of these works challenges conventional notions about mental health care treatment in asylums or mental health hospitals. I was extremely fortunate to be funded for my doctoral research by AHRC/CHASE, and I’m currently undertaking this project with the School of English at the University of Sussex.

The Hydra, the magazine produced by the patients of Craiglockhart War Hospital, dated July 1918
The Hydra, the magazine produced by the patients of Craiglockhart War Hospital, dated July 1918

So here is my plea – do you have a story about patient creativity you’d like to share?

Whether you’re a historian, a Victorianist, a creative type, an ex- or current service user, mental health staff, an occupational therapist and even just interested in history and mental health – I’d like to hear from you.

The different forms of media production produced in asylum environments have included painting, printing, textiles artwork such as knitting, and all forms of written work, including poetry. I’m hunting for examples of patient publications or any other form of patient creativity, as well as photographs, other material objects, and the memories, knowledge or stories of anyone who may have worked with or on these projects.

Of course, I have an endless list of questions I want to answer. Do these periodicals demonstrate a prioritising of creative expression in mental health care? And if so, does this progressive attitude echo other evolving concepts in medicine and social awareness of psychological illness?

I’m aiming to map out the origins of this creative drive for mental health care patients in the latter nineteenth century. I will also explore how this altered and evolved upon the introduction of changes in printing and censorship in the early twentieth century. What I’m planning to do is use the archival evidence I am collecting to explore how the ideology driving this encouragement of creative expression impacts upon our contemporary understanding of treatments in nineteenth century asylums.

But more importantly than these academic goals, I feel that there are lots of lost histories to uncover and stories that deserve to be told. These creative voices are important and should not be forgotten.

Please contact me if you would like to share your memories, experiences or knowledge of these lost publications, and help to celebrate their important place in creative history. You can contact me at ejturner2412[@]gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @emilyjessturner.


Emily Turner is a second year doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, where she is studying the medical humanities with a specific focus on locating archives of patient publications produced in mental health institutions between 1850 and 1950. She also works as a reporter and blogger. You can find out more by following her @emilyjessturner, or read more of her journalism and academic writing at https://emilyjessicaturner.wordpress.com.

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