The place of sewing in Bristol Lunatic Asylum

Anwyl Cooper-Willis

So far, I have undertaken some preliminary research into the place of sewing within the nineteenth century Bristol Lunatic Asylum. It was opened in 1861, to provide Moral Treatment; an ordered life would aid the recovery of a disordered brain. As well as a plentiful and good diet the hospital provided rest, safety and occupation, in the form of useful occupation which was an important part of the treatment. The curative properties of work had been praised by Samuel Tuke, founder of the York Retreat (1796) and one of the earliest mental health reformers.

The Bristol Asylum was largely self supporting in vegetables, potatoes, pork, clothing and shoes, all from patient’s work. In 1861 50% of women were working, a majority at sewing including dressmaking, hospital uniforms for patients, and mending as well as some ‘fancy sewing’. Reading patient’s medical reports it is clear that ‘Working well at her sewing’ is an indication of improvement. There are also accounts of disruptions by a patient in a room with others who are just getting on.

The hospital’s annual reports contain a lot of information on numbers of women employed at sewing, the value put on their labour, cloth purchases by the hospital for sheets covers and clothing and so on.

My plan is to continue this research into individual patients and the context of the hospital once the Bristol Archives reopens.

I am very excited about this project and the original research it involves. I spent a year as an artist-in-residence at the museum and made some work re-presenting statistics on patient admissions and outcomes. I am keen to further my investigations of how quantitative data can be re-expressed via an art practice.



Agnes Richter’s jacket

Agnes’s jacket, c1895, Prinzhorn Collection, Heidelberg

Some years ago I chanced across Gail Hornstein’s ‘Agnes’s Jacket: A psychologist’s search for the meaning of madness’. It was a fascinating read and led me on a journey to discover more about the ‘lunatic asylums’ of the C19th – their ethos, culture and management – and the people (women in particular) who lived there. Agnes Richter was a patient, first admitted in 1893 to Dresden City Lunatic Asylum, aged 51, and in 1895 she was transferred to Hubertusburg in Saxony, where she lived until her death in 1918. She made her jacket from ‘institutional’ linen and embroidered it in around 1895.

Agnes’s jacket has survived because Hans Prinzhorn ‘collected’ it just after WW1,  having been asked by Heidelberg Hospital’s lead psychiatrist, Karl Wilmanns, to expand their existing teaching collection and to analyse the exhibits as part of a scientific research study. The label attached to the jacket by its sender suggests that Agnes had also embroidered her other clothes. Certainly, she had worked in Dresden as a seamstress and when admitted to Hubertusburg, her possessions were listed as:

1 coat

4 dresses (1 silk)

3 woollen skirts (hand woven)

2 jackets

7 shirts

5 handkerchiefs

14 pairs stockings

1 pair garters

2 pairs gloves

2 corsets

1 tablecloth, clockcase and chain, set of teeth(!) 1 pair spectacles.

Prinzhorn, however, was not impressed: his 1922 book on the artworks in his collection doesn’t mention the jacket and largely ignores the work of other women patients.

I am utterly intrigued by the idea of this jacket, stitched inside and out with what appears to be repetitive autobiographical text. It has never been completely deciphered because Agnes used an old dialect and Gothic script. Text from one side of the fabric impinges on that that on the other making it difficult to tell which wording belongs to which side; and threads on the inner surface have rubbed away through wear.

Some phrases have been identified though:

‘my white stockings’ ‘no cherries’ ‘brother freedom’ ‘my money’ ‘no-one in Hubertusburg’ ‘I plunge headlong into disaster’; plus Agnes’s laundry number.

Agnes’s patient casenotes also still exist. These show that when she was admitted to Dresden, Agnes was agitated and appeared to be paranoid. She told doctors on a number of occasions that her money had been stolen; and that she wanted legal action taken against the people who had ‘put her in the asylum’. Her admission notes to Hubertusburg assign a diagnosis of paranoia with auditory hallucination. She believed that she had ‘ended up in the asylum’ through ‘conspiracy of the worst kind, lies and deception.’ So it would be easy at the same time to dismiss Agnes’s claims of unfair incarceration but to empathise with her rage and confusion. But she might also have been correct in her allegations. In an article about the Prinzhorn Collection Thomas Roeske, its chief curator, acknowledges: ‘In the mid-nineteenth century, there was less tolerance of deviation from assumed norms and much greater stigmatisation.’ He goes on to describe how differently men and women were treated, suggesting that men were admitted to asylums if they couldn’t cope in the outside world. That is, if they couldn’t manage their expected role in society or abused their position. Whilst women might be admitted if they simply behaved outside of society norms/ expectations by failing to conform to rules, stay quiet and display orderly, obedient attitudes.

This context, and the neuroscience experiments that we will carry out as part of our project, might help us to begin to understand Agnes’s purpose in making and wearing her jacket, and I want to explore these ideas further.