Dorset County Lunatic Asylum, Herrison Hospital

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Morning Post - Friday 04 January 1867(transcribed from image, British Library, British Newspaper Archives by Helen Ford


(From the Sherborne Journal.)
Monday evening last found me on the back of a very skittish pony, travelling upon a road over which the frozen hail made locomotion unpleasant if not dangerous, on my way to Charminster. I will not trouble the reader with a digression upon either the scenery that I passed or the persons I met (as some writers consider it their bounden duty to do). Suffice it then to say that at the end of about a three and a half miles ride I found myself seeking admittance at the door of the Dorset County Lunatic Asylum. Under ordinary aspects a lunatic asylum can scarcely he called a pleasant feature in a landscape, and that it should be can hardly be expected, for bolts and bars have peculiarly disagreeable connections in the minds of those who inhabit " tbe land of the free " but, upon the evening in question, it was brilliantly lighted up and looked positively cheerful. Having given my horse to a very civil servant-man, I made myself known to the chief of the establishment, Dr. Symes, and explained my mission, namely— to be present at the patient's ball, the result being that I left him with a conviction as to the truth of what I had previously heard of his courtesy and gentlemanly bearing. I was then handed over to the care of a warder, who conducted me through various doors which he unlocked and locked, remarking, " You see, sir, we are obliged to keep these things fastened," until I came to the ball-room, . where, the hour of commencement not having quite arrived, I was left to my own meditations. Considering where I was, I may perhaps be excused if they partook somewhat of the nature of the stories told by old nurses to naughty children. I reflected with horror upon the fate of an individual who, like myself, once had the temerity to venture into a lunatic asylum, and whom the patients, taking unaware, persisted in making into soup, boiling him down so effectually that a few brass buttons were the only legacy a disconsolate widow had four children had' left them ; then, again, supposing that after the custom of the heroes in similar adventures I should find myself suddenly confronted with a tremendous specimen of bone and , muscle, who, brandishing a large knife, should announce to me that he had received a special mission from St. Some- one-or-other to convert me into a sacrifice, what should I, , whose height is— well, not 6 feet— do before assistance I arrived? and I thought upon my own early experiences of lunatics ; for I recollect going to school with a youth whose little eccentricities in putting pins and needles into the bedclothes of his play-fellows were looked upon as the exuberance of animal spirits, until one day he sent a slate, minus its frame, at another boy's head, and then it was I discovered that he was mad and be was taken home, to our intense relief. Happily, I have nothing of this sort to ' relate, and after a time I begun to think I had been before then in more unpleasant places than a ball-room at a lunatic asylum.

The room, a noble place, was covered with festoons, mottoes, and Chinese lanterns, the work of the patients, the mottoes being beautifully written, and the Chinese lanterns equal to those that come from the toy shop, the whole giving a most pleasing appearance, particularly appropriate to the season. The following verses, affixed to one of the walls, I have transcribed for the benefit of the reader

— " A year flies by, and on its wings have fled
Some transient moments of our earthly state.
We hail the opening year with joyous "tread,
And chase the sorrows of the past away.
The smile of Beauty and the thrill of song:
Shall wed their presence in our merry throng :
No thoughts of mourning to our hearts shall cling,
Nor words of sorrow from our lips shall fall
But songs of mirth to mighty skies we'll fling,
And wake the echoes of our festive hall.
When others slumber in the gloom of night,
With love and joy we'll put its shades to flight."
"Composed for the New Year's Eve festival at D.C. A. 67."

At seven o'clock the band made its appearance ; it was a brass band, and two of the performers were patients, one who played a cornopean, and the other, who, I suppose, was the leader, coming in occasionally with his violin ; he, poor fellow, had to be brought in on the back of another inmate, his feet being paralysed. I believe he was formerly a sailor, but. whilst in the West Indies, he either fell from I the rigging of his ship or received a blow in the back ; at all events some injury was done to his spine, and he re- turned to Weymouth, where he established a school, and, being a man of good abilities, did very well until be began to feel the effects of his accident, and it became necessary to send him where, kindly and humanely cared for, he might pass his days in peace. His chief delusion, I understood, was that he was heir to some immense estates ; beyond that he was harmless. Alas ! poor fiddler, how many there are like you, who are not confined, but run loose in the world, and who build upon their imagination in the same way, to find, to their sorrow, that all the cards : played in this game of life do not turn up trumps . Then the male patients arrived ; some staring vacantly upon the ground, others strutting in with all the swagger of " my lord," but all locking clean, happy, and contented ; now and then one or two more polite than the rest would favour me with a pleasant bow, which I returned, whilst, on the other hand, one in particular got behind an attendant's back, and did what is vulgarly known as taking a sight at me, all the time keeping his face as grave as a parson ; this, I need hardly say, I did not return. The men having been seated, the females were admitted ; the same characteristics as I have before described, as observable in the men, were stamped upon the countenances of the women ; amongst the most notable were her Majesty the ex-Queen of Spain and a duchess ; of the last, I shall speak by-and-bye. By this time a tolerable party had assembled ; I should imagine there were about 250 patients, and there were the doctor and several members of his family, and visitors, and male and female attendants; the latter not at all carrying out my ideas of warders at an asylum, as being beetle browed men or women with iron wills and arms to match, such as the sensation writers of late have rejoiced to put before their readers, but young men and women, neatly and modestly dressed, with good- tempered looking faces, laughing and joking, with the rest. The inmates assembled consisted, I was informed, of the best and worst class, the old asylum being kept for those in a state of helplessness ; not the slightest danger, I can assure you, my dear madam, or sir, as the case may be, I who, when you read this, will perhaps exclaim, " How could he?" —quiet and orderly they all were; nor did I once see, during the time I was there, the slightest manifestation of violence; indeed, the assembly would have set a good example to some where there is supposed to be more sense.

The hand having played an overture very creditably, and which was received with great applause, sides were formed and a country dance commenced ; and at this period I thought I would endeavour to learn some facts concerning those in whose company I was thus thrown. Accordingly, walking up to a quiet, respectably- dressed man, who was calmly surveying the scene, and whom I took for a warder, I wished him good evening, and remarked, that they seemed to be enjoying themselves. " Yes," he replied ; "but I should like you to see them in the morning; you must come and see them then. " He then proceeded to tell me, as a matter of great secresy,(sic) that all of them had some delusion ; " for instance," he said, " you see that man? — well, he fancies he has a thousand children," and so he went on ; when, having listened to his description for some time. I thanked him and passed on ; going up to an attendant who had seen us talking, I asked him what position the person I had been speaking to held in the asylum. "Oh," was the reply, as a scarcely perceptible smile stole over the , countenance of my informant, " he's a patient, and is suffering under an attack of brain fever."

After this mistake I thought I would be rather more careful, but I did not mend matters by shortly after asking what delusion the woman laboured under who played the drum, being told that she was an attendant.

One individual attracted my attention by the manner in which he danced, being, as the saying is, " always on the hop." I inquired concerning him, and found that his history was a sad one, containing in the few simple words in which I heard it, more food for thought and sorrow than many a three-volumed novel— a young wife, happiness for some years, and then the breath of the seducer coming over : this like a cloud, a deserted home, and the end — disgrace. for the wife ; for the husband a lunatic asylum. He came, believe, from Hereford.

I will now introduce the readers to a less melancholy subject. Upon the entry of the patients I was struck with the air of a little man, who walked in with an appearance of being thoroughly pleased with himself ; with regard to his hair it was most elaborately got up — it being parted in the middle and evidently curled with great care, whilst a moustache adorned his upper lip. Shortly after he was in the room he beckoned to the chaplain, and in return something was thrown across to him, which he eagerly caught at ; this I found was a pair of white kid gloves ; to be sure, when they were on they looked as if they could ; with comfort admit another two or three fingers in each, and ventilation was amply provided for by sundry slits and holes, but they evidently gave the wearer the greatest satisfaction, and he paraded up and down the room several times in great pomp. I accordingly went and introduced myself to him, and noticing that he wished me to see his dancing pumps by the way in which he stuck out his feet, and the glances he cast at them, I took occasion to compliment him upon his general appearance. "Ah," he said in acknowledgment, "we Blandford people can do it." I assured I him I thought they could, and left him, my attention being . engaged by another individual who most affectionately persisted in shaking my hand ; his warmth, however, resolved itself into " 'ay ' 'e got a 'apenny in your pocket?" I should have given him one, but was told that he would keep it closed in his hand so long that the attendants would be obliged to take it a way by force.

The dance being concluded, songs were sung by the attendants and patients, and then the band once more struck up, and I was introduced to a partner, and a very pleasing young woman she was. I believe she came from Cerne, but she laid claim to various estates about the country, assuring me most solemnly that she was " Duchess of Sherborne Castle.' I told her the last time I was there a gentleman named Digby was in possession. Him she declared to be an impostor. I could not tell her I hoped she would soon come into her property. I am not very good at country dances myself, but the gentlemen on my side directed me through the many figures ; and although my partner evidently looked upon me as very ignorant of polite society, she was too well bred, being a duchess, to laugh at my mistakes, although when another unfortunate couple came forcibly together in a way that certainly the "ballroom guide" does not recommend, a smile passed over her face. During the evening she sang two or three songs, and a sweeter voice I never heard ; it sounded more like a silver bell than anything else I can compare it to, and the highest notes were given with an ease and clear ness that was astonishing ; although the simile is fearfully hackneyed, I could not help think, g of poor Sterne's starling singing, "I can't get out, I can't get out!

Without spending any great amount of time with the gentleman who had lost his inside by a lightning stroke, or the lady who was encased in sharp glass bottles, which at times prevented her moving except with pain, I will, in conclusion, briefly refer to the oddest character I met with. He was a little man who believed that everything that was done was done by permission of certain beings above. "Now, you are a reporter," he said. I admitted that my honourable profession was somewhat connected with the art of reporting, although how he knew it I did not find out. " Well," he continued, "do you know that you could not do anything if my children did not allow you. I am married to Queen Victoria, and have 6,500 children ; they live a mile and a quarter in the air, in golden machines, and unless they allowed you to, you cannot write a word ; they send all the diseases there are upon men, and I am here because they order it, and can't get away 'till they let me, so it's no use wanting to ; curious, isn't it ?" I told him I thought it was, very: " but it's all true," he added. He was formerly a farmer at Stalbridge, and was, I believe, a man of some property. This concludes the best of acquaintances I formed. I rode home, glad, whilst thanking Heaven that I was free to go where I liked, to know that those unfortunate creatures whom I had left behind hail fallen under management that fully justified the high encomiums that are passed upon it at our quarter

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