A Visit to Haslar Hospital

Extract from the American Illustrated Magazine of Art – 1854.
A Visit to Haslar Hospital, near Portsmouth England.
Edited by Eric C Birbeck MVO to included additional material covering the Haslar Museum and memories of the Asylum as recorded by John Richardson son of Sir John Richardson at Haslar 1838-1855 as Inspector of Hospitals and Fleets
Readers note: This article is transcribed as written in 1854.

We paid a visit not long since to Haslar Hospital. This fine building, which is situated upon the Gosport side of Portsmouth Harbour, near Blockhouse Fort, was first projected in 1742, and was sixteen years in the completing. It is devoted to the reception of invalid and wounded seaman and marines, and the officers of each service, with a separate space set apart for lunatic patients.
The building stands four stories high, and consists of a main body (façade) 576 feet long and two wings 533 feet long each. It contains 114 roomy wards, each capable of accommodating twenty patients; and we were informed that, in the time of war there has been as many as 1,700 patients at one time in the hospital. Enclosed within the walls of the establishment is an airing-ground for convalescent patients, measuring thirty-three acres pleasantly paid out with walks, grass plots, flower beds, etc. and a small chapel in which divine service is performed by a clergyman, who resides in the hospital.
By the courtesy of a gentleman connected with the establishment we were conducted over some of the lunatic wards. A painful sight – but, withal, interesting and instructive. It was a sight too, not unaccompanied, with a sort of melancholy pleasure. To witness how much care and kindness had done to recompense these poor creatures for their heavy loss – the heaviest, perhaps, of all – the loss of reason. All seemed happy. Groups of old weather beaten sailors were everywhere to be seen recounting past scenes of perils of the deep, which in all probability had never been encountered, save in the visions of the best oppressed brain of the narrator. Here was a man who had formally been a boatswain. He was still indulged by being allowed to carry his official whistle, and shrilly did he ‘pipe all hands a-hoy’! Doubtless imagining himself still upon the deck and far out to sea.
One man approached us, in whose calm, pensive face, browned though it was with tropical sunshine, there seemed something peaceful that we would not think him mad. Laying his hand upon our arm, he looked eagerly into our face, and said in a hurried whisper ‘You seen her?’ We knew not what to answer him; but a friend who accompanied us came to the rescue. ‘Yes’ he replied, ‘We saw her yesterday’. ‘Well’ explained the lunatic, his eyes flaming with excitement, ‘Has she not written?’ Our friend shook his head. ‘No, no; she dare not write-she knows they stop all letters’ was the reply in a sad desponding tone. Then hastily looking up again and darting his eyes all around (we can find no other word to express the lightening like rapidity of the motion), the poor fellow lowered his voice to a scarcely audible whisper. But she will come to me. ‘Yes’ another change from anxiety to ecstasy. ‘Yes, she will – I knew it when? ‘Tomorrow’ said our friend. ‘Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Tomorrow ‘he cried with increased vehemence at every repetition of the word, until he fairly screamed ‘tomorrow!’ and ran exultingly away. When he had gone, our friend informed us that he fancied some great lady was in love with him and everyone he thought was a messenger from her and so for years he had been alternating between despair and happiness, when he thought first of her letters being stopped and then, that she would come and every day he felt that she would come – tomorrow. Poor fellow! The falsehoods of our friend were blissful truths to him. He knew that she was not coming, and was happy. How cruel would the cold stern truth have been which told him she had no existence and could never come? Truly in such a case as this, there is a falsehood better far than truth.
We went through another of the wards, where we found a man sitting at a table, drawing pictures of a ship, or rather of a ship, for everyone he drew, and there were many, was the same exact counterpart of every other. Whatever the size of picture, there was exactly the same blue waves, with exactly the same quantity of white foam upon each, washing exactly the same pea green coast, upon exactly the same spot on which stood exactly the same vermillion coloured cottage. While, in the ship itself every line of the complicated rigging was identically the same in every picture. All these lines (so strongly was his one ship impressed upon the artist’s brain) was perfectly correct. Not a rope in the whole ship was wrongly placed, nor was there one omitted; but all were carried out in minute detail, that were it required to give a diagram illustrative of the uses of the various ropes on-board a ship, perhaps no better one could possibly be had than this poor madman’s drawing. At the same time, all the rest of the picture was as unlike anything on earth as it is possible to conceive. The bright red cottage stood at an angle of about forty-five degrees out from the pea green shore, while this shore in its turn stood up perpendicular to the horizon, and the waves which washed the beach were rushing tumultuously up an amazing steep hill.
These drawings the artist sold to any visitor that happened to notice him; and there were few who passed him without laying out a sixpence, or a shilling in his strange productions. But what struck us most was that he had, in his odd wandering ideas, conceived the notion of printing! Whether he had seen the art practised, or whether it was a passing thought, which fitting with other madman’s fancies through his brain, had been arrested there by his darling thought of painting ships, we know not. We are inclined to think, by the way in which he spoke of it, that the latter was the case; and that in the retirement of Haslar hospital, this poor old lunatic had (as far as any previous knowledge of his own was concerned) absolutely invented printing! We had stopped to watch him painting, and had purchased one of his largest productions for the sum of one-and-sixpence. He had fixed prices for his pictures, and seemed to estimate their value entirely by the number of square inches in them – much in the same, by-the-way, as exhibitors of certain panoramas advertise them as covering so many thousands square yards of canvas.
While we were standing watching him, he suddenly looked up from his work, exclaiming, ‘Do you live outside? We did not understand the question, he saw it; so he explained: ‘I mean,’ he said ‘They don’t keep you in here – do they?’ We assured him they did not. ‘The,’ he said, ‘I will tell you how you can make a deal of money. ‘I would do it myself if I were outside, but I can’t in here – look now’ he continued, taking in each hand a copy of the ship, the coast, and the cottage. ‘I get sixpence for this size, and a shilling for this’. ‘It takes me a long while to do them’. ‘But if I were outside, I could make a stamp, and squeeze it on the paper so’. He then pressed down an imaginary stamp upon the paper lying before him, with all his force. ‘I could do them very quick then sir – couldn’t I?’ ‘Now if I was outside like you sir, I would do it’.
We thanked the poor fellow for the hint, and promised we would make a stamp at once and set about it; and then walked on, leaving the inventor of this great art still compelled to resort to the old process of hand labour, simply because he was not outside.
We left the lunatic wards, after engaging in conversation with several other patients – some whom assured us they were kings and princes; others were sorry to say they had no grog to offer us; and no end of them sent message by us to be delivered in towns and villages of which we had never even heard the names. Promising everything, acquiescing in everything and purchasing everything – for there were other producers besides our friend with the ships; one man spending his whole time in making stuffed balls, another in making black dolls (!), which were made and dressed in style that would be the envy of any nursery in England. Passing amongst all the varied songs, whistles, orations, dances and other sounds and sights around us, the doors of the lunatic wards at last closed behind us.
We then proceeded to the Museum. This is a well arranged and tolerably extensive collection of skeletons of human beings, Mammalia, birds, fishes, reptiles, serpents and other species; stuffed and preserved fishes; some stuffed animals and a very good collection of birds; some strange looking weapons – axes, knives, etc. – from various tribes; a Chinese shield, made of wicker work – a curious material to ward of a blow, but baring upon it a painting of a hideous face to frighten foes away; a few fossils; Captain Cook’s speaking trumpet and some other relics; and various articles which our space will not allow us to point out.
Altogether the museum is an interesting collection; it has been formed principally by donations from naval officers and others, who ‘Go down to the sea in ships’ and bring from foreign climes their varied curiosities.
Editor’s note: The Museum was destroyed by enemy bombing in October 1941 and the collections were lost.
The unique nature of the Haslar Hospital and the specimens brought back to it from discovery ships made Richardson the foremost ichthyologist of his time. From seas as far away as Australia, China, and Japan virtually every shipment contained fish not yet examined by taxonomists. The numbers of species described by Richardson, and the numbers of type specimens in the museum, were enormous. Although Richardson never held an academic post, his general influence on younger scientists was powerful, and his work in biology and geology has been considered important for Canadian science. Some of the young naval surgeons who were assigned to ships of discovery with duties as naturalists and who had got their training at Haslar Hospital from Richardson became, like Thomas Henry Huxley, professional biologists. Extract from Canadian Biography
The following is an extracted recollection of life in Haslar around the time of the article published in ‘The Illustrated Magazine of Art’ 1854 and described by John Richardson Jnr son of Sir John Richardson Inspector of Hospitals and Fleets in ‘A Visit to Haslar 1916’. In this section John Richardson Jnr describes the asylum and grounds used by the inmates.
On the other side of our garden lay the grounds of the lunatic asylum.  These and their inmates had a strange fascination for me.  When my father first went to Haslar, the asylum was under the charge of a medical officer who apparently held the view that lunacy could be cured or controlled only by the administration of severe disciplinary measures, and the unfortunate men were sadly knocked about by the attendants.  My father’s righteous soul was vexed with what he saw, for much was viewed from the veranda of our house, though hardly as much as I could see from a perch on a ladder against the garden wall; so he made trips to London and elsewhere to study the latest methods for treatment of insanity.  
Between Dr Anderson and my father there was a real co-operation, and in spite of much opposition a remarkable change soon came over the methods of treatment in the asylum.  Of course there were several dangerous lunatics, which is not surprising after so much brutal treatment; but some were found sane and others proved amenable to kindness.  Several rough attendants were discharged.

The poor men were gradually given much more liberty, and nothing untoward occurred.  More grounds were made available, and in these a mound was thrown up and a look-out made where the men could see Spithead and the ships, which they were never tired of identifying.  A boat was provided for the use of the lunatics, and in favourable tides and weather crews of these poor men rowed out to Spithead and fished.  Very excellent fishermen some of them were, too.  I was often taken out with them, catching whiting, congers, soles and plaice.  A petty officer, himself a patient, and an attendant took charge, and there was never any trouble that I knew of.

A soon as the lunatics were let out of the wards in the morning, some of them took up set places in the grounds.  One poor fellow for years occupied a corner under our garden wall, where he swayed incessantly from one leg to the other.  The men never seemed to quarrel or interfere with each other’s “pitches”, but they occasionally knocked down an attendant who was cruel to them, when they were, in early days, punished with blows, solitary confinement, and strait-waistcoats; I wondered as a boy why they did not kill some of the attendants but I suppose they were incapable of combination.

The main entrance to the asylum was near the museum, and was kept carefully locked.  Here two lunatic boatswains relieved each other I think, voluntarily.  They would pipe and receive any officer or visitor who entered as if they were attending at the gangway of a ship, which was a convenience to the attendants, as they received warning.   


Eric C Birbeck MVO
Haslar Heritage Group
February 2014


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