Occasionally the newspapers reports of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Court feel quite voyeuristic and uncomfortable to modern eyes. Alongside all the petty thefts, domestic violence and embezzling clerks there are moments of individual tragedy. The Victorians were beginning to understand ‘madness’ but had a far less enlightened view of the effects of mental illness than we do today. Those exhibiting symptoms of mental illness were rarely treated with much compassion, and more often with ridicule or scorn.
In November 1886 a woman appeared at the Lambeth Police Court asking for protection. If she gave a name it wasn’t reported by the journalist that attended that day – the reaction of the court, however, was.
Mr Chance, the sitting magistrate, heard the lady’s complaint that certain named persons had threatened her and then said he thought she’d been in this court before, under similar circumstances.
‘I have been here, and shall come again until I get protection’ she told him. His Worship responded: ‘If you are in danger you shall have protection, but I must know a good reason for it’.
‘I am in danger; I have been shot at in the street, but the bullet hit a lamp-post’ (this provoked laughter in the public gallery). ‘There is nothing to laugh at’ the women objected, (‘excitedly’ the paper reported).
When the calm of the court was restored Mr Chance asked if she had any other examples.
‘I have had an attempt made upon me to poison me. You may not have heard of a poison called the “Varieties” (more laughter)… it is no laughing matter, I can tell you’. She went on, ‘there is scarcely a dozen that know its deadly effects. A dose or two will bring on apoplexy, epilepsy, madness, prostration, consumption, and death’.
She continued to be interrupted by peals of laughter and finished with several other ‘curious statements’ before the justice turned to the clerk of the court and requested that inquiries be made – about her, not her allegations.
In all likelihood if the unnamed woman had no family or friends to look after her the result of her requests for help would be confinement in a ‘lunatic’ asylum. These were dread places, worse perhaps than the workhouse or even a prison. Experimental therapy might involve water baths, straitjackets and and worse and few recovered to be allowed to leave in anything other than a coffin. There is a growing body of academic historical research into mental health care in the 1800s and we have several 3rd year undergraduates at the University of Northampton who are researching the topic for their final year dissertations.
[from The Standard, Monday, November 22, 1886]