‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, a magistrate explains, if one knows where to look.

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play, 

             Rudyard Kipling, ‘Tommy’ (1892)

Kipling published his Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892 which included one of his most famous poems, Tommy. The poem highlights the reality of solders’ situations in late Victorian Britain; eulogised as ‘heroes’ when there were enemies to defeat, and condemned as ‘bar-room brawlers’ when they were cooped up in garrison towns like Aldershot or Colchester. Not that much has changed in the intervening 100 plus years, ‘squaddies’ are still a cause for concern on Saturday nights in Colchester, but every serviceman and woman is deemed a hero at the point they are killed or wounded in action.

Kipling’s poem calls for change and an acceptance that ‘tommy’ was simply an ordinary man called upon to do extraordinary things. Within a quarter of  a century the ranks of Britain’s small professional armed forces were swelled by millions of citizen volunteers and (from 1916) conscript ‘tommies’. This weekend we remember the millions that died in that war and those that have given their lives since, as well as all those that were wounded, both physically and mentally, in conflicts since 1914.

And perhaps here we can point to some improvement in the way in which we look after  our damaged servicemen. Although we still need charities like Help for Heroes to augment government provision we have become much better at rehabilitating the injured. This is especially true in the area of mental health. Before the First World War the notion that soldiers were adversely affected mentally by war was not properly considered even though it must have been evident to some.

It was the work of Dr W. H. R Rivers, a psychiatrist in Craiglockhart Medical Hospital in Scotland during the war that did much to help society understand mental illness in the context of war, even if this treatment was not really adopted at the time.

Today’s tale from the Police Courts doesn’t feature soldiers but it is related to the problem of mental health and its treatment in the 1800s. I’ve chosen 1892 because of the publishing of Kipling’s poem.

***

A man named Smythe appeared at the West London Police Court to ask for a summons. The request was for a summons to bring the superintendent of a private lunatic asylum to court for unlawfully detaining a prisoner called ‘Carter’.  Mr W. Doveton Smythe explained that Carter had been imprisoned for five years for shooting at a man but, just four months before he was due to be released, he had been transferred to Broadmoor Prison in Berkshire, where criminals deemed to be ‘insane’ were confined.

From Broadmoor he was later taken to a pauper lunatic asylum (presumably being thought no longer to be dangerous) and then, at the request of his mother, he was placed in a private mental asylum. So, this prisoner, who had served his sentence, was now effectively being held against his will in a secure institution and Mr Smythe (whose relationship to the Carters is not made clear) was trying to get him out.

Mr Smythe told the magistrate, Mr Curtis Bennett, that Carter had been examined by an independent specialist  (Dr Flood) and visited by several friends. They all felt that he was ‘perfectly sane’. He wanted a summons against the superintendent for assault, since (as he was sure the magistrate was aware) ‘illegal detention is, technically, an assault’.

Mr Bennett was unconvinced. ‘Friends are really the worst people to form an opinion in such a case’, he told the complainant. ‘Unfortunately that has been the cause of many murders being committed’.

Moreover, this wasn’t the right place to make his request. Removing Carter from the private asylum would not overthrow the original decision to send him to Broadmoor or the pauper asylum. Therefore he advised Mr Smythe to take his complaint to the Lunacy Commissioners instead, and if he got no joy there he suggested the [Chancery] Master in Lunacy instead.

‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, he declared, ‘though many people do not seek the right remedy’.

Mr Smythe thanked him and left, meanwhile poor Carter remained locked up in a private asylum.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 11, 1892]

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