Documenting the history of York’s asylums

Sarah Griffin, Rare Books Librarian, summarises the resources about the Retreat hospital available in the Library’s collections and Archives.


On Wednesday 10 May, Dr Jane Hamlett from Royal Holloway will be lecturing on Inside the asylum: Material life in lunatic asylums in Victorian and Edwardian England. The history of lunatic asylums is an important one in York and is widely reflected in the collections of the university.

Perspective view of the North front of the Retreat, York.
Watercolour by Peter Atkinson, Borthwick Institute for Archives.
In 2016, Stories of York was published by the university library looking at the narratives found in the collections of the Rare Books, and Archives at the University, and at York Minster Library. One chapter in the book was dedicated to the York Lunatic Asylum scandal and the creation of the Retreat hospital. The chapter was researched and written by Alexandra Medcalf of the Borthwick who also wrote a blog about it.

The Retreat was founded by and for the Society of Friends and opened in 1796 with 12 patients. It attracted attention for the success of pioneering mild methods of treatment of the insane under superintendent George Jepson (1797-1823). In the 20th century the Retreat was known for its willingness to explore new treatments and in pioneering greater professional training for its nurses. The Retreat collection was transferred to the Borthwick Institute for Archives in 2001.

The Rare Books collection at the university looks after the working library of the Retreat founders and staff including William and Samuel Tuke, George Jepson and other medical superintendents. Its strength comes from being one of only a few intact working specialist libraries on insanity. There are around 300 books dating from the 17th to the early 20th century, mostly dealing with psychiatry and mental illness including:
  • Theories of insanity;
  • Institutions;
  • Care of the insane;
  • The brain;
  • Criminal lunacy;
  • Phrenology;
  • Mental hygiene;
  • Mental deficiency; and
  • The controversies at the York Lunatic Asylum.

William Tuke from Samuel Tuke: his life, work
and thoughts
, Tylor C (1900). London: Headley
Other medical collections of interest in the Rare Books include 3000 books from the library of the York Medical Society, and the Milnes Walker Collection which includes books originally collected by provincial medical societies in Wakefield.

A project to digitise the Retreat archives finished at the beginning of this year. More information about the wealth of material now available can be found in #RetreatTweets and a series of posts on the Borthwick blog.

For further information please email Rare Books Librarian sarah.griffin@york.ac.uk.

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