The Northumberland County Pauper Lunatic Asylum opened on 16 March 1859. Lunatic Asylums were managed by committees of visitors appointed by the Quarter Sessions under the Lunacy Act 1845 and were subject to visits by the Commissioners in Lunacy. Situated in Cottingwood, Morpeth, the asylum was a magnificent Victorian building built in the Italian style of red brick with stone dressings. Designed by Henry Welsh, it was originally built to accommodate about 200 male and female patients. In 1890 the asylum was renamed the County Mental Hospital then in 1937 the name was changed to St. George’s Hospital. In 2006 St Georges Park, a purpose built mental health hospital was built on the old St. George’s site.
The plan below was drawn by the architect John Cresswell and gives a 3 dimensional view of the asylum and its grounds. The apartments on the west side were for female inmates while males were situated on the east. Surrounding the buildings were pleasure and kitchen gardens as well as a stone chapel and brewery. The Superintendent was the principal officer of the asylum and was required to be a medical practitioner and legally qualified. The Matron was responsible for all female attendants, servants and female patients and the Clerk/Steward for male patients and male staff.
Early records for the asylum show it to be professionally managed. All male and female patients had to be kept in separate wards. No male attendant, servant or patient could enter the female wards, nor any female enter the male wards except in cases where the Superintendent deemed it advisable. The Asylum Rule Book stated the following:
“There be at least one attendant for every ward and that there be not less than one attendant for every 25 patients who are tranquil or convalescent and not less than one attendant for every 12 patients who are dirty, violent, refractory or dangerous to themselves or others. No ward shall be left at any time without an attendant being there and that the attendant be so distributed that in case of need they may readily assist each other.”
A booklet entitled Rules of Government for the Pauper Lunatic Asylum 1860 stated that dormitories had to contain more than 3 beds and had to have a space of at least 2 feet and six inches between them. An attendant had to sleep in an adjoining room and a light was kept on through the night. No patient was to be struck or kept in perpetual restraint or seclusion. If a patient needed to be restrained, it had to be reported to the Superintendent as soon as possible and documented in the Day Book. Visitors were permitted to the asylum once a fortnight. Every visit made by a male relation or friend to a female patient had to have the Matron or female attendant present throughout the entire visit. The booklet also stated that in relation to the death of a patient, the passing had to be firstly reported to the parish officer. The House Steward would then inform one of the nearest relations of the deceased and the body would be delivered to them if requested. If the body was not taken by the fourth day, it was buried under the direction of the Superintendent.
During the day patients of both sexes were employed. Men worked in the garden and were taught trades by Shoemakers, Tailors, Plumbers and Painters. The women worked in the laundry and kitchen and also undertook sewing, knitting and mending work. Reading was encouraged and an ample supply of books and publications of a moral and cheerful nature had to be made available. This was in addition to the bible and prayer books.
The Superintendent issued a yearly report commenting on admissions, discharges and deaths. Recommendations were made for improvements to the building and patient care but events and observations were also recorded. The report for 1868 stated that when one woman was admitted she was searched and was found to have on her person money and bankers receipts of upwards of £500. The sum was unknown to her husband or family and was shrouded in mystery. It was noted that every Wednesday evening there was a dance interspersed with songs and on two occasions a conjuring entertainment was kindly provided by Mr Shute the Assistant Surgeon. In the summer months the men played cricket, bowls, quoits and football while the women played croquet. The patients also enjoyed picnics at the seaside.
The Commissioners in Lunacy also visited the asylum and issued a yearly report. The report for 1867 claimed that the state of the inmates was satisfactory, their person and clothing were very clean and in general their conduct was orderly with nobody in seclusion. On the day of the visit dinner consisted of baked meat, potatoes, bread and beer. The wards were clean and properly ventilated but were said to have a bare appearance. It was noted that a good deal of painting, colouring and papering was required and it was hoped that the most cheerful, light and pleasing colours would be chosen. Space was a major concern and the day rooms were classed as being seriously overcrowded. The report for 1873 commented upon the death of a male patient who had died due to a blow to the head but who was also found to have his breast bone and five ribs fractured. It was never discovered how these injuries were inflicted. A female patient was also mentioned as when out walking with a party of other females she committed suicide by jumping in the river. Due to this incident walks outside of the asylum had been terminated.