Life in the County Lunatic Asylum

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.


Site of County Lunatic Asylum

Site of County Lunatic Asylum


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.


Birds eye view of Asylum 1901

Birds eye view of Asylum


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.”


Reasons for admissions in 1861

Reasons for admissions in 1861


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.


Job opportunities in the asylum

Job opportunities in the asylum


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.


QAL 17 copy


  1. Jane Glass says:

    The sister of my 2xgreat-grandmother was admitted to St Georges on 1 Aug 1859 from Durham County Asylum and died there 4 Sept 1877. Her husband was left to bring up their children, ages ranging from 7 to 17 in 1859. Her youngest child was born about 1858 at Sedgefield, Co Durham (presumably in the Asylum there) and was with her in St George’s on the 1861 Census, aged 2. By 1871 he was living with his father and siblings in North Northumberland. How long did children remain with their mother at St Georges? Were there separate facilities and accommodation for mothers with babies? Her mental disorder was mania but wonder what it would be today? She was aged about 42 when her youngest child was born in Sedgefield. Wonder if it was associated with her pregnancy. Seems a shame she was a patient for almost 20 years with something which would probably be treatable at home today.

    • Northumberland Archives says:

      Thank you for your enquiry.

      In order to answer your questions fully we would need to look at the records in more detail and this would be classed as research for which there is a charge of £30 per hour. Could you please email us at if you would like to proceed.

      Thank you.

  2. Very interested in the archive that is available for this institution, I have worked previously on the History of Mental intuitions in nineteenth-century Scotland, the role of religion and Royal Edinburgh Asylum and mortality in general.

    My other research has included death and burial customs/vital registration and Welfare in eighteenth and nineteenth century Newcastle.

    Could I ask what documents have survived for this institution and the longevity of the sources?

    Best wishes,
    Graham Butler, Ph.D.

    • Northumberland Archives says:

      Thank you for your enquiry.

      The main collection of St George’s records in our collection is NRO 3680 and a list of exactly what we hold can be found on our electronic catalogue by entering NRO 03680* in the reference field. This collection contains items including patient case books and registers of patients and the dates range from 1859-1988. We also have material relating to the asylum in our Quarter Session records and these include correspondence relating to the building of the asylum, plans, accounts, staffing roles and rules and regulations. The dates range from 1844-c.1902.

  3. rachel donovan says:

    hi there on 26th December 1873 a lady named Hannah sweet was admitted into this hospital she my x6great grandmother and I’m trying to find out what she did to land herself in a lunatic asylum but I cant for the life of me figure out how to view the record, any chance you could point me in the right direction? I have the ref number and iv typed it in and clicked to view full record but nothing comes up other than the title of the record itself

  4. Gail perez says:

    I think my great great grandfather was at this asylum in 1876. Emmanuel Defty. If so, he has a great great Mexican American grand daughter. The resiliency of migrants! His son of same name was a coal hewer. I wonder what his issue was besides poverty.