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08 April 2019

Object of the Month - a chair

April’s Object of the Month is a chair, on display in the corridor of vagrants’ cells at the Workhouse Museum. The chair has been labelled as a “restraining chair”, with interpretation about the treatment of people with mental illnesses within the workhouse system in the 1800s.

However, our Curator, Leah Mellors, has her doubts about this interpretation.

“On closer inspection of the chair, it does not appear to have the function of restraining a person. If the hands were placed in the loops, they would be held loosely but not restrained or fastened in. Other images of restraining chairs show the wrists fastened tightly to the arms of the chair. Similarly, although the larger loop would provide a support for the head, with the chin resting on the cushioned part, it would not physically restrain the head in the same way that other restraining chairs would.”

So what was this chair used for? Well, unfortunately, we don’t know the answer to that. It could be a dentist’s chair, used to support a patient’s head during dental work. Or perhaps it was used as a type of hoist, to help those with limited mobility out of the chair.  

Our Curator is currently carrying out research into what the chair may have been used for. What do you think? Have you seen something similar to this elsewhere? We would love to hear what your interpretation of this chair is so get in touch with us via our social media channels.

Treatment of mental illness within the workhouse system

Although we are not clear what this particular chair was used for, we do know that restraining chairs were often used in workhouses to physically restrain paupers with mental illnesses.

From the 1700s onwards, most workhouses housed many sick inmates, including people with mental illnesses.

Paupers with mental illnesses were classified throughout the 1700s and 1800s as:

  • lunatics – the “periodically insane”
  • idiots or imbeciles – the “incurably insane”

The 1834 Poor Law Act stated that lunatics and imbeciles were not to be kept in the workhouse for longer than 14 days. As a result, the model plans did not allocate any space for them, nor were they included in the seven official classes of pauper inmate.  Consequently, these paupers mixed with the other inmates, who sometimes acted as unpaid attendants, and were not provided with separate accommodation or any special supervision. A small number of workhouses had lunatic wards in the infirmary but this was rare.

The 1845 Act for the ‘Regulation and Care and Treatment of Lunatics’ made it compulsory for counties and boroughs to build pauper lunatic asylums, such as the County Asylum in York and, from the 1890s, the West Riding Asylum in Wakefield. It also stated that dangerous lunatics should be removed from workhouses. However, the high cost of asylums (and the reluctance of Boards of Guardians to pay) and the tendency for overcrowding in them meant that many paupers with mental illnesses remained in the workhouse.

Conditions for paupers with mental illnesses improved slowly but without trained staff to attend to them, workhouse masters relied heavily on restraints such as restraining chairs and strait-jackets. The use of such devices was banned in 1853.  

Paupers with mental illnesses continued to be housed in workhouses throughout the 1800s (in fact, their number rose considerably between 1835 and 1867) and into the 20th century. The practicalities of housing lunatics and imbeciles in workhouses remained controversial, especially the fact that they mixed freely with other inmates. Due to the Boer War, World War I and financial constraints in the 1920s, a proper solution was not found until the 1930s when many of the workhouses that had been handed over the local authorities were transformed into hospitals.   

Ripon Union

Most of the information we have about the treatment of paupers with mental illnesses within the Ripon Union comes from documents held at North Yorkshire County Record Office:

Account of the cost of the maintenance of lunatics in Ripon Union, 1887 – 1889. This document includes the name of the lunatic, where they are housed (e.g. “North Riding of Yorkshire Asylum, Clifton, York”), the cost of maintaining them, and if any family members are contributing towards that cost.

Documents relating to the transport of lunatics from Ripon to various asylums

Report books filled out by a visiting committee inspecting the accommodation provided for ‘Lunatics or Alleged Lunatics’ in Ripon Union Workhouse between 1902 and 1914. This book details the names and ages of the lunatic, whether they lived in the “House” or the “Infirmary”, what their treatment was - usually “no special treatment” and an “ordinary” diet.
Much of these documents reveal only basic information about lunatics in the workhouse or asylums. However, one person that we know a little more about is Florence Isabella Wise, as we have the application form for her “detention” within the workhouse. Florence was admitted into Ripon Union Workhouse on 15 July 1914. She was a 20 year old single female, who lived on Bondgate in Ripon with her parents Annie and Robert Wise. The application form states that Florence should be admitted to the workhouse on the grounds that she “has a vacant expression. Does not take interest in anything. Has lost moral control of herself…she is very simple and would be easily led into temptation”. She is described as being “mentally defective”.

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