Inside Broadmoor

Jan 20, 2009

Records from the mental hospital, dating back more than 100 years, have been made available to the public for the first time, giving an insight into life there

What do the records show?

Among other things, they include a file on Thomas Hayne Cutbush, who died in 1903 and remains the leading suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. The murders ceased from the day of his arrest, and details from the file on Cutbush match eyewitness descriptions of the Ripper, including his "brilliant blue eyes" and limp. Other early inmates include two would-be assassins of Queen Victoria: Edward Oxford, who tried to shoot the Queen and Prince Albert as they rode on Constitution Hill in 1840, and Roderick McLean, who shot a revolver at Victoria in 1882 as she left Windsor train station. He only fired a blank, and was quickly felled by two Eton schoolboys and their umbrellas.

How old is Broadmoor?

The hospital opened 145 years ago as an asylum for the criminally insane. It was set up after the Criminal Lunatic Asylums Act of 1860, which clarified the legal test of insanity and sought to improve conditions in asylums such as the Bethlem hospital (the original "Bedlam") in east London. The new, 53-acre facility was built outside Crowthorne, in Berkshire, and designed by Major General Joshua Jebb, a military engineer, "for the safe custody and treatment of persons who had committed crimes while actually insane or became insane while undergoing sentences". The first inmates were 95 women, who arrived in 1863.

And what sort of people did it house?

The test for criminal insanity under English law was and is the "M'Naghten Rules", which emerged from the 1843 trial of Daniel M'Naghten, who killed the private secretary of Sir Robert Peel in an attempt to shoot the Prime Minister. To be acquitted for reason of insanity, the House of Lords decided, it must be proved that the "accused was labouring under such a defect of reason… as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong." But insanity in the 19th century was poorly understood, its causes thought to include "vice, poverty, religious excitement, fright and exposure to hot climates". Many early inmates of Broadmoor were women who killed their children while suffering post-natal depression.

Were most inmates clearly mad?

Yes, but some were also gifted. One such was the watercolourist Richard Dadd, who murdered his father in 1843, was transferred to Broadmoor in 1864 and painted until his death in 1886. Phenomenally detailed works from his incarceration, such as The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, intrigued the Victorian public and now hang in the Tate. Another productive patient was William Chester Minor, a US army doctor who killed a man in London in 1871 while suffering delusions caused by his experiences in the US civil war. Over the ensuing decades, Minor became a major, if unknown, contributor to the first Oxford English Dictionary, giving his address simply as "Crowthorne, Berkshire".

How has it changed over the years?

Until 1948, it was a prison; then it became a hospital and was transferred to the Department of Health, where its ethos was supposed to change. Inmates became patients. But it wasn't until the mid-1990s that Broadmoor (and Britain's two other maximum-security psychiatric hospitals, Ashworth and Rampton) joined the NHS proper. However, many staff there are still members of the Prison Officer's Association, which has been blamed for a culture of bullying and a lack of "therapeutic optimism", and many mental health experts argue that it should be replaced by newer, smaller facilities. Rather than close it, however, ministers approved a £200m refit in 2005. In 2007, the poor treatment of female patients led to their removal from Broadmoor. Now it houses just 260 male patients – out of a total of some 700 people detained in Britain's secure hospitals.

How dangerous are the modern patients?

Some, like Piers Bolduc, a 32-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome – who was originally misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and spent 13 years in Broadmoor due to a shortage of other accommodation – shouldn't have been there at all. Others, like the "Silent Twins" (identical twin sisters who made a pact of silence and were sent to Broadmoor after a spree of arson, drug-taking and burglary) were a danger to themselves more than their fellows. But others again, men like Robert Maudsley, for instance, are well nigh unmanageable.

Who is Robert Maudsley?

Said to be the inspiration for the character of Hannibal Lecter, Maudsley was a rent boy in Liverpool who was sent to Broadmoor for killing a client. In 1977, he and another patient kidnapped a third man and tortured him for nine hours, opening his skull. Guards who eventually broke into the cell found a spoon sticking out of the dead man's cranium. Amazingly, Maudsley was deemed fit to stand trial, and then moved to Wakefield prison, where he killed two more prisoners. Since 1983, he has been kept in solitary confinement, in a glass box with cardboard furniture.  

So it can't be much fun living nearby?

It has its problems. Broadmoor Primary School has decided to change its name after pupil numbers fell despite good results and praise from Ofsted. Security is also a concern. In 1952 John Straffen, who had killed two young girls in Bath, escaped from Broadmoor and strangled a girl out riding her bike. The incident led to the installation of 13 sirens, which cover the surrounding towns and sound for 20 minutes when a patient escapes. Crowthorne is cordoned off and cars are checked at police roadblocks. The sirens are still tested every week, even though the last escape from Broadmoor was in 1991, when a child rapist sawed his way through the bars of a shower room. He was recaptured two days later.

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