Re-discovering Leicestershire's Victorian Lunatic Asylums



This website records a community project and exhibition that was created by members of the ArtSpace group. (ArtSpace is a group for artists experiencing mental ill-health and social exclusion issues.)

The website presents the findings and produce of a research project that explored the history of two lunatic asylums, which served Leicester Borough and Leicestershire County in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The project was inspired by Diane Lockley's book The House of Cure. Diane’s research challenges the stereotype of the Victorian asylum as a hostile place focused on punishment. She reveals that, from its beginnings, Leicestershire Lunatic Asylum was intended to be a progressive, compassionate institution whose main aim was to cure people of mental ill-health, rather than to isolate and detain them.

Research was carried out by members of the ArtSpace group during visits to local archives, a museum store, and to the sites of the two asylums. The group also worked with an artist to creatively interpret their discoveries.

“We were impressed by the beautiful tile details in the Towers. We felt we should record these things because they will disappear.” ArtSpace participant

The asylum archives revealed that people were described in various ways; for example, as a ‘lunatic’ or an ‘imbecile’; and some patients’ mental ill-health was categorized as ‘hysteria’, ‘insanity’, or ‘melancholia’. These are terms that are no longer acceptable, and are not used by today’s mental health hospitals.

The term ‘asylum’ was also examined. It was discovered that in the early twentieth century the term began to be rejected, and then was officially replaced by the term ‘mental hospital’.

Archival material, such as the Admissions Registers, also showed why people were admitted to the asylums. Reasons included ‘religious excitement’ and ‘disappointment in love’. Many of the reasons are quite different from those that would be given today.

The ways in which people suffering mental ill-health are treated and 'cured' has also changed. Patients in the two Victorian asylums researched, were not given medication for their mental illness; instead their therapy focused on their being provided with a place of safety and a routine of healthy living. Patients were given three good meals a day; they were kept busy in the workshops, laundry, gardens or on the asylum’s farm; and their leisure consisted of weekly dances, sports and county walks.

“I was shocked how well they were treated considering the times. I thought it would be a lot harsher in the asylums.” ArtSpace participant

ArtSpace members and volunteers who have been involved with the project are:
Alex, Amy, Christian, Christine, Debs, Isan, Lauren, Martyn, Mel, Neil, Pat, Paul, Paul, Phil, Ravi, Sean, Shaun, Sonia, Trishna.

Thank you to the following people for their support with the project: Nikki Clayton, Jo Dacombe, Simon Dixon, Pam Fisher, Philip French, Adam Goodwin, Mark Goodwin, Diane and Tony Lockley, Louisa Milburn, Keith Ovenden, Sir Peter Soulsby, Lydia Towsey, Dave Woodcock.

This project, exhibition and website has been funded through the Heritage Lottery Funds' All Our Stories programme, and by BrightSparks Arts in Mental Health, Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust, Embrace Arts, and expresseum poetics.

The project was managed and delivered by expresseum poetics and Jo Dacombe, and supported by Tim Sayers, Arts in Health Co-ordinator, Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust.


ROLLR – Courtesy of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland

ULA – Courtesy of the University of Leicester Archives


Click on the image to see a larger version.


Looking at archives in the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland   Looking at the University of Leicester's archives   Diane gave a fascinating talk about her research for The House of Cure book   The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland holds the majority of archives from both the asylums
On visits to the existing sites of the asylums, old photos and maps were used to help compare the present with the past   Looking at objects in the stores of Newarke Houses Museum   An old one penny was found on a visit to the County Asylum site    

A patient's record in a Case Book



Asylum patients were classified into different categories



Administration Records





The Leicestershire & Rutland Lunatic Asylum Rules for The General Management of the Institution, 1849





Photos taken on a visit to the current Towers Hospital site being plotted on to the map of the c1912 site

  Creating a map of the Borough Asylum, then & now   Writing calligraphy labels for the map  

Exploring research findings back at base


These reference books were very helpful for the research

  Location of the asylums  

Information discovered through research was reviewed through mind mapping