Giving voice to the forgotten
ASYLUM SHAME: A Yorkshire photographer’s fascination for Victorian mental institutions led to a poignant tribute to more than 3,000 unmourned souls. Tony Earnshaw reports.
HEIR faces stare out from a grainy monochrome past, the eyes variously blank, psychotic, always uncomprehending.
They are the forgotten souls hidden away from the teeming humanity of 19th-century Britain, wrested from families and consigned to a lonely and often long life behind bars.
But this was no jail. And they had committed no crime. Instead these wretched individuals were placed within the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (later Menston Mental Hospital and finally High Royds Psychiatric Hospital), in Menston, and abandoned for their perceived insanity.
The asylum has long been closed. But it stands still, a testament to all that was wrong with mental health care in the 19th and early 20th-centuries. Many have shunned it and its bleak reputation as a place where the mad walked free. Others, a few, have been drawn to it, driven to unravel the stories of the people long held there.
Among them was Yorkshire photographer Mark Davis. A historian with a foot in the Victorian past he made his own entry into this lost, forbidding world. The pictures he took hint at the remnants of a regime that, seen today, appals and frightens.
His photographs have been collected in Voices from the Asylum, a book that retells haunting personal stories based on the asylum’s own casebooks for its inmates.
These days they would be known as patients. Dignity would prevail.
But with the less enlightened mindset of Victorian England, many found themselves on a one-way ticket to oblivion and incarceration with the asylum as the final destination.
Based in Haworth, Davis can often be seen tramping the cobblestones in all weathers to record the hills and moors made famous by the Brontës. But it is the asylum that draws him like a magnet.
“I spent a lot of time photographing architectural buildings in Bradford and exploring the lives of the people, how they lived and eventually died,” he says. “I became fascinated by the faceless names on the gravestones and thought a lot about the struggles of everyday folk. As I started to become more aware of the emergence of mental asylums to house the pauper classes I became aware of the methods used to bury their dead. I started to explore how I could find out about the people who ended up in this. I felt a real connection with telling their lost story.”