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.

Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine - - Front Page -

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.”

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