Mental Illness in the Workhouse – A Twine Storyboard

For my project, I decided to use a Twine storyboard in order to explore what life might have been like for a pauper with a mental illness within the workhouse system. While researching, it quickly became clear that the majority of information available concerned where paupers considered “lunatics” were sent, as opposed to the details of their daily lives. This serves as an example of the abundance of “top-down” history, which has focused on major policy changes, actions of the government, etc., instead of the lives of individual people – particularly those of the working class. Since one purpose of this class has been to reconstruct history from the “bottom-up,” placing increased importance on the actions and agency of ordinary citizens, this exploration of what would happen to a specific person serves to further that goal.

In particular, since sending a pauper to a madhouse was typically more expensive than caring for them in-house, parishes often preferred to keep them in workhouses unless they felt they could not control the patient, thus providing different possible situations for the individual. I decided to further explore this idea of differentiating between different case types when building my storyboard – providing different situational options that would determine what would ultimately happen to the pauper.

Before I could go any further, I ran into the issue of how to represent mental illness. Since people in the 18th century would refer to patients as “lunatics”, and do little to classify their illnesses beyond this, I was faced with a choice: do I attempt to treat the issue from a 21st century standpoint, or do I use the language and ideas of the time? Because there was little record of physicians in these workhouses and asylums diagnosing patients beyond being “insane,” “a lunatic,” “feeble-minded,” or an “idiot,” I did not see a particularly practical way of incorporating this information. Furthermore, the emphasis was much more on controlling a patient, then on certain specialized treatments according to their situation. Therefore, by using the language employed at the time, albeit making it clear that this was an 18th century label that does not reflect current thought, I felt that I was able to convey a better sense of the treatment of mental illness during that time period.

When exploring sources related to “lunacy,” the workhouse, and asylums during the late 18th century and early 19th century, I found two particularly useful sources: “Mad farming in the metropolis. Part 1: A significant service industry in East London,” and “Mad farming in the metropolis. Part 2: The administration of the old poor law of insanity in the City and East London 1800 – 1834,” both by Elaine Murphy. These two parts of the same article detail both where paupers were sent, as well as giving details as to what life was like inside of these institutions – information that I otherwise found very difficult to acquire.

After reading through these sources, which focused on East London, I decided to specify that my storyboard took place there as well, so that I could incorporate information based on these articles. Specifically, I wanted to include information on Jonathan Miles’ madhouse, and Warburton’s asylums in Bethnal Green, which were highlighted within these texts. Furthermore, when exploring the St. Andrew Undershaft committee meeting minutes, I found a record of a woman named Dorothy Mayleigh, who spent time at Miles’ madhouse, and some of the occurrences in the storyboard are inspired by her story – including being sent to the asylum for reasons to do with breaking a workhouse window. There are also records of Jonathan Miles writing to the workhouse saying that Dorothy still remained in a “ravering” state, and essentially asking for advice about what to do with her – a detail also included in the storyboard. On the other hand, the texts also included detailed descriptions of how particularly bad the conditions were in Bethnal Green, leading me to choose this as one of the possible destinations for the pauper within the storyboard.

Figure 1. Warburton’s Bethnal House, (photograph 1870s, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives)

In designing the possible situations involved in the storyboard, I attempted to use as much direct information from my sources as possible (hence my choice of asylums). However, I did ultimately have to make some extrapolations, particularly to do with the treatment of people considered to be lunatics within workhouses in situations where the workhouse felt that it could take care of the pauper itself. While there was very little information on this, the conclusion that I came to was that they would likely not be forced to work, and instead be treated somewhat similarly to the elderly or sick.

I also wanted to incorporate information that I found concerning views of mental illness, as well as the perception of it being a cause of death. One was viewed as being able to die from lunacy, which is certainly not something that is reported anymore. Because of this, many paupers were reported as “dying of lunacy in Bedlam,” or other asylums, a fact that I also attempted to include when writing about death in the storyboard.

Finally, the storyboard itself first involves choosing whether the pauper was considered to be a “lunatic” or merely “feeble-minded.” In the latter case, the pauper is never sent to a madhouse, since the workhouse likely would have felt capable of handling them. Next, if the pauper is a “lunatic,” there are three possible scenarios: 1) their symptoms set in recently due to the stress of moving in to a workhouse – and in a rage, they happened to break a workhouse window, 2) they have been known to suffer from delusions for a long time, but are regarded as “relatively harmless,” and 3) they have a long history of violent outbursts and their family is unable to continue to care for them at home. The second case has an outcome identical to that of the person being “feeble-minded” – the pauper remains in the workhouse. On the other hand, the first case leads to the person being sent to Jonathan Miles’ madhouse (inspired by the story of Dorothy Mayleigh from the St. Andrew Undershaft minute books). This results in either a short stay in which they return to the workhouse again permanently, or repeated visits during which the person eventually dies. This story line also has the option of including an instance of force-feeding (depending on the user’s choices), an act common in asylums at the time. Finally, the third case (the person having a long history of violent outbursts), leads to the person eventually dying at an asylum in Bethnal Green run by Thomas Warburton. The details of this situation are guided by descriptions of the asylum provided in the articles by Elaine Murphy.

The storyboard can be found here.


Boulton, Jeremy, and John Black. “‘Those, That Die By Reason of Their Madness’: Dying Insane in London, 1629–1830.” History of Psychiatry 23, no. 1 (2012): 27-39.

Murphy, Elaine. “Mad Farming in the Metropolis. Part 1: A Significant Service Industry in East London.” History of Psychiatry 12, no. 47 (2001): 245-282.

Murphy, Elaine. “Mad Farming in the Metropolis. Part 2: The Administration of the Old Poor Law of Insanity in the City and East London 1800-1834.” History of Psychiatry 12, no. 48 (2001): 405-430.

St. Andrew Undershaft Workhouse Account Books, 1732-1834.  London Metropolitan Archives MS4120/1-5.