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Until the late 18th century, mentally ill people in Britain were either cared for by the community, or treated in harsh conditions in prisons, workhouses, or private ‘madhouses’. Infamously, Bethlem Hospital in London, known as Bedlam, even charged spectators to visit its chained, naked inmates for public amusement.
Attitudes began to change during the reign of King George III. Not only did the King suffer from periods of mental illness, but he was also the victim of physical attacks from subjects who were obviously ill. All these events were eagerly reported by the developing press. Around the same time William Tuke, a Quaker, revolutionised care for the mentally ill by founding The Retreat in York. This institution was run under a system of ‘moral’ treatment, effectively a programme of humane care.
Although a series of legislative reforms followed, it was not until the County Asylums Act 1845 that all counties were compelled to make residential provision for the treatment of the mentally ill. This could be contracted out: the Berkshire justices, together with the Boroughs of Abingdon and Reading, made agreement with Oxfordshire in 1847 to use the latter's asylum at Littlemore rather than build their own.
That agreement lasted until 1867, when it became apparent that an alternative solution was required. The lunatic population had grown, and Oxfordshire could no longer accommodate its neighbours' cohort. Berkshire, Reading and Newbury Borough made a new agreement to build and share an asylum. Land was purchased in Cholsey, and Fair Mile opened in September 1870. At the time, it was called 'the Moulsford Asylum', due to its proximity to what was then known as Moulsford Railway Station.
Early years at Fair Mile
Patients in Victorian Fair Mile
Patient care in the Asylum
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