Penny dreadfuls and ‘reading mania’

Is it possible to become ill through reading too much? It’s certainly something that was thought possible in Arthur’s case 114 years ago.

Arthur had been living in Newbury, Berkshire, with his mother and his two younger siblings. His father had died and his mother had run away from an abusive second marriage, leaving her struggling to earn enough money to support the family by herself. We are told that her earnings came from needlework and an occasional lodger.

When Arthur was 14 years old, he was sent to the Workhouse for a fortnight, and from there, in the year 1900, an application was made for Arthur to be taken into the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society). The reason given for sending Arthur into care is rather unusual. See the application form for yourself:

Application form from case file 7456, stating that Arthur was suffering from 'reading mania', dated 1900

Dear Sir

This boy left school
two years ago & as he was a clever promising boy
some friends helped the mother to apprentice him
to a printer. The work appears to have disagreed
with him, being too confined for his health, he is
a delicate lad & easily led & he has been spending
his master’s time & his own money in buying &
reading a number of penny dreadfuls. By this means
he has quite worried & weakened his brain & he
became so unmanageable three weeks ago that
his mother took him to a doctor, who sent him
to the Workhouse for a fortnight on a cerf certifi
cate as suffering from reading mania. No one can
imagine that there is anything whatever the
matter with the boy’s brain, he answers all questions
most intelligently & as you will see the doctor
who examined him yesterday saw nothing wrong
with him. But he had to be returned home & all
the mischief will begin again unless he is put
under proper control. He ought to have plenty
of fresh air & be carefully controlled & train
ed & I think then he would turn out well.

We are anxious he should be received into
the Hedgerley Farm Home, for which the Guardians
are willing to pay, we have a great opinion of the
training there, as exemplified by a lad from here
who was at Hedgerley for a year & has since done
very well. His mother has been married twice & was oblig
ed to leave her 2nd. husband he became mad & threatened her life &
his own & now she ekes out a spare livelihood for herself & the three
children & she cannot control this big boy of 14

yrs. truly (Miss) Caroline A Talbot ‘Lady Gdns [Guardians]’

I’m sure you’d agree that the main reason given here is a strange one! Nowadays, I doubt anyone would complain that a young person was reading too much. Not only that, but that ‘reading mania’ would be diagnosed by a doctor as a certifiable medical condition seems really quite strange over 100 years later.

An important point to note is that it is not just any books that Arthur was reading but penny dreadfuls. These books were so called because they were cheaply printed and not thought to be very good for the reader. They usually contained sensationalised, escapist stories that were popular with young people like Arthur. The fact that a doctor could diagnose Arthur as suffering from ‘reading mania’ suggests that penny dreadfuls were widespread enough in the early 20th Century to cause general public concern.

If this moral panic at reading sensational stories sounds a little odd to our ears, we could instead try to consider a modern equivalent. Today, for example, there is a lot of concern about video games, particularly violent ones. If a doctor in 2014 certified that a young person was suffering from some sort of mental illness brought on by playing too many violent video games, we wouldn’t necessarily think it was so unusual.

After all this talk of ‘reading mania’, it’s only when we read on to the bottom of the application form that we find what was, most probably, the real reason Arthur needed to be taken into care: his mother was trying to support three children by herself, while earning very little money. If this was the case, then why spend over half the page talking about the penny dreadfuls?

It’s important, when reading this or any document, not just to take it at face value. Instead we need to consider why the document was being written and if the person writing it had an agenda that they wanted to get across. In this case, the form was an application for Arthur to be taken into the care of the Waifs and Strays Society. However, not all applications were successful; the Waifs and Strays Society only had limited funds and so weren’t able to help every child that came to them. Instead, they used the application forms to decide who needed their help the most. In Arthur’s case, we can almost imagine that Miss Talbot, writing the form, was really emphasising the ‘reading mania’ to play on social fears current at the time, which she thought would help to get Arthur accepted into care.

Whether or not the ‘reading mania’ played a large part when Arthur’s case was considered by the Waifs and Strays Society, we don’t know; but we do know that his application was successful. In February 1900, Arthur was admitted into the Hedgerley Farm Home in Buckinghamshire. This home specialised in farming and the boys living there were trained in agricultural skills. Arthur stayed in the Hedgerley Farm Home for one year, after which he returned to his mother.

Overall, the medical diagnosis of ‘reading mania’ probably says far more about the social fears prevalent at the time than it does about Arthur’s health. What are your views on this? If penny dreadfuls were common today, do you think we’d still be worried about young people reading them?

For another example of the public fears surrounding penny dreadfuls and ‘cheap literature’, see this 1895 newspaper cutting at the British Library website.

Misunderstanding mental health in the early-20th Century

Today, we have a guest post written by one of our project volunteers, Leonora Fane-Saunders.

***

It is sadly apparent that mental health was not well understood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The prevailing view at the time was one of institutionalisation, and many people with learning disabilities or mental health conditions found themselves sent to asylums and other similar institutions, to live apart from the rest of society. These institutions may have been seen as places of treatment, where people could be given specialised care, but they were also places of segregation.

The records from the Children’s Society [then the Waifs and Strays’ Society] show some of the attitudes and language prevalent at the time. An example of this is a letter recommending that a child be sent to an asylum in 1917. (Click to enlarge.)

Letter from Medical Superintendent of Newport Borough Asylum stating that the child should be admitted to an asylum, 1917

Dear Mrs De Gruchy

I am of opinion that
the little girl Gertie [surname]
from St. Cadocs Home Caerleon
whom I saw today is of
defective intellect – and not
likely to profit from the
training given at St. Cadoc’s
Home.

From the statement
of the Matron of the Home it
appears that the child has a
very deficient moral
sense in the matter of
truthfulness & honesty

and I think her example may
have an evil influence on the
other children in the Home.

Both on this account and
on her own I think she would
be much better placed in
an institution for mentally
deficient children where
the training and discipline
would be more suitable to
her case.

Yours Sincerely
Wm. F. Nelis MD
Med Supt. [Medical Superintendent]

In this letter there is nothing that today would today be considered grounds for institutionalisation and the terms used in this letter would now be considered highly inappropriate. It is possible that the child suffered from a learning disability that in turn led to the poor behaviour in the home.

List of Rules for Correspondents and Visitors to West Ham Mental Hospital, c1920

The asylums had very strict rules that seem akin to those found in a prison. A list of rules governing visitors to inmates at the West Ham Mental Hospital (see above, click to enlarge) show that visiting hours were restricted to two and a half hours per week unless under special circumstances in which case written permission was required. Presents could also only be given to inmates through the Attendant or Nurse in charge of the visiting room. Of the twenty four children who were admitted to an asylum or other such mental health institution from The Society’s care between 1894 and 1920 only two are known to have left the asylum. It is interesting to note that the two that left were different in that they were sent to the asylum for what appears to have been stress cause by over work whilst in service. The others were sent to the asylum for difficulties in learning what the children were being taught in the homes and for poor behaviour.

Although now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to look back with horror at these institutions, it is also easy to forget that the first asylums were set up with humanitarian intentions as places that could care for the mentally ill and potentially cure them. Before then such people were usually hidden away under the care of their relatives. Good intentions were lost amidst the increasing asylum population, inadequate staff, lack of understanding of mental health and the fact that any man and his dog could set up a private asylum. Those who started the first asylum probably looked back in horror at the way the mentally ill were treated one hundred years before, and who’s to say people one hundred years from now might not do the same.

Most asylums were shut down in the late 20th Century and our knowledge and understanding in identifying and treating mental health issues has increased since then. While it can be upsetting to us now to see how people used to be treated 100 years ago, records such as those highlighted here are important. It is through understanding and discussing the past that we can begin to learn from previous mistakes and pave the way for a better future.

Want to find out more?
A previous blog post discussing historical attitudes to disability can be found here:
http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/blog/2012/05/the-changing-perceptions-of-disability

A brief history of West Ham Mental Hospital can be found here: http://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/goodmayes.html

See the Museum of Disability, the Science Museum and this post from the National Archives for more information about the history of attitudes towards learning disabilities and mental health conditions.

The reality of living with a mental health condition in Victorian London

Today, instead of focussing on a particular child we will be focussing on a particular parent. The case files we hold give the family circumstances of most of the children that came into The Children’s Society’s care and so can go into a lot of detail about the health of the child’s family.

Charlotte came into the care of The Children’s Society (then known as the Waifs and Strays Society) aged 7 in 1895. As with all children that came into The Society’s care, an application form was written for Charlotte detailing why it was thought necessary for her to go into care.

The form states that Charlotte and her family came from Marylebone in London. Her father had been a chimney sweep but had died of bronchitis when Charlotte was around three years old.

The second page of the form, shown below, continues the story.

Part of the application form from case file 4658, detailing the health of the child's mother, 1895

Mrs. [surname] after the birth of a child
went out of her mind for a time & was
sent to an Asylum. On leaving,
the Doctor said she would never
again be fit for work. this hap-
-pened after her husbands death
& was partly brought on by the
shock. The family was very res-
-pectable & well cared for during the
Fathers lifetime. the poor widow
has had 9 children only four now
living.

“Charlotte” is a bright little thing
but has not had food enough
for some time, & is thin, with
the look all hungry children
have. sharing her poor mothers
uncertain fate has given her
an anxious face & way, that
are quite Pitiful

(Miss) Emma E Maingay
Hon. Sec

Elsewhere in the form, we learn that the child’s mother was doing light housework as an occupation and that she and Charlotte had no settled place to live.

This form illustrates quite clearly what could happen to a late-Victorian family if the parent or parents were unable to do much work due to an illness or disability. With few safety nets around, save for the workhouse, parents and their children had to struggle to find enough to eat.

Charlotte’s case was accepted by The Society and she went to live in St Hilda’s Home in Marylebone. A few months afterwards she was transferred to a home that wasn’t operated by The Society, St John’s Convalescent Home in Brighton. At this time The Society had no convalescent homes of its own and so often sent children to St John’s Home if they were unwell and needed extra care.

The reason that Charlotte needed to go to a convalescent home isn’t stated, but it seems likely that she was suffering from malnutrition; in other letters in her file she is described as being ‘delicate’ and like a ‘little white ghost’.

After two years at St John’s Home, Charlotte must have been strong enough to return to one of The Society’s children’s homes, this time the Brighton Home for Girls. Charlotte stayed in Brighton until 1903 when she would have been around 15 years old. At this point, a letter from Charlotte’s sister Louisa was received.

Louisa was about eight years older than Charlotte and was married and living in East Barnet near London. She asked if Charlotte could come to live with her; this was agreed and Charlotte went to her sister a few weeks later.

Within the file, we never find out what had happened to Charlotte’s mother after Charlotte was taken into care, as Louisa doesn’t mention her. We can only hope that she was doing well, although her previous circumstances didn’t bode well.

At this distance, it is very hard to discover what condition Charlotte’s mother was suffering from that had required her to enter an asylum for a period of time. As with a number of diseases, the diagnosis of mental health conditions in the late-19th Century was not as sophisticated as it is today. All we can do is go by what we’re told: Charlotte’s mother’s illness had been brought on by the shock of her husband’s death and perhaps by the birth of a child; it had left her unfit for work; and, according to one doctor, ‘she would never be the same woman again’.

What is clear is that she left the asylum with little assistance, despite finding it difficult to work, which meant that being able to care for herself and for Charlotte was an almost impossible struggle, and perhaps one that she was unable to survive.