About the Project

Mental illness is indiscriminate. It affects all people regardless of age, gender or social status. Currently one in four Britons will experience mental distress at some stage of their lives. The causes of mental health issues can be complex and are usually embedded within a variety of social, political and economic contexts.

With this website we aim to produce a digital archive exploring mental illness from a social perspective. We will trace the changes in societal attitudes towards mental illness and resulting developments in mental health care with particular emphasis on a local mental hospital here in Devon. The site is based on a series of Wellcome Trust funded projects carried out since 2007 by Dr Nicole Baur and Prof Jo Melling (Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter), in collaboration with John Draisey from the Devon Heritage Centre (DHC).

We have filled this website with archived individual patient files generated in the Devon County Lunatic Asylum (DCLA), which opened its doors to patients in July 1845. Information gathered from such files has been supplemented with reports by various Medical Superintendents, the Commissioners of Lunacy (later ‘Board of Control’), as well as correspondence from patients’ relatives and interviews with former staff. Most primary sources are kept in the DHC, and bibliographic references to the sources used to compile this website can be found in the bibliography section.

We are particularly interested in collating memories of people who or whose relatives were treated, worked or were in any way associated with the DCLA. If you would like to share your own experiences with the hospital, please click on the heading ‘Memories’.

A note about terminology

The notion of what constitutes mental illness has undergone significant changes over the time period covered by this website and with it the ways we describe and refer to mental illness and people suffering from it. We have kept the language used in the case studies to highlight these changes. We are aware that people might find some of the terms offensive from today’s perspective, but we ask our visitors to read these words in their historical context.