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A visit to Brookwood Aslyum in the 19th century
  1. Charlotte Cliffe
  1. National Health service, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Charlotte Cliffe, Dickson Poon Law School, King's College London; charlotte.cliffe{at}

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During a visit to Surrey History museum, I reviewed a number of archived patient notes from the old Brookwood Asylum. Patient notes dating back to the late 19th century. Reading through these prompted considerable sadness as it became clear many patients were incarcerated for several years without contact from the outside world. Often these were patients who had nowhere else to go. One patient in particular stood out. A young boy admitted in his late teens, described as uncontrollable in behaviour, spent his life in the asylum. From reading the notes, he is likely to have had an intellectual disability and his parents were simply unable to cope or receive any support to help care for him, resulting in incarceration. The numbers of diagnoses were limited in the late 19th century and many were simply diagnosed with ‘mania’ or ‘lunacy’. As a result, he spent his life living in isolation, behind the asylum walls. The patient notes outline his death a few years later, while still living at the asylum. This sad story, prompted me to reflect on his short and lonely life, writing the poem below. It is a conceptual poem, theorising how this patient might feel about his entrapment inside the asylum, with no family or friends, or the possibility of ever leaving.

Between these four walls I exist

Alone silence echoes

Yet I hear despite this

Fear pounding through the walls,

So loudly, it bellows

Between the throbbing I decay

Delayed I pause, patient

Expecting to leave soon, afraid

That day will never come

I wait, waste, mind vacant

Between the dark some clarity

Explaining why Im here

Lunacy apparently

Justifies this treatment?

To me this is un- clear


I would like to thank the Surrey History Museum for access to their archived notes.


  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.