Residents and visitors can gain a fascinating insight into mental health care in Staffordshire going back to the early 19th century.

The Brampton Museum is hosting a major touring exhibition which explores the history of the county’s three mental asylums between 1818 and 1960 and what life was like for patients and staff.

“A Case for the Ordinary: Staffordshire’s asylums and the patient experience” is the culmination of a two-year research project – funded by the Wellcome Trust and carried out by Staffordshire County Council’s Archives and Heritage Service – based on historic patient case records transferred by local health authorities relating to former asylums in Stafford, later named St. George’s Hospital; Burntwood, subsequently known as St. Michael’s Hospital and Cheddleton which was later called St. Edward’s Hospital.

The exhibition tells the stories of patients such as Arthur whose struggle with mental illness following the tragic deaths of his children quickly led to the end of his career and the separation of a family.

Viewers can learn more about different topics such as treatments, buildings, personal letters, social life and asylums in wartime. They can also listen to work created by poet Sara Levy in response to notes, photographs, correspondence and ephemera. Objects on display preserved from the asylums include a nurse’s uniform, wooden laundry basket, electro convulsive therapy equipment, tokens and a cornet.

The free exhibition runs in the new Jim Wain Courtyard Gallery until Sunday, 3 July.

Council Leader Simon Tagg said: “The Brampton Museum is proud to host this excellent touring exhibition. It’s fantastic that extensive patient records from the county council’s archives – from 1818 through to the early NHS – have been used to create an extremely interesting, valuable and poignant display showing what life was like in asylums for ordinary men and women from all over Staffordshire. Mental health is an important subject so it’s great to discover people’s stories and understand our medical and social history.

“I’m also really pleased to see yet another brilliant exhibition in the museum’s new art gallery. The recent redevelopment – which also includes an events room and a café overlooking the picturesque park – was all about attracting diverse audiences and creating more enjoyable experiences. Following a hugely successful exhibition celebrating local artist Arthur Berry’s life, work and legacy followed by an eclectic display of artwork created by female artists with close links to the borough and now this, it’s safe to say we have hit the ground running.”

Victoria Wilson, Cabinet Member with responsibility for the Archives Service at Staffordshire County Council, added: “This is a fascinating project that is helping shine a light and helping us better understand mental health in the Victorian era. The records are amazing and have helped us retell the stories of ordinary men, women and children caught up in the mental health system at the time. They also give us a first-hand account from the medical staff working in the asylums.”

Volunteers and researchers – supported by academics from Keele and Birmingham Universities with input from former mental health care professionals – have catalogued the records and produced a searchable database of early ones dating from 1818 to 1920.

The research is available through a  project blog which looks in more detail at individual
stories.

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