Like a lot of people, I'd always known the name Broadmoor but little more about the place. That changed in 2004 when my workplace took in the historic Broadmoor archive. Part of my job became promoting the archive for research use, and I found that it challenged the way I felt about Broadmoor and about mental illness. In many ways, mental illness is the last taboo, but here before me was something that confirmed how widespread it was. Within the archive were hundreds of stories of people who had suffered catastrophic episodes of mental illness. It was like a tragic version of 'This is Your Life'. I felt that I wanted to write about these people and that maybe that would encourage other readers to take a second look at Broadmoor. The book is called Broadmoor Revealed by Mark Stevens and I hope it does just that.
For me, the story of Broadmoor is to be found in ordinary people. I'm quite fond of saying that you won't make sense of Broadmoor if you think only in terms of geniuses or monsters - the way that we often frame our thoughts about the mentally ill - but that rather you must think in terms of the boy or girl next door. Sadly, many patients have harmed their nearest and dearest, and I guess for me that is the fascination. How does the irrational thought process lead you to hurt the people you love most? Probably the saddest cases were the mothers who had killed their own children. One, a Welsh housewife called Catherine Jones, became convinced her family was destitute, so she suffocated her baby to stop the child from starving. It was nonsense, of course, but it seemed to Catherine a perfectly rational decision.
One of the most interesting incidents and one I'm very fond of is an escape attempt by Richard Walker in 1865. Walker - a postman who stole the post - was determined to try and run away. He tried three times before he gave up. One night, he went to enormous trouble to first remove a piece of glass from his window, then use a bolt from the frame to hammer out the iron window bars. Once outside, he made it over two walls in the dark before taking a horse from the stables and galloping away. It was a very cunning plan, except that Walker had forgotten to take any trousers with him. Naked from the waist down, the first local he met took him in for breakfast, sent word to Broadmoor and Walker was back inside before lunch.
I think that if nothing else, this suggests that escaped patients are not necessarily something to fear. I often think that fear of the hospital increases in direct proportion to how far away you live from it. As a society, I think it is true that we fear places like Broadmoor - more now than the Victorians did, certainly. It's largely a fear of the unknown, and also a fear of mental illness, which as I say remains something of a great taboo. As regards the locals, I know that they don't walk around in fear. For example, they treat the weekly alarm more as an old friend than a source of terror. I know also that the hospital understands the trust we all place in it and that it tries hard not to let us down.
I find visiting Broadmoor a very humbling experience. I think of the incredible range of emotions that the place copes with - both within and without the walls - and then I see that it has been quietly doing that for 150 years, and is going to carry on doing it well into the future. And then I think that for any institution to last that long it must be doing something right.
You can catch me on Broadmoor: A History of the Criminally Insane on Crime & Investigation Network® for further insight and my book Broadmoor Revealed Published by Pen and Sword, RRP £19.99 is available now.Suggest a correction