York Vs York: Changing Attitudes in Regency England

York Vs York: Changing Attitudes in Regency England

Jane Austen did not write about disabled people in any of her books, but people with disabilities were just as common in Regency England as they are today. Whether the disability was physical or cognitive, people back then wanted to care for their loved ones who needed extra assistance or intensive support, just as we do now. How did they do it? The story of the York Lunatic Asylum vs the York Retreat gives us some important insight.

Most disabled people were cared for at home or in their home community if at all possible. Keeping the disabled person in a familiar setting and among people who loved them was undoubtedly the best option for families with enough money to do so. But what did society do with those poor unfortunates whose families did not or could not care for their family member, especially a “lunatic” family member? (“Lunatic” might include anyone with a mental disability or disorder, from severe depression to schizophrenia to autism and the like.) Who took care of them?

In Austen’s day there were a number of “asylums” which took in those who could not care for themselves. Sometimes these were funded by the government and sometimes they were run with private funds. Wealthy families occasionally paid for one of their loved ones to be cared for at these institutions, but most inmates were poor, and naturally, the poorer a patient was, the worse their care was likely to be. The common view was that “lunatics” had the minds of animals, and so they should be confined and controlled. There was little hope given for any improvement.


The York Lunatic Asylum was founded in 1777 and typified this approach to the disabled. Fortunate patients from wealthy families were relatively well-treated while poor patients suffered through straightjackets, restraining chains, inadequate food, and little supervision or protection. But all patients, even wealthy ones, were subject to such “treaments” as purges and cold baths. Deaths among the poor patients were common but they were not reported. Since the asylum was private there were no government inspections, and so there was no way to evaluate how well “treatment” was working, or if there was any attempt at treatment at all.

In 1792 a young Quaker woman suffering from what we would now call chronic depression was admitted to the York Lunatic Asylum. Six weeks later, she was dead. Her fellow Quakers investigated her death, and when they discovered the horrifying conditions under which she died, they decided to do something about it. They founded their own asylum called the York Retreat.

At the York Retreat, treatment was based on the idea that “lunatics” had souls. Therefore the Quakers believed that the disabled deserved to be treated like human beings, not dumb beasts. Few restraints were used. Patients were encouraged to participate in outdoor activities, to practice simple arts and crafts, and to do productive work in the community. This basic philosophy, so revolutionary in its day, gradually became the operating philosophy for  “lunatic” homes around the world. To this day the York Retreat model drives how we as a society try to treat the mentally disabled.

Meanwhile the Quakers were not done with the York Asylum. They were not content to allow other patients to suffer under the brutal conditions they had found inside the institution. Instead they managed to get a leading Quaker appointed as one of the patrons of the asylum, and in 1814 they were successful in bringing about a parliamentary inquiry into abuses at the hospital.The leadership and staff of the hospital were completely replaced and the asylum began to follow the kinder, gentler practices of the York Retreat. In following decades the asylum name changed to Bootham Park. Gradually it evolved into a modern psychiatric hospital. It closed in 2016.

The York Retreat continues operating today. It specializes in treating those with complex mental disorders like dementia, PTSD, autism, etc..

It’s interesting to think how Darcy and Elizabeth might have reacted to having a child with a disability, and how they would have viewed the rise of institutions like the York Retreat. I’d like to think that they would have made sure that any disabled child of theirs would enjoy a full, integrated life at Pemberley. And I’d love to see a story where Elizabeth champions the rights of the disabled and perhaps becomes a sponsor of the York Retreat.

As the mother of an autistic woman I am fascinated by how far we have progressed in our treatment of those with mental disabilities, and by how much some things have not changed. We still fight for people with disabilities to be looked at as human and worthy of inclusion in society. Perhaps that is a battle that will always have to be fought.

For further reading: A History of Disability 


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May 3, 2017 8:36 AM

Interesting post. In my genealogy research I came across an ancestor who was in such a home although this home included both what they considered “lunatic” and “poor and elderly” so I always wondered for which reason she was institutionalized. Either way, I feel saddened by the kind of “care” she probably received at such a place.

May 2, 2017 5:28 PM

Elaine, thank you for sharing this interesting post!

Jennifer Redlarczyk
April 29, 2017 11:57 AM

Interesting as always. When I was researching the London Hospital (Now called Royal London Hospital) for Darcy’s Melody, I read that in London, the place folks were sent to was Moorefields. My very minor character, Mr. Paul Blakemore was suffering with a head injury and memory loss. Had the Bennet sisters not helped to locate his family, he most likely would have been sent there. Thank goodness we have many support groups and services available for folks with disabilities these days.

Regina Jeffers
Regina Jeffers (@reginajeffers)
April 28, 2017 4:16 PM

Excellent article, Elaine.

April 28, 2017 10:30 AM

One of my very dear friends has an autistic daughter and another has a daughter with Downs. To imagine either of those sweet girls in this kind of system makes me sick to my stomach. I’m thankful we’ve come so far yet, as you said, there will always be the fight with society. I wrote a paper for one of my college classes about the public (and even political) climate treats people with Downs and used our spunky light of our life little girl as my base subject and it was painful to see some of the things that were said British author Richard Dawkins has said that if you know ahead of time, “it would be “immoral” to carry on with a pregnancy if the mother knew the fetus had Down’s syndrome”. Another intimated she should be killed because she can not be a productive member of society. When I see the sunshine of her smile and her unequivocal love of people, I want to just smack these people. I digress. Very interesting post and good for the Quakers!!

Regina Jeffers
Regina Jeffers (@reginajeffers)
April 28, 2017 4:15 PM
Reply to  StephanieL

Stephanie, my long-time friend has a Down’s syndrome sister, who is now in her late 50s. She was born well have her brothers and sisters. My friend still oversees her care. I used my personal experiences with Vicky to shape two of my characters. In book 3 of the Realm Series, A Touch of Cashémere, the hero’s brother has what we now call “Down’s.” As Dr. John Down, who called the disorder “Mongolism,” did not bring his findings forward until about the time of our American Civil War, people with Down’s in the Regency would have been confined to asylums. There are ramifications for the earldom because the character with Down’s would have been the rightful earl, but his younger brother, the hero, serves as his regent. The hero hires a young man to serve as the “tutor” for his brother rather than to permit him to be confined.
I also used a Down’s character in my contemporary romance “Second Chances: the Courtship Wars.” In that one the Down’s character has a “boyfriend” at the daycare facility, where she spends her days. Having taught special education for a good while, I was familiar with the “relationships” of some of my students, and I incorporated those observations in the story.

Sheila L. Majczan
Sheila L. Majczan
May 27, 2017 6:12 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

FYI: It’s Down Syndrome. I worked for a number of years with those diagnosed with IDD (Intellectually Developmentally Disabled). Some had very supportive families who took advantage of community resources while others abused their own family members. I refused amniocentesis when pregnant after many years of fertility treatments saying I would take whatever GOD gave me and since that test had a risk of then causing a miscarriage I didn’t want to risk that happening. There is an unpublished story about Darcy being deaf from having measles when young and then having a speech impediment when he attempted to talk. He suffers the scorn and abuse of the community as they learn of his condition. The author researched that condition and how it was treated in that era for her story and it was very touching.

Teresa Broderick
Teresa Broderick
April 28, 2017 8:24 AM

It’s a scary thought the way people with disabilities were treated back then. My daughter has Schizo Effective Disorder. She would definitely have been in one of these places if she had been born back then. From my experience of mental health now, I think it’s very important for the sufferer to be among family and in familiar places like home etc..
On Darcy and Elizabeth having a child with disability, I think it would have been ‘farmed out’ so to speak. Look at Jane Austen herself. Her brother was sent to other people to be cared for and we have little information about him. It’s like he didn’t exist. In that at least we have come a long way in our thinking thank goodness.
A very interesting post.

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