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A home for the ‘Hypochondriac, Mad and Distracted’: remembering the ‘madhouses’ of Fishponds

For more than 100 years, a family firm profited handsomely from running mental health facilities in Fishponds – sometimes using shocking and bizarre practices. A new book uncovers the startling history of ‘Mason’s Madhouse’.

People's History

Dental workers at the Smile Pad practice in Fishponds were shocked to learn during my most recent check-up that their premises sit on the site of the entrance to what was once one of the biggest private lunatic asylums outside London. 

They wondered if that explained some of the strange phenomena that had been reported there – screams heard at night, mirrors breaking, and sharps disposal units moving of their own accord. 

It is highly unlikely there is any connection. But it would have given an added frisson had they told me before I finished researching my new book on the history of ‘Mason’s Madhouse’ which once stood at the junction of Manor Road and Fishponds Road.

For me it all began when a cousin told me our grandma, an Irish matriarch in Bedminster, used to threaten her kids with Fishponds if they were naughty. Apparently the area once had a reputation for housing the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know in its lunatic asylums.

But the story really owes its origins to the Gloucestershire village of Wickwar and the death of Dr Joseph Mason, bankrupt and without a will, in 1738. He used to run a private asylum for the ‘Melancholy, Mad and Distracted’, assisted by his son, Joseph junior.

The son, then still in his twenties and with no medical qualifications we know of, took over the practice. After marrying into a Baptist family from Stapleton, he moved it to what is now Fishponds. 

He announced his intention to cure the ‘Hypochondriac, Mad and Distracted … with the Blessing of God’ with an advert in the Gloucester Journal, that added: ‘No Cure, No Pay, Boarding excepted’.

Startling treatments

This unconscious irony of his selling point became the title for my book, since Mason made a handsome profit that allowed him to amass an enormous property portfolio, including a large farm in St George on which his patients could roam. 

Joseph Mason junior, who moved his father’s mental institutions to Fishponds in the 18th century.

He had set up shop in a large family house where present-day Glaisdale Road meets College Road in Fishponds, sharing it with patients who were looked after by his staff. 

Mason was soon ready to expand, purchasing an extensive site on which he built Fishponds House, better known as ‘Mason’s Madhouse’. It opened for business in 1764 by which time he was onto his third wife, all of whom would die before him. The new lunatic asylum could house 50 patients as well as his family and a private chapel.

The asylum would expand several times as it passed through subsequent generations of the Mason family. Those who took over from Joseph were certainly more qualified than he was – although perhaps lacked his business acumen.

Each had ‘troublesome’ patients. The founder got caught up in a legal spat with Clifton’s celebrated Goldney family, which had tricked haberdasher Edward into Mason’s care for being ‘flighty’ with family money. 

Another member of the same family, Councillor Gabriel Goldney JP, would be among the people who produced a none-too-positive report about conditions at the asylum under Mason’s grandson, Dr Joseph Mason Cox. 

One of the bizarre machines used for ‘rotational therapy’

Dr Cox believed in some quite startling treatments for mental illness, detailed in my book. But the report noted in particular his reliance upon ‘rotational therapy’, an extraordinary technique that gave rise to the contemporary term ‘spin doctors’ in an altogether different context.

Patients were placed in a chair suspended from the ground, and would then be spun around, often until they lost consciousness. Such devices were in use elsewhere at the time, in Ireland and other European countries. Although supposed to rid patients of their neuroses, rotational therapy was most effective as a control mechanism – that is until patients started to die in the process. 

What is even more extraordinary is that, as recently as 2013,  a university hospital in Switzerland had been revisiting Dr Cox’s theories with a space-age version of his equipment (pictures). They have discovered that it may indeed be effective as a means of modifying a person’s mood.

Public inquiry

When Dr George Gwinnett Bompas, the founder’s great-grandson, took over the asylum in 1817 it had another makeover with new gardens, paths and trees. Permission was granted to build over the entrance to the driveway to Oldbury Court, creating a bend in the road that still exists. 

Meanwhile the rather grand Upper Fishponds House nearby, once owned by the founder’s lawyer, was leased as an adjunct to the asylum, initially to house recuperating women patients. It was situated close to the larger of the two flooded quarries that gave Fishponds its name, and had a variety of uses including as a school for boys.

Renamed Beechwood House at the end of the 19th century, the property was demolished in 1935 to make way for several streets of houses. A weeping willow tree that sat in the extensive grounds of Upper Fishponds House can still be seen opposite the Health Centre in Beechwood Road.

At least one of the women under Gwinnett Bompas’ care was unhappy with her lot. In September 1838, Maria Acland wrote a heartbreaking letter to her uncles about her plight and threw it into the road outside, requesting whoever found it to deliver it to a prominent Justice of the Peace. 

Bompas had some rather strange ideas about the causes and cures of mental illness, but he prospered and played an active part in civic affairs, sponsoring the building of the Baptist Church on Downend Road.

His 30-year regime was followed by a shorter, two-year stint when his son, the hapless Dr Joseph Carpenter Bompas was in charge of the asylum. The great-great-grandson of Joseph Mason was clearly not up to the task. His failings would lead to a sensational public inquiry held at Lawford’s Gate Court near Old Market in November 1848. 

A full transcript of the inquiry, which became available during the Covid pandemic, provided eye-opening insight into the asylum’s deficiencies. Numerous examples of maladministration were revealed, and evidence provided by patients, staff and family members was by turns hair-raising, hilarious and horrendous. It featured a confrontation between traditionalists who favoured the use of physical restraints and reformers like John Conolly who promoted more enlightened approaches to the treatment of people in mental ill-health.

Found guilty on 104 counts, Bompas was fined the equivalent of £1.5 million and emigrated to Australia with his family. Soon afterwards, work started on Bristol’s first municipal asylum, close to the old prison which had become Stapleton Workhouse on Manor Road. 

‘Philanthropy gone mad’

The Bristol Corporation (similar to the council today) had baulked at the idea of shelling out for a purpose-built asylum. It even set up a committee ‘to endeavour to postpone the building of a new lunatic asylum’.

The Bristol Gazette said it would be “lunacy itself” to build a new asylum: “[T]o take a pauper simply because he is mad and to place him in a palace with pleasure grounds, ornamental water, etc., is nothing short of philanthropy gone mad,” the paper said.

The Bristol Mirror thought likewise. “We are asked to provide Pauper Lunatics with a palace which will costs from £200 to £700 per idiot or madman [up to £35k at today’s prices]. It must be a positive pleasure, to be out of one’s mind in the present day.”

By the time a new Bristol Lunatic Asylum opened in 1861, which would eventually become Glenside Mental Hospital, the contents of nearby Fishponds House had been auctioned off, and the building converted into a boot and shoe factory.

Researching the history of ‘Mason’s madhouses’ brought to light many fascinating, little-known facts about Fishponds, but also about the development of approaches to mental health. I began to catalogue the changes in attitude by listing relevant legislation from the Vagrancy Act of 1714 to the 2022 Mental Health Bill. It proved an overwhelming task, as modifications have occurred almost every year.

Among the extraordinary things to emerge from my research was the existence of the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society, set up in 1845 by the son of Britain’s only assassinated Prime Minister. John Perceval had been incarcerated in Brislington House, another of Bristol’s private asylums. His concern was that the voices of patients needed to be heard about institutional abuses. It was a precursor to Mind, which fulfils a similar function today.

More than a hundred years earlier, Daniel Defoe had been trying to highlight the pernicious use of private ‘madhouses’. Best known for Robinson Crusoe, based on his encounter in the Llandoger Trow pub with shipwrecked sailor Alexander Selkirk, Defoe had petitioned Queen Caroline, Consort to George II, for reform. I have included a lengthy extract, as a reminder that without proper scrutiny institutions will fail vulnerable people. 

The ghosts of those bygone days may yet return to haunt us – unless both NHS and private-sector mental health services receive the attention and resources they deserve. 

Mike Jempson’s new book, No Cure, no Pay, Boarding excepted, is available to purchase via Bristol Radical History Group. Mike will be giving a talk on his research on 28 January at 7pm, at at the Nissen Hut, Eastville Park, Bristol, BS5 6QL – tickets are £5.

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