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  • The York Retreat1
  • Barry Edginton (bio)

On 29 April 1790, the Society of Friends in York was informed that Hannah Mills had died in the York Asylum. Although there was no evidence of mistreatment, the society was shocked. Later, at a gathering of the Tuke family, Anne, daughter-in-law of William Tuke, asked why there was no establishment for such persons in their society (Allott, 61–62). This question became a “guiding light” for William Tuke, who, at the age of sixty, set about to reform the treatment of insanity. In 1791, William Tuke presented his ideas for the treatment of the insane to the quarterly meeting of the York Society of Friends. Although he met considerable opposition, especially from his wife, Esther, he was allowed, according to the Quaker tradition, to develop his ideas.2 The two influences affecting Tuke’s ability to carry on the project of asylum reform came from his Quaker beliefs. First, he acknowledged that the force of goodness flowed through him and, second, that this “inner light” enveloped every person. This idea of an “inner light” affected the way Tuke thought about insanity. He thought that goodness, reason, and faith were within everyone and that madness could be remedied not only by kindness but also by a proper atmosphere and environment. Tuke would “profess to do little more than assist Nature, in the performance of her own cure” (Stewart 8).

Tuke’s moral treatment favoured a therapeutic environment in which “sane” ideas and behaviours were encoded in a design that would transform the actions of its patients. “The curative power of pure, romantic nature itself … was called into service. Nature was to heal insanity like all the other problems caused by chaotic social progress” (Doerner 80). The question of how space could be constructed to reflect a calm within the patient became a constant topic in the building and maintenance of The Retreat.

The organization and assistance of the Quaker community as a group whose “culture of opposition was instrumental in the production of early modern subjectivity” (Pointon 398) became the social basis of his support. Tuke, as with all Quakers, took representational modes of living seriously. Just as the Quaker meeting house extended their beliefs about spatial organization to design, so too the design of The Retreat would privilege sight, sound, and smell in an “environment” of treatment. The design incorporated the image of a healthy life and the material means by which it was to be achieved. Theirs was an image of insanity that “stressed the same mind / body unity in their medical treatment as they did in their own personal worship” (Stewart 5). Even the name “The Retreat” was adopted to convey the image that the institution was to be used for the reparation and safety of the body and the mind.


Treatment would not follow the regimen of contemporary medical knowledge, and, in the correspondence between Tuke and John Bevans, there is no [End Page 9] information, either prior to construction or during building, to show that either had any knowledge of the current ideas and debates concerning the treatment or cause of insanity. Rather, the building would convey healthful discipline and moral qualities. It would not be a static space but rather a therapeutic instrument assisting in healing (see Edginton, “Well-Ordered”). The task for Tuke and Bevans was to represent moral treatment in a built form. While many public asylum designs failed in their attempts to create a healthful environment for treatment because of overcrowding or lack of funding (Digby 9), The Retreat retained the vision of Tuke and Bevans. The Visitors of the Commission in Lunacy (8 March 1873) observed this almost eighty years later: “We are glad that attention continues to be given to the important object of [keeping] the interior of the Hospital cheerful and comfortable in aspects which it calculated to produce a beneficial affect upon the inmates” (Commissioners in Lunacy np).

One of the distinct features of The Retreat is its attachment to the natural landscape. The placement of the building outside the city as well as its aspect and landscaping were seen as appropriate measures used to treat those...


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pp. 9-13
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