The hospital records telling women's stories

This post for Women's History Week by guest blogger Laura Stevens focuses on the hidden stories of women she discovered while digitising records of mental-health institutions in Scotland.

Submitted by Nicky on 10-03-2016 11:12:37

Glasgow Royal Asylum

Glasgow Royal Asylum, as it was then known, opened its doors in 1814 and was originally based in Dobbie’s Loan on the outskirts of the city in the area of Cowcaddens. In 1843 the asylum was re-located, to escape the growing heavy industries in the city centre, to where it still stands today in the West End of Glasgow.

Mental health care in the Victorian era was founded on the principle of having a space for patients that removed them from everyday life. Admittance to the asylum would give them physical and mental space that would aid their recovery. The same level of care was given to patients regardless of their social class but, in the Victorian way, efforts were made to ensure that there was little socialising between different classes of patient.

The buildings at the new Gartnavel site allowed patients at the hospital to be divided by social class and further still by gender. ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gentlemen’ were lodged in the West House. One anecdote reports of a lady admitted to the West House who requested, and was granted, space for her horse and carriage within the hospital grounds. This courtesy is also rumoured to have been extended to gentlemen, who also had access to billiard tables and other leisure activities such as golf.

Etching of exterior hospital and surrounding landscapeHB13/15/63 Framed etching of hospital by Susan T. Crawford. Reproduced courtesy of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archive

A different class of patient

Patients paid for by the local authority, described in the asylums records as ‘pauper patients’, were admitted to the East House’s Female or Male wards. Those who were able were expected to take on work duties within the hospital. Engaging patients in such tasks was part of the treatment at Gartnavel and focusing on these under takings was designed to distract them from their illness.

An extract from the Fiftieth Annual Report (1863) gives us some insight into the different tasks given to women, dependent on their social class. Ladies in the West House toiled over more delicate items such as embroidery or hemming handkerchiefs. Over 200 “Fancy Pin-Cushions’ are recorded to have been made! There are some more unusual items on this list. Five flags were made in honour of the marriage of the Prince of Wales that year. In contrast the women of the East House worked on more strenuous tasks. In the same year they produced, amongst many other items, 662 towels and over 400 men’s shirts. They also beat the West House by producing nine flags in honour of the marriage of the Prince of Wales.

The rooms these women toiled in still exist. Both the West and East Houses still stand in the grounds of the Gartnavel Campus but are no longer in use by the hospital which moved to a brand new building on the same site in 2007.

Female ward in East House HB13/15/25 Female ward in East House. Reproduced courtesy of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archive
Nurses and female patients in a ward HB13/15/191 Nurses and female patients in a ward. Reproduced courtesy of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archive

Find out more

A wide variety of digitised material from the Gartnavel collection, and the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries, is available to view via the Wellcome Library Digital Collections including patient case notes (up to 1914), registers of staff, administrative papers, patient publications and photographs of the hospital’s staff, patients and grounds.

The records of Gartnavel Royal Hospital can be accessed at the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archive; the records of the Crichton Royal Hosptial can be viewed at Dumfries and Galloway Archive Services.


Laura Stevens graduated from the University of Glasgow with an MSc Information Management and Preservation (Merit) in 2010. She has worked in range of archives and special repositories including Glasgow Caledonian University Archives, Glasgow University Archive Services, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives and Glasgow Women’s Library. Her current role is that of Project Officer (University of Glasgow) on the Wellcome Trust funded project, Digitisation of Mental Healthcare Archives.

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