‘An asylum for pauper lunatics’

The town council began to consider corporate building programmes almost as soon as the charter was confirmed in 1842. These included two major projects on Birmingham Heath, the house of correction and the lunatic asylum. Both of these institutions became important features of the town, but while the prison was subjected to scandal soon after opening, the asylum would go on to become a model institution for the care of paupers with mental health issues. Indeed, it became so popular that after only a short while private patients were also admitted. The asylum, which later became known as All Saints, was a large and impressive structure, set in beautiful grounds, which I visited in the late 1980s. I can remember it had the appearance of a grand, stately home.  Although it was the care given to patients which attracted interest, the buildings also gave testimony to the aspirations of Birmingham’s early municipal men.

Notes presented below are taken from BCC1/AA/1/1/2  (Library of Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography)


On February 4th, 1846, the town council appointed a committee to superintend the construction and provisions  ‘of an asylum for pauper lunatics’. This first committee comprised of aldermen Samuel Beale, James James and Thomas Phillips, along with councillors Samuel Briggs, William Lucy, Robert Martineau, Robert Potter and  Thomas Wright.  The committee appointed architect D. R. Hill and advertised for contractors to undertake the construction work. The foundation stone was laid by the mayor, Robert Martineau, on September 29th, 1847. There was something of a ceremonial religious service, ‘suitable for the occasion’, conducted by the Reverend J. C. Miller, rector of St. Martin’s in the Bull Ring.

Some early difficulties with the building contractor led to delays and the asylum was not ready for patients  for a further three years after the laying of the foundation stone. At a meeting held on January 1st, 1850, the Asylum Committee reported that the buildings were now ready for the fixtures and fittings and that adverts had been placed in the local and London newspapers for key positions in the asylum:

Medical Superintendent: 38 applications were received and the post was given to Mr Thomas Green, surgeon of Newhall Street in Birmingham

Matron: 27 applications received, Charlotte W. Houghton, sub-matron of Hanwell lunatic asylum was duly appointed

Clerk-steward: 43 applications received, William Frederick Knight, resident house steward of Northampton asylum appointed

All were to commence their posts on March 1st, with the asylum expected to receive its first patients on March 25th. The committee recommended further appointments to be made:

9 male attendants at a salaries of between £20 – £30 p.a.
9 female attendants at salaries of between £15 – £20 p.a.
1 cook at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 baker at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 laundress, at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 house porter at a salary of £26 p.a.
non-specified number of domestic servants, salary of £8 – £15 p.a.

These staff to be resident and, in addition, non-resident staff, comprising

Engineer (30 shillings per week without board)
Lodge-keeper and head gardener ‘being a married man’ also 30 shillings per week

In fact, the first patients were not received until June 3rd, 1850. The committee reported to the town council’s quarterly meeting in August that 142 patients had, at that point, been received, 74 men and 68 women. They asylum had been completely fitted out and was able to accommodate 250 patients. At the advice of the medical officer, newspapers, books and gardening tools were being provided ‘as a means of occupation and amusement’ for both staff and patients and there were further plans for building a farm. The architect had, at this point, already been instructed to draw up plans for ‘the requisite outbuildings for pigs, cattle &c.’


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