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At Home in the Institution? Asylum, School and Lodging House Interiors in London and South East England, 1845-1914


At Home in the Institution was a two-year research project examining the impact of the design, decoration and furnishing of nineteenth-century residential institutional spaces on the experiences of their inmates.

The project was led by Dr Jane Hamlett, and Dr Lesley Hoskins and Dr Rebecca Preston (pictured on the right at the former Holloway Sanatorium) were Research Fellows.

Outcomes from the project include, Snapshots of Institutional Life an online image gallery, Living Away from Home a small-scale exhibition produced  with Surrey History Centre and a range of other public activities.

The research team are working on a number of publications from this project, including an article on clothing in public asylums, an essay on the material world of London's Rowton houses, and a co-edited collection Residential Institutions in Britain, 1725-1970: Inmates and Environments, which will come out with Pickering and Chatto in June 2013.  Jane is also writing a monograph, At Home in the Institution: Inside Lunatic Asylums, Lodging Houses and Schools in Victorian and Edwardian England.

ModelLodgingHousecroppedlowres(Small)The experience of institutional living and concerns over the plan, design and decoration of residential institutions are not a new phenomenon. Victorian England saw a dramatic growth in institutional spaces in which large numbers of inmates could permanently reside. From the 1830s the relief of the poor, the punishment of criminals, the treatment of the mentally and physically ill, and the education of children were all subject to increasing charitable activity and government intervention. Union workhouses, prisons, asylums, hospitals and schools were built en mass, and were often carefully designed to control the behaviour of their inmates. The organization of institutional space remains an important concern in Britain today. Decoration and furnishing are widely acknowledged to play a key role in the life and function of institutions. The decoration of psychiatric hospitals is also the subject of ongoing sociological and medical research (Karlin and Zeiss, 2006). Yet there has been no historical study of the interiors of residential institutions, and their influence on the lives of inmates in the nineteenth century, the first period of the growth of government intervention in institutional construction in England.

DormitoryatTwizzletwig(Small)The project looks at  three case study institutions: lunatic asylums (as they were known to contemporaries), schools for middle-class children, and common and charitable lodging houses. The research is focused on the south east to show variations in middle-class schooling and asylum provision, while London is also included as this was the main area of lodging house activity in the period.

During the nineteenth century, the ideal of home (especially the middle- and upper-class home) exerted a powerful hold on those who built institutions. They created environments that borrowed heavily from contemporary domestic decoration and practices. Asylum authorities hoped to help patients return to normality by surrounding them with home-like things. Cleanliness, privacy and sometimes elaborate decor were intended to civilise the lodging poor. Early headmistresses decorated girls’ boarding houses in a domestic style to reassure parents. Boys’ schools were different. They presented themselves as beyond ‘home’ – thereby preventing boys from becoming cosseted by contact with ‘feminine’ domesticity.

But domestic surroundings did not, in themselves, create a sense of being ‘at home’. Some asylum patients were comforted, but overcrowding, violence and routine could be disruptive. Lodgers, meanwhile, were often indifferent to their environment, finding a sense of home in duration of residence and interaction with fellows. Schoolgirls struggled with endless rules. Ironically, it was schoolboys who felt most at home.


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