Asylums & Libraries: “Unheard Voices of High Royds”

Leeds City Centre: Oct 2015

Lion’s Eye View: Leeds, Oct 2015

“Laziness … Mental Excitement … Novel Reading …” – Reasons for Admission 1864 – 1889

The first time I visited someone in psychiatric care, they were in Wayne County Hospital, in Westland, Michigan. Known throughout the state as “Eloise“, I went there in the late 1970s (1) to see my grandfather, who was suffering from senility.

I only went once.

Nearly 40 years, and four psychiatric admissions of my own later, on Friday I visited “Unheard Voices of High Royds”, an exhibition about the Leeds equivalent of Eloise. The asylum opened in 1888, and didn’t close until 2003.

The exhibition consists of photos old and new, information specific about High Royds, and about related topics such as the history of ECT, and lithium, plus poems, a striking sculpture, and this film. It includes a contribution by one of the Kaiser Chiefs, who wrote a song about High Royds.

“Religious Enthusiasm … Bad Habits & Political Excitement …” – Reasons for Admission

I’ve titled this “Asylums & Libraries” in part because the exhibition is currently in Leeds Central Library. Part of Leeds Municipal Buildings, the library is an amazing place, raised in the glory days when public buildings were like temples.

Interior: Leeds Central Library

Interior: Leeds Central Library

At their best, asylums such as High Royds, and Eloise, were refuges where people could make sense of the world, and their minds. For me, libraries were, and are, such refuges: places of quiet, and reflection. Unlike asylums, and wards, you don’t end up spending months, years, or even decades there. Nor have I ever been bored in a library (2).

The mixed blessings of asylums are among the many things I took away from the “Unheard Voices of High Royds” exhibition. Another was the message of stigma, a key theme of “Time to Change Leeds”, which commissioned the exhibition. According to a psychiatrist interviewed in the film, even potential patients asked to be admitted to St James Hospital, rather than High Royds.

What do we make of a place, and an era, which admitted people for reasons like these?

“Death of Sons in War … Time of Life … Snuff Eating for 2 Years … “

Glass ceiling: Leeds Central Library

Glass ceiling: Leeds Central Library

Or this?

“The War … “

Go to Leeds, and visit “Unheard Voices”. It’s Remembrance Day soon: you can buy a poppy, whilst you’re at it.

Leeds War Memorial: Oct 2015

Leeds War Memorial: Oct 2015

(1) Thanks to this film, I’ve realised that I must have visited Eloise within two years of it closing.
(2) At least one of the people interviewed in the High Royds film talks of the boredom of being on a ward.

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