Wellcome Library funds a new partnership to digitise 800,000 pages of mental health archives

Over 800,000 pages of archival material from psychiatric hospitals in the UK from the 18th to the 20th centuries will be digitised and made freely available online as part of the Wellcome Library’s ambitious digitisation programme.

The Wellcome Library will partner with the Borthwick Institute for Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, Dumfries and Galloway Council Archives, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists for the project, which will bring together documents from the York Retreat, St Luke’s Hospital Woodside, Crichton Royal Hospital, Gartnavel Royal Hospital and Camberwell House Asylum. These collections will be added to the Wellcome Library’s own collection of archives from public and private mental health institutions, including the records of Ticehurst House Hospital in Sussex, which provide a rare insight into the running of a privately run asylum.

The project will mostly focus on records dating from the 19th and 20th centuries, and will touch on the movement away from institutional care as the 20th century progressed. Patient records and case notes, photographs, administrative documents and registers will be digitised, creating an extensive online archive that will be a valuable resource for historical research.

The documents will be available via the Wellcome Library’s website, where users will be able to search the archives using the catalogue and view documents on the media player. The documents will be published under CC-BY or CC-BY-NC licence, allowing users to view, download, reproduce and distribute the material.

As well as official documents, the archives contain artwork and publications produced by patients and staff. These include copies of ‘The New Moon’, a monthly publication produced at the Crichton Royal Hospital, and ‘The Gartnavel Minstrel’, the earliest example of a publication written and edited by hospital patients. Such documents give a rare and often poignant insight into the lives of those who lived in the hospitals, including details of theatricals and concerts, trips and sports fixtures. In the archives of the Retreat a handwritten paper entitled 'Our very mixed cricket' gives a humorous account of a mixed cricket match held at the hospital in the early 1900s.

Also included are important documents relating to revelations of mistreatment at some asylums in the early 1800s and subsequent reforms. The Borthwick Institute for Archives will digitise tracts on the York Asylum controversies, 1813-15, in which abuses at that institution became the centre of a national public debate, sparking a campaign of reform.From St Luke’s Hospital Woodside, a visitors book kept between 1829 and 1891 records the comments of notable visitors such as the Quaker social reformer Elizabeth Fry and the author Charles Dickens, who after a visit on 15 January 1858 noted “the great improvements in the hospital…[and the] wise spirit of the whole administration”.

Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library, said:

“This partnership will bring some rare and important historical material from a fascinating period of medical history into an open and free online resource. Broadening access to such collections is at the heart of the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project and we are delighted that others are joining with us to make this possible.”

Work to digitise the archives began in autumn 2014 and will take two years to complete. The project will be fully funded by the Wellcome Library. The University of Glasgow Digitisation Centre will digitise all material from the Dumfries and Galloway Council Archives and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

The Wellcome Library began its digitisation programme in 2010; its ambition is to make freely available over 50 million pages of historic medical books, archives, manuscripts and journals by 2020.

The Wellcome Library’s media player allows the close reading, downloading and embedding of digitised files, including cover-to-cover books, archives, works of art, videos and audio files. It was developed by Digirati for the Wellcome Library and the software is freely available for anyone to download and use under an MIT Open Source license.