Campbell on Scrimgeour, 'Proper People: Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There'

David Scrimgeour
Morag Allan Campbell

David Scrimgeour. Proper People: Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There. York: York Publishing Services Ltd, 2016. 468 pp. $142.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-9933715-0-9.

Reviewed by Morag Allan Campbell (University of St Andrews) Published on H-Disability (August, 2018) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version:

In April 1919, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Scrimgeour, a fifty-one-year-old mother of ten children, died from influenza in a hospital just east of Glasgow—not in itself an unusual event, occurring as it did in the wake of the second deadly wave of the Spanish influenza pandemic. The place of her death, however, intrigued her grandson, David Scrimgeour, as he researched his family history many years later. Lizzie had died in Gartloch Hospital, a psychiatric institution, and David, having initially assumed that the building must have been used as an isolation hospital during the influenza crisis, was astonished to find that his grandmother had actually been diagnosed as suffering from depression and spent the final fifteen years of her life in various mental asylums. The discovery changed Lizzie from “just another name on [his] family tree” to “a real person” (p. 2).

This personal connection is crucial to the rationale behind Proper People, and the independently published volume is clearly the result of a labor of love on the part of its author. The revelation of Lizzie’s mental illness and incarceration prompted him to build on previous research conducted as part of studies for a diploma in genealogy, and he began an in-depth investigation of the records of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Yorkshire. Hidden among the vast number of records hosted at the West Yorkshire Archive Service in Wakefield are the stories of people just like Scrimgeour’s grandmother, and it is these stories that he brings forth from the shadows to shed light on these individuals’ long-forgotten lives.

Proper People states that the book aims to provide an account of “early asylum life in the words of those who were there,” although in most cases the words are those of asylum and poor-law officials, and of doctors and practitioners, rather than those of the patients themselves (p. 5). Intended as the first of two volumes, the book covers the period from the opening of the asylum in 1818 through five decades to 1869. The body of the book is divided into five sections, each exploring the records from one of the five decades. The appendices include a useful glossary of medical terms and treatments, and an unambitious but succinct reading list for those who wish to develop their interest in asylum history further. 

Each chapter begins with a brief outline of the management and structure of the asylum, including such details as the weekly charge for board and care, the various devices in use for restraint of unruly patients, the building of new accommodations, and changes in provision of services. Within these details, the book traces the history of the asylum from a 250-bed institution to one with capacity for 3,000 patients. The bulk of the book, however, consists of the reproduction of a vast number of excerpts from patient records, arranged purely chronologically and with little context to create linkages. This results in long chapters in which the text jumps between topics, with little structure other than being based on the passage of time. Nevertheless, the pages of the book are filled with detailed and interesting patient stories, and buried deep within this plethora of information are intriguing insights into daily life inside the institution, some of which may surprise readers unaccustomed to positive depictions of asylum life. 

While the book may seem to provide access to an excellent range of primary material, it should be noted that the records have been selected according to the author’s interpretation of what constitutes “something outstanding in the case notes,” and which have been “presented in a form thought suitable for the curious lay reader” (p. 6). In addition, the reader must trust the author’s decisions in his presentation of the records, which he claims has offered “as faithful a transcription as could be produced within the limitations of interpreting what was sometimes horrendously bad handwriting,” but which has also involved some passages being “modernised and simplified” (p. 7).

The wealth of information stored in the records at the West Yorkshire Archive Service will come as no surprise to the many historians working on the records of the West Riding Asylum and other institutions, but Scrimgeour’s work is surely a laudable attempt to bring such records to the attention of a wider audience. Proper People is not presented as an academic work, and should not be approached as such, but it is an excellent volume to dip into. It will hopefully whet the appetites of readers to make their own deeper investigations, perhaps by delving into other local archives to read similarly interesting stories firsthand. 

It should also come as no surprise to us today to come across an ancestor who spent time, or ended their days, in an asylum, just as we should be aware today that our friends and relatives may experience challenges to their mental well-being. Those who did so in the past were treated in ways that were deemed appropriate at the time, and asylum care was for many an option that suited their needs and circumstances. The diagnoses given to patients, and the terminology used to describe their illnesses, may seem strange, even offensive, to us now, as Scrimgeour notes. Proper People, as a popular history, aims to “allow the reader to travel back in time,” setting such terms and expressions “within their correct historical context” (p. 7). It explores and highlights the lives of real patients, ordinary people, the events that brought them to the asylum, and the course of their experiences within. In doing so, Proper People offers a contribution to the growing conversation about mental illness and those experiencing it, both past and present.

Citation: Morag Allan Campbell. Review of Scrimgeour, David, Proper People: Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL:

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