An asylum for architects: expertise, exclusion and the construction of psychological environments in England, 1870-1930

  • Olivia Havercroft

Student thesis: Phd


The nineteenth century city as a pathological and agentive environment remains entrenched in historical scholarship. This thesis challenges these concepts and develops an original perspective on the history of the environment, showing that urban and natural landscapes at the fin-de-siecle were constructed by people in an attempt to create environments of wellbeing, initiatives that were ultimately driven by power, money and exclusion. It also pioneers a new approach in the history of medicine, revealing the nebulous and sometimes fantastical foundations of ideas about pathological environments that have become the basis of historical scholarship and still remain in contemporary life. First, this work challenges a scholarly consensus that posits a dichotomy between the mentally distressing urban environment and the healing natural world. It argues that it is necessary to move beyond understanding cities as stressful, 'spectacular' entities, or the countryside or seaside as environments of wellbeing, showing these environments were complementary and intertwined. Using a unique approach towards the analysis of medical literature, this thesis offers a new perspective on mental illness at the turn of the twentieth century. By arguing that the relationship of psychological illness to the urban environment was part of an overarching pathologisation of everyday life, it reveals how suffering from and combating mental illness became a tolerated (and sometimes aspirational) part of people's existence. Second, this thesis argues that historians have overlooked a fundamental part of the study of 'landscapes of healing'. It approaches this by adapting a methodology from science and technology (the construction of nature) to analyse environments deemed to improve mental health. It uses this novel perspective to show how, at the turn of the twentieth century, various different professionals--architects, doctors, philanthropists, and others--attempted to construct buildings, institutions and landscapes that would engender mental wellbeing. Through analysis of not just the structures themselves, but the lives of the people who created them and used them, it reveals how such environments were based more on power-based acquisition rather than evidence-based medicine, a finding that should have significant implications both in the field of environmental and medical history, and beyond. It also reveals the systemic exclusion of people on the grounds of a person's class, gender or race: offering pertinent solutions to understanding the schism between 'respectable' and 'unpalatable' mental illness, ideas that persist today. This thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach, engaging with fields such as sociology, philosophy, science and technology studies and medicine, using methodologies from these subjects in conjunction with empirical historical research in order to fundamentally question the prevailing idea that the environment can have an impact upon a person's mind. It looks at the construction of major elements of British life at the turn of the twentieth century, including the asylum, town planning, holidays, spas, community initiatives, hotels, and more, and shows how mental health was interwoven through all of these. In considering such a broad range of topics, this thesis analyses a wide range of archival sources from major figures and high-profile institutes (such as London County Council) in innovative ways. Using a variety of primary sources such as notes on journal articles, annotations in margins, letters to the council, it identifies silences, abuses of power and inconsistencies in the formation of groundbreaking initiatives concerning mental health and environment. Therefore, while this is a thesis about major 'ideas' that formed parts of English culture, it is fundamentally a thesis about the minutiae of everyday life and the fallibility of human behaviour, revealing that errors, lapses of judgement, personal problems and character
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorCharlotte Wildman (Supervisor) & Sarah Roddy (Supervisor)


  • Town planning
  • Wellbeing
  • Medicine
  • Expertise
  • Nature
  • Urban space
  • Environment
  • Psychology
  • Mental health
  • Cities

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