I’m particularly interested in the history of my profession, I’m fascinated about the beginnings of psychiatry, developments in asylums and how mental health and mental health care has been carved out from the days of attendants. As a mental health nurse, I’m constantly reminded that no one person’s path is linear, our journeys are full equally of potential, opportunities and of stories. One person’s journey has become of particular interest to me but to meet her we need to go back to 1814.
On a ship called The Broxbornebury in a London port is Martha Entwhistle, 2 years ago in 1812 she has been given a life sentence for forgery and is now waiting to set sail on a treacherous journey to what must have felt like the end of the earth. She was headed to the New South Wales, Australia where in 1788 a new penal colony had been set up. 18th Century England was in crisis with the Industrial Revolution, employment was at an all time low with jobs being taken by machinery it forced men, women and children into lives of stealing and petty crime to try and get by. With increased crime quickly England’s prison reached capacity. Before 1788 convicts were sent over to North America but following the end of the War of Independence they refused to accept any more prisoners and England had to find a new destination for their rising numbers of convicts. Between 1788 – 1868 over 160,000 British and Irish convicts were sent across to Australia, some crimes as small as stealing bread for their starving families.
Mental Health and Resilience
We speak a lot in mental health about the resilience of the mind. To be resilient to something means you are able to withstand an experience or environment without it breaking your spirit. The human mind is able to show some remarkable resilience when pushed to its limits. For now, imagine the unbearable sights and sounds she must have witnessed during the 3 long months at sea. Scared, alone, most probably in fear for her life, little did she know 200 years later people would still know her name.
Castle Hill Asylum
By the time Martha reached Australia, the governor was encouraging convicts to become part of a new free settlement with a vision for Sydney and New South Wales that was far from the penal one that Britain had forced onto them. Despite being reformed and trying to fit in to civilised society there was still a huge amount of stigma attached to those who came over to Australia on convict ships. In 1815 Martha is granted permission to be with her husband, although it is not known if she ever made it to him as later that year she is listed as one of the first known mental health nurses at Castle Hill Asylum.
So lets recap, in England on the bad end of the Industrial Revolution Martha is enduring a life of poverty and left with little options other to turn to petty crimes, she is caught, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Two years later she is put on a convict ship facing uncertainty if she would even survive the trip across the world. A year after arriving she is granted freedom to settle and that same year starts working in an asylum that was first built to detain convicts. The days of asylum care are not ones that promote dignity and high quality care, the stories that the walls of Castle Hill hold close are full of pain and sadness, although times that no one should face again they are full of lessons for modern day practice. Within the dark times of asylum psychiatry there are shining lights of pioneering practice that promotes patient care and efforts to try and understand mental illness rather than hiding it away that still influences mental health care today.
I would like to think that based on what is known about Martha’s journey and the experiences she must have had, she may have empathised with some of the pain and sadness she would have encountered and would have been a kind light in the shadows of unforgiving times.