From History to Hidden - The Asylum under the surface of Leicester University
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
Content Warning: Asylum, Death, Suicide, Disability Persecution, Ableism
When I began my studies at the University of Leicester, I knew nothing of the campus’s history in disability persecution. And I can’t really remember when or how I found out about this dark past, but I do remember the initial shock and disbelief that I, as a self-proclaimed disabled activist, was studying somewhere with a secret so personally painful.
I read and I researched, struggling to believe and comprehend that this could have ever been hidden. Or how and why I had been so blissfully unaware that less than 200 years ago, the building I was studying in, had been the end destination for people like me. Whilst I could walk back out after class, had this been the 1800s, my exit as a disabled person may have been in a coffin, if even granted that.
For students, staff and others who know Leicester University, this article may come as a complete shock. I know that across my time studying here, I have begun many conversations about the Asylum to be met with blank faces or confused looks. That is largely because the Asylum appears to barely exist in the eyes of the University and is almost completely erased from the history that we are taught.
For those who are just hearing about this for the first time, a brief history of the campus may be beneficial. We are often told that “The Fielding Johnson Building was built as a living memorial to the first world war” and that “It opened in 1922”. In fact, these are direct quotes from a University YouTube video. But this isn’t the whole truth. Whilst the University was a war hospital, before this point, the Fielding Johnson Building had opened on May 10th 1837, as The Leicestershire and Rutland County Lunatic Asylum. The Asylum, better known at the time as “The House of Cure” is the reason that the Fielding Johnson Building, as it stands now, was built. And many disabled people died within its walls.
The Asylum, better known at the time as “The House of Cure” is the reason that the Fielding Johnson Building, as it stands now, was built. And many disabled people died within its walls.
Image description: A black and white undated photograph of the Fielding Johnson Building that was an Asylum. It is a large black building with many windows, and the lawn is landscaped with bushes and trees.
There are stories that show a remarkably positive depiction of the Asylum, almost as if it was a hotel or a holiday camp. It is hard to look beyond the idyllic ‘curing’ that the narrative tells, though this in itself is harmful and ableist for other reasons. But the death figures really bring into perspective the amount of life lost. Resources on the Asylum are not always easy to find, but one simple google can tell of “at least 8 patients” who died on the day of admission or the next day, “259” that died within their first month, “700” who died within a year, and a further 700 who then died within five years. And these are just five years worth of figures for an Asylum that spanned a 70 year existence. It is hard to put into perspective those almost 2,000 lives, and even harder to swallow that they died inside the building that I now study in, with little to no acknowledgement that they ever even existed.
It is hard to put into perspective those almost 2,000 lives, and even harder to swallow that they died inside the building that I now study in, with little to no acknowledgement that they ever even existed.
It is even harder to hear of the children who were also admitted to this Asylum. Perhaps the youngest being a four year old boy called Frederick, who is mentioned multiple times across sites that tell its history. What happened to him, and whether he is one in the sea of death toll, I am not sure. But what I do know, Is that I don’t want his existence or the existence of the others to be erased again.
Nowadays, the University does not seem to ever speak of the Asylum, besides small pieces on their website that no one would ever think to go looking for. I have pushed many times for education about its history and historical disability persecution to be brought to the forefront of what our University stands against. Yet, as they turn towards a movement called Citizens for Change, they leave behind the world we should be changing from, without batting an eyelid on why these conversations are so vital.
A huge issue beyond the lack of education has been the insensitivity and erasure through social media. Similarly to the YouTube video I quoted, there have been multiple social media posts including pictures of The Fielding Johnson Building, simply written to follow current trends without thinking on the history. Examples of these include a post with a 1932 image of the Fielding Johnson Building captioned #MeAt20 (ish), when by this point the building was almost 100 years old. And another series of images posted more recently that showed 2 pictures of the Fielding Johnson Building, with one being a Black and White image often used by pages and researchers about the Asylum. This was captioned “How it started > How it’s going”, in an insensitive and thoughtless attempt to be relatable for social media. And whilst these posts surface, the history of the Asylum, whose walls still tower on our campus today, is pushed further down into erasure.
It can seem hard to pinpoint exactly why this is an issue, but in the University distancing from this history, it does not undo the past and instead prevents the ability to learn and understand the problem. Disability is still an incredibly under-discussed liberation group and whilst ableism is a huge issue, many are still oblivious to what it means. Hiding this history is not changing the world, but educating and learning from it might. Besides, those people were people, and they deserve to be just as much a part of the living memorial that our campus declares itself to be, as any other person.
Disability is still an incredibly under-discussed liberation group and whilst ableism is a huge issue, many are still oblivious to what it means. Hiding this history is not changing the world, but educating and learning from it might.
As a disabled student, I feel uncomfortable even walking past the Fielding Johnson Building knowing what is treated to be a dirty and shameful secret. It almost feels like the lives of those who died have been excused, and that continues within the narrative that makes it sound as if the disabled people were grateful to be there. I am tired of living in a world that tells me that my worth or anyone else's worth as a disabled person is any lower, yet this erasure is there as a consistent reminder than even in death, disabled people are forgotten as nothing or nobodies.
I am tired of living in a world that tells me that my worth or anyone else's worth as a disabled person is any lower, yet this erasure is there as a consistent reminder than even in death, disabled people are forgotten as nothing or nobodies.
When will they have the chance for their story to be heard? Or will we instead continue to fly our University flag proudly over the old Asylum doors, mocking their memory with our motto - “Ut Vitam Habeant”, so that they may have life...
Image description: A picture of Tasha from the waist up. She is a 21 year old white woman with short brown hair and blue eyes, in a white shirt.
Tasha Krywald BCAv, is a Bsc Criminology student particularly interested in Disability hate crime and ableism.