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Hone and the London Asylum

Though Hone's various attempts during the first years of the nineteenth-century to establish himself in the London booktrades had been anything but successful—leading even to bankruptcy in 1810—he nonetheless was open to projects that were more altruistic than entrepreneurial. Sometime in late 1813 he became interested in the care and treatment of the insane, which he considered was often cruel and inhumane. After a coffee-house meeting in which Alderman (and Westminster radical) Robert Waithman introduced him to the Quaker architect James Bevans, Hone apparently proposed that they try to come up with some plan to help alleviate what they assumed were the inadequacies of the madhouses. Hone and Bevans enlisted the support of Edward Wakefield, [1] and the trio proceeded to visit many of the asylums in London on a kind of fact-finding expedition. The tour of Bethlehem revealed, among other horrors, the case of William Norris, a fifty-five year old American who, despite his apparent sanity, had been for many years fixed to a vertical iron bar on the wall of his cell by metal straps around his neck, chest, and arms. [2] Bevans and Hone then devised a plan for a new kind of asylum, one that would avoid the kind of physical restraints that seemed both cruel and ineffective in cases like Norris's. The plan itself involved the purchase of about 40 acres of land outside of London and the construction on the site of a 400-bed asylum. Bevans's design—based on the Friends retreat at York—would allow the patients to enjoy the beneficial and rejuvenating effects of open air and physical liberty. Hone, Bevans, and Wakefield estimated the total cost at about £100,000, which money, they hoped, they could raise through government subsidies and by interesting private subscribers in £100 shares in the operation. (It may well have been an enticement to some wealthy potential investors that Bevans's plans allowed for separate accomodations for patients of "superior rank in life.") Should the project carry through as planned, Hone would have served as the superintendent of the new asylum. [3]

Of course the asylum project—idealistic and expensive—did not carry through as planned. Though Hone and his colleagues worked assiduously during the early months of 1814 to interest private investors, and though they did manage to interest some members of the House of Commons in the asylum issue (most notably George Rose), ultimately the energy for the project sputtered out. Wakefield proved unreliable, and Hone was himself stricken with a protracted illness that made it difficult for him to keep his own financial house together, let alone proceed with the plans for a London asylum. Hackwood offers a positive interpretation of Hone's endeavors, claiming that "Hone's unwearied efforts" were in large part responsible for "the steady advance of humane treatment of the mentally afflicted," [4] but even this probably overstates the case. It certainly overlooks the more particular biographical fact that in 1813 and 14 Hone was in frail health and (with one exception) only unsteadily employed. For all his years of work, both in the book trade and in pursuit of broader social reforms, he had little to show except the good wishes of his friends and a large, marginally housed, and often hungry family.


 

Notes:

1.
Bevans and Wakefield—along with other Hone acquaintances such as Francis Place, John Bone, and the printer John McCreery—were simultaneously active as promoters of Lancasterian schools, an educational reform effort designed to extend literacy to poorer lower- and middle-class children of west London. (See J. Ann Hone, For the Cause of Truth, pp. 239-46.) McCreery, a creditor in the 1810 bankruptcy proceedings and the printer of Wakefield's Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political (1812), would remain a friend of Hone's for many years to come. [return]

2.
In 1815, Hone got George Cruikshank to etch the drawing which he then published from his new Fleet Street bookshop. Hackwood reproduces Cruikshank's etching opposite p. 95. [return]

3.
The details of the asylum project can be found in the Hone-Wakefield-Bevans correspondence of December 1813 through April 1814. See Add. MS 40856, ff. 2-3; Add. MS 40120, ff. 21-27, 35-36; Ogden MS 73(1), f. 42. This correspondence is available in the BioText. [return]

4.
Hackwood, p. 93. [return]