Nicola Pryce tells Historia about the historical background to her latest novel, which touches on various kinds of imprisonment; the most shocking is the 18th-century practice of locking inconvenient women away in madhouses, as she explains.
The Cornish Captive is the sixth novel in my Cornish series. My heroine is mentioned before in passing but it’s taken six books to tell her story. The reason? She has been languishing in increasingly decrepit madhouses, put there by a corrupt and powerful man.
The testimony of two physicians was all it took to have women deemed insane, and many looked the other way when the heavy purse of coins changed hands. How many proprietors of madhouses actually checked if the physicians’ signatures were bona fide, or whether they existed at all?
Popular belief in the 18th century was that lunatics needed to be kept in a state of fear, cultivated by force which including beatings. Melancholics needed to be checked from the ramblings of their imagination and protected from the incoherency of their judgement. Cold baths, enclosed spaces, sleep deprivation, fetters and chains were all a necessary cure.
That a vulnerable person could be locked away on the word of their guardian was undoubtably the case. Mania, they suggested, needed complete restraint and the ‘strait waistcoat’ was frequently used. Confinement with few objects in sight was vital, the patient removed far away from everyone he or she had formerly known.
But by 1790’s progress was being made. In 1794, Philippe Pinel published Memoir on Madness, where he called for more humanitarian asylum practices and made the case for careful psychological study of individuals over time.
He stressed insanity wasn’t always continuous and could pass. Indeed, his next publication, Nosographie philosophique ou méthode de l’analyse appliquée à la médecine in 1798, led to him to be considered one of the founders of modern psychiatry.
A number of physicians took up the baton, championing the belief that keeping an inmate naked, filthy, and chained with several others against the wall of a damp, dark stone cell was far from a cure: that bleeding, blisters, caustics, opium, cold baths and vomits should be swopped for a more humane approach.
And don’t let’s forget that in 1788-89 and 1801 George III’s illness had brought the discussion of madness into sharp focus. He was treated at a madhouse in Shillingthorpe, Lincolnshire run by Dr Francis Willis; just one of the 45 licensed premises at the end of the century. Most premises, however, remained unlicensed with very little governance.
My fictional madhouse is based on the unlicensed madhouses which proliferated under the 1774 Madhouses Act. These were ostensibly overseen by the Commission for Visiting Madhouses, though many were never visited. The ‘trade in lunatics’ was widespread and makes uncomfortable reading. In my book, Maddison’s Madhouse is based on Mason’s Madhouse in Fishponds, Bristol, a pioneering hospital for the insane which was established in 1738 and was under the directorship of Dr Joseph Mason Cox.
As early as 1800, ideas were circulating in Truro for the need of a lunatic asylum and I would like to think my characters Doctor Perrow and Madelaine Pelligrew would have volunteered for the committee. Certainly, they’d have been careful observers when, finally, in 1815, the foundation stone for St Lawrence’s Lunatic Asylum was laid.
But let’s get back to my story.
Bodmin Moor forms a bleak background as Madeleine Pelligrew attempts to cling to her sanity. Her unwavering belief that her husband was murdered and her desperation to seek justice keep her recording the days on the wall with a blunt nail. Silenced for fourteen years, both her state of mind and health are fragile. With her loss of hair, infected lice bites, and gums bleeding from scurvy, she is still determined to seek redress from the man behind her incarceration.
Yet Madeleine is French, and her country is at war with Britain. Cornwall has become infiltrated by a network of spies who land on the south coast. Passing through Bodmin, they sail via Padstow to Ireland, their reach as far as London, their sources detailing every movement of the British navy. Trying to find them was nigh impossible, and the British Secret Service had to watch their backs. It was either find or be found.
The Copiale Cipher, written in the late 18th century, shows one of the methods spies used during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Other techniques included invisible ink, musical ciphers, and mask letters where the central message would be read through a template – always sent separately.
Spies would identify themselves through missing buttons or tears in their sleeves, the way they held their beer, or even the way they hung up their laundry.
The spy ring operating in my book is based on the Channel Island Correspondence – La Correspondance – a network run by Philippe d’Auvergne from Jersey. His spies sent their information to William Wickham, the founder of the British foreign secret service. One of his men commanding the Islands of Marcou on the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula was the British naval officer Captain Charles Papps Price. He was on active service on HMS Badger at both the time and place where my book takes place.
It’s also important to remember Bodmin was a parole town. By 1798 the estimated cost to Britain for keeping over 11,000 French prisoners was over £300,000. Lower ranks were held in prisons like Norman Cross but officers were permitted to live in designated parole towns.
In exchange for giving their word not to escape, officers were granted the freedom to live in lodgings under certain the strict condition to limit their walks to one mile along the road from the town boundary and be in their lodgings during the hours of darkness.
Twice weekly, they had to report to the local agent of the Transport Board who was responsible for a regular muster and for paying each prisoner his subsistence allowance. This increased in 1809 to 1s 6d a day for second lieutenants and naval aspirants, 1s 3d for officers of merchant ships, and a shilling each for wives and children.
Householders who received parole prisoners were given a printed reminder of the terms of the parole and had to ensure their prisoner obeyed the curfew by remaining indoors between the evening and morning bells. The prisoners had to pay for their room, sometimes provide furniture, and pay for their food, so it is hardly surprising they put their skills to good use.
With their freedom of movement, paroled officers often gave lessons in French, drawing or fencing. They organised regular markets, as illustrated in Thomas Rowlandson’s painting, Bodmin 1795: French Prisoners on Parole, and sold exquisite articles like paper sculptures, straw marquetry, and often straw hats. Using bones from their meat rations, they carved animals and decorated boxes, making screens and other wooden objects like model ships, musical instruments, and Noah’s Arks.
My fictional character, Captain Pierre de la Croix, is based on one of 200 parole prisoners present in Bodmin in 1798.
Nicola Pryce trained as a nurse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. She loves literature and history and has an Open University degree in Humanities. She’s a qualified adult literacy support volunteer and lives with her husband in the Blackdown Hills in Somerset. She and her husband love sailing and together they sail the south coast of Cornwall in search of adventure. If she’s not writing or gardening, you’ll find her scrubbing decks.
Read Nicola Cornick’s review of A Cornish Betrothal, the previous book in this series.
You may also enjoy Nicola Pryce’s Desert Island Books.
- French Prisoners on Parole at Bodmin, Cornwall, 1795 by Thomas Rowlandson (detail): Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
- Des maladies mentales considérées sous les rapports médical, hygiénique et médico-légal by Etienne Esquirol, 1838: Wellcome Collction
- The Old Private Lunatic Asylum, Fishponds, print c1840s: Know Your Place, Bristol City Council
- Copiale Cipher pp16–17: Kevin Knight, Beáta Megyesi, Christiane Schaefer for Wikimedia
- Philippe d’Auvergne, Prince de Bouillon: Wikimedia
- French Prisoners on Parole at Bodmin, Cornwall, 1795 by Thomas Rowlandson