Untold lives blog

07 September 2012

Exercise to ease a troubled mind

As the London 2012 Games draw to a close, many will have been inspired to take up a new sport or to become more active. The beneficial effects of exercise for both physical and mental well-being have long been recognised. Victorian psychiatric institutions such as Bethlem and Pembroke House used exercise as an integral part of treatment.

Pembroke House in Hackney was a private establishment run by Dr George Rees until 1838, then by Dr William Williams and his son Walter, and finally by Dr Thomas Christie.  Many of the patients were placed there by the East India Company. It was decided in 1818 to bring to England any Company servants certified insane while in India, as a hot climate was believed to hinder recovery.  The arrangements were soon extended to cover wives and families. There were far more male patients at Pembroke House: in January 1862 there were 122 men and just 10 women.


  Advertisement for Pembroke House, Hackney

East India Register 1819



Pembroke House does appear to have operated a humane regime. In 1862 the Board of Commissioners in Lunacy asked for details of the arrangements made for the occupation, amusement and instruction of patients.  Here is the return sent from Pembroke House:
Outdoor occupations (21 males)
• Gardeners, wood choppers, bricklayers, painters, window cleaners, messengers.
Indoor occupations (77 males, 7 females)
• Needlework, housework, general work, tailors, shoemakers, hair pickers, kitchen,  carpenter, butler pantry, mangling, washing machine, baker, furniture rubbers, upholsterers, mattress maker, cap makers, brush makers, mat makers, knife cleaning, boot cleaning, study.
Outdoor amusements (50-60 males)
• Daily walk beyond the asylum grounds, riding, skittles.
Indoor amusements (50-60 males, 5-6 females)
• Billiards, bagatelle, reading, writing, chess, draughts, cards, stereoscopes, building bricks, drawing, music, public reading by special attendant, dancing.
110-115 males and 5-6 females attended evening meetings for recreation.

The return to the Commissioners also listed the reading matter provided for the patients at Pembroke House:
• Newspapers and magazines: The Times, Standard, Illustrated News, Punch, Leisure Hour, Once a Week, All the Year Round, Cornhill Magazine, Macmillan’s Magazine.
• A variety of books, especially railway editions of novels.

Although Rees claimed that 75% of his patients were restored to health, some did spend many years at Pembroke House. Andrew Bell Nesbit, a Lieutenant in the Bengal Army, was admitted to the asylum on 7 April 1833 and died there of heart disease on 9 May 1870 aged 72. Let’s hope that he was able to enjoy at least some of the recreations on offer during his long confinement.


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading

A.J. Farrington, The Records of the East India College, Haileybury, and other institutions (London, 1976)

British Library, IOR/K Records of Pembroke House and Ealing Lunatic Asylum, 1818-1892



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