Joseph Ablett and the treatment of mental illness in early Victorian Wales

Last week (10-16 May 2021) marked Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Today Dr Stephen Ball from our Commons 1832-1868 project looks into the career and legacy of Joseph Ablett (1773-1848), a wealthy cotton manufacturer and country squire. Although never technically an MP, Ablett was returned at a parliamentary election in 1826, and later made a significant contribution to the treatment of mental illness in mid-nineteenth century Wales...

Joseph Ablett; unknown, 1837; via Wikimedia Commons

The son of a Manchester threadmaker, Joseph Ablett attended the local grammar school before entering the family cotton business. By 1804 he was wealthy enough to purchase Llanbedr Hall, near Ruthin in Denbighshire, where he immersed himself in local government and was appointed high sheriff in 1809. A supporter of the Whig party, he was called upon at short notice to stand at the 1826 general election for Denbigh Boroughs, where the returning officer had scheduled the election to take place one week before the Whigs’ chosen candidate, a young landowner named Robert Myddelton Biddulph, reached the age of 21 and so qualified to sit in the Commons. Ablett was therefore selected as a last-minute replacement.

Vowed to oppose Catholic emancipation, Ablett fought a violent and extremely expensive contest with a Tory candidate, Frederick West. The election lasted for 11 days at a reputed cost of £40,000 and resulted in a double return, with 273 votes being polled for each candidate. Both Ablett and West were acclaimed as the Member for Denbigh; Ablett was chaired through the streets of Denbigh and West through Ruthin. The election was only decided after a long round of costly petitioning, and in March 1827 the seat was assigned to West and Ablett’s name was removed from the parliamentary record.

Although Ablett remained involved in politics, supporting the reform bill and nominating Biddulph at several subsequent elections, he largely devoted his time to the administration of his adopted county, where he served as a magistrate and foreman of the grand jury. As well as expanding and developing his estates, he engaged in philanthropic activities and built a number of alms houses in the parish of Llanrhydd, near Ruthin.

However, it was for his role in founding the first public mental asylum to be built in Wales that Ablett would best be remembered. Prior to this time there was almost no public provision in the principality for the proper care of ‘pauper lunatics’. Of the 654 who lived in the six counties of North Wales in 1842, most either resided with relatives or were ‘farmed out’ to strangers for a sum that varied according to the ‘degree of utility they could be of to their respective masters’. About thirty lived in Welsh workhouses and about twenty had been sent to English asylums where, as the resident physician for Gloucester, Samuel Fitch, reported, their unfamiliarity with the English language doomed them ‘to the most refined of modern cruelties … an imprisonment amongst strange people’ with whom they could not communicate, thus leaving them little hope of recovery.

North-east view of the hospital at Denbigh, for the treatment of the insane; George Hawkins, c.185-; the National Library of Wales

Accordingly, plans were made to improve their treatment by funding an asylum in Denbighshire, and in October 1842 Ablett donated a site of 20 acres purchased at a cost of £2,000. Located near the town of Denbigh, the asylum was designed by Thomas Fulljames (1808-74) and constructed from local limestone in the Jacobean style. Work began in 1844 but Ablett did not live to see the building completed as he died of influenza ten months before its doors opened to 200 patients in November 1848. Just prior to his death the ‘Ablett Fund’ was established to provide for the support of discharged patients, and Ablett’s widow subsequently financed the construction of a clock tower to house a chapel dedicated to his memory.

Ablett’s influence was felt in the management of the asylum, however, and the attendants were recruited partly for their ability to speak Welsh. The institution was periodically expanded between 1862 and 1931, and by 1956 what had evolved into the North Wales Hospital housed around 1,500 patients. The hospital closed in 1995 and after suffering vandalism and arson; the future of this Grade II listed building remains uncertain.

S B

M. R. Olsen, ‘The Founding of the Hospital for the Insane Poor, Denbigh’, Transactions of the Denbigh Historical Society, xxiii (1974), 193-217.

C. Wynne, The North Wales Hospital, Denbigh, 1842-2005 (2006).

S. Fitch, ‘Insanity in Wales’, North Wales Chronicle, 18 Oct. 1842.

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