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Until the late 18th century, mentally ill people in Britain were either cared for by the community, or treated in harsh conditions in prisons, workhouses, or private ‘madhouses’.   Infamously, Bethlem Hospital in London, known as Bedlam, even charged spectators to visit its chained, naked inmates for public amusement.

Attitudes began to change during the reign of King George III.  Not only did the King suffer from periods of mental illness, but he was also the victim of physical attacks from subjects who were obviously ill.  All these events were eagerly reported by the developing press.  Around the same time William Tuke, a Quaker, revolutionised care for the mentally ill by founding The Retreat in York.  This institution was run under a system of ‘moral’ treatment, effectively a programme of humane care.

Although a series of legislative reforms followed, it was not until the County Asylums Act 1845 that all counties were compelled to make residential provision for the treatment of the mentally ill.   This could be contracted out: the Berkshire justices, together with the Boroughs of Abingdon and Reading, made agreement with Oxfordshire in 1847 to use the latter's asylum at Littlemore rather than build their own.

First annual report
First page of the first annual report, 1870-1 (Q/AL 12/1)

That agreement lasted until 1867, when it became apparent that an alternative solution was required.  The lunatic population had grown, and Oxfordshire could no longer accommodate its neighbours' cohort.  Berkshire, Reading and Newbury Borough made a new agreement to build and share an asylum.  Land was purchased in Cholsey, and Fair Mile opened in September 1870.  At the time, it was called 'the Moulsford Asylum', due to its proximity to what was then known as Moulsford Railway Station.

Ward interior(left) Photograph of the interior of a ward. (Courtesy of Judy & Stuart Dewey of Pie Powder Press. Most photographs credited to them are from their book "Change at Cholsey - Again" available from



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Early years at Fair Mile

Patients in Victorian Fair Mile

Patient care in the Asylum

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4 response(s) so far…

Derek green
Posted on the : 3 May 2016

My grandmother was in this institute I would like to trace dates and her first name Mrs green

Posted on the : 5 May 2016

Dear Derek Green We have admission registers covering 1870 to 1963 for Fair Mile where your Grandmother may be listed. Many of the later registers are closed due to their sensitive nature so a rough idea of when she was there would be useful. Please could you email us via the online Contact Us form (link on the left of the page) with all the information you currently have? It will keep your enquiry private, rather than being publically visible as it will be here on the website. We can look into what we can research for you and provide a quote. Please see our 'Asking us to do research' page under 'Visiting or using us' for details of our charges. Items that are not closed can be access in person free of charge. If you would like to visit, please see our 'Visiting or Using us' page for details on how as well as our opening hours (link on the left of the page). I hope this is of help to you and hope that we can assist you further with your enquiry in due course. Regards BRO.

Terry hilliard
Posted on the : 16 Mar 2018

Hi I think my grandmother was here also and would like to find out dates. Edith Emily Hilliard would guess between 1947 and 1959 when she died.

Posted on the : 20 Mar 2018

Hello Terry Hilliard Whilst we do have some admission records which cover the period you are interested in, they are unfortunately closed due to their sensitivity. However, you may be able to gain access by proving your relationship to your grandmother through copies of birth, marriage and death certificates. If there are any living relatives whose link is closer than yours, it would be better for them to apply for access. In order to process your request, please could you write to us via the online Contact Us form (link to the left of the web page). We can then respond directly. Kind regards, BRO.


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