The Babies of Broadmoor

Broadmoor Hospital seems like an unlikely site for a blessed event.

Since its official opening in 1863 as the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, the Crowthorne facility has housed some of the United Kingdom’s most dangerous forensic cases and is still the best known of the country’s three high-security psychiatric hospitals today. Though male inmates make up the majority of Broadmoor’s population, there is also a small unit to house those women who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered detained.   While the range of psychiatric problems among women inmates tended to be similar to their male counterparts, the logistic problem of housing them safely is stil found in prisons and psychiatric hospitals the world over.  Served by approximately twenty female attendants, the female unit was kept carefully separate from other parts of the hospital by a high dividing wall. Women inmates were kept busy doing chores and working in the laundry and even had their own recreational facilities.

Among the problems that Broadmoor’s doctors and nurses expected to face when treating their female patients,  pregnancy was definitely not one of them.  While most women entering the hospital were of childbearing 220px-Asylum_for_Criminal_Lunatics%2C_Broadmoor[1]age, keeping women separate from men, whether other inmates or guards, seemed the best way to ensure their safety.   Certainly no conjugal visits were allowed for those women still married to men on the outside.  Still, that did little to help with those women who arrived at Broadmoor while already pregnant.  Hospital administrators did everything possible to avoid pregnant women being sent to Broadmoor but the violent history of some inmates meant that they could not be safely housed anywhere else.    Considering the lack of any real alternatives, it was probably not surprising that dealing with pregnant inmates was an issue for Broadmoor for almost as long as the hospital existed.   The first birth at Broadmoor occurred on December 26, 1866, only three and a half years after the hospital opened.

The mother, Catherine Dawson, was a 31-year old housewife who had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the stabbing death of her 22-month old daughter.   In many ways, she was a typical Broadmoor patient since infanticide and child murder were among the most common crimes seen in females admitted to the unit.   Married at 17 to an itinerant worker who tended coal fires in factories, she had already given birth to three daughters by 1862 when she first began displaying violent outbursts.  While she would likely be diagnosed with post-partum depression today, her husband, Henry Dawson, lacked the financial resources to have his wife treated.   After sending her to a workhouse for ten days of observation, he arranged to send her and their three daughters to  her father in Liverpool where she could be carefully watched.  Though Henry later took a job in Liverpool to reunite the family, their extreme poverty continued.

On October 27 1864, neighbours were alarmed by the sound of screaming coming from the apartment where the Dawsons lived.  After police burst in, they discovered that Catherine had cut the throat of her 22-month-old daughter Matilda. Four-year-old Mary Dawson was pinned between her mother’s legs and cowering at the sight of the knife Catherine was holding.   Her infant daughter, Harriet, was found unharmed in the bedroom.  There was no question that Catherine Dawson was unfit to stand trial and she was sentenced to Rainhill Asylum in Liverpool.    While it was relatively rare for forensic patients who had committed murder to be held in any hospital beside Broadmoor, Catherine was considered stable enough to be housed in a less secure setting that was closer to where her family lived.   Unfortunately, she managed to escape the hospital and was eventually found with her husband and daughters.   Despite the death of Matilda Dawson, Henry and their daughters apparently had no concerns about Catherine living with them until the police tracked her down.

Given the security concerns over keeping her in a low-security hospital so close to her family, Catherine was transferred to Broadmoor Hospital on May 15, 1866.   Almost immediately, medical staff at Broadmoor became aware of a new problem with their patient.   Catherine Dawson was pregnant.   During the month that she had been at large, she and Henry had conceived another child and the Broadmoor staff were left floundering trying to think of a way to deal with their dilemma.   After an uneventful pregnancy, Catherine gave birth on December 26, 1866.   The Broadmoor staff named the newborn baby Stephen since he had been born on the feast day of St. Stephen.   Catherine was largely indifferent to her infant and didn’t ask to see him until a week after he was born.   She would not actually see him until he was two months old as he was being tended by one of the Broadmoor attendants and nobody wanted to trust her with an infant.    That meeting was not a successful one as Catherine seemed unable to understand how to tend an infant (she tried to get him to walk despite his only being two months old).

The staff took the child away and she would never see him again.   Though Catherine was hardly fit to raise a child, the question of what to do with her infant still remained.    Henry Dawson could barely afford to care for his other children and had to leave them in the care of neighbours while he worked all day.  With no other options, the hospital finally placed Stephen with the Chorley Union Workhouse where Catherine Dawson had worked before being hospitalized.   While hardly an ideal solution, Stephen Dawson was transferred to the workhouse in Lancastershire in February of 1867.   There is no reliable record of what became of him afterward or whether he succumbed to the high infant mortality that was typical during the Victorian period for children raised in poverty.   

As for Catherine, her condition gradually worsened due to tuberculosis.   When her letters stopped arriving, her husband came to the hospital in 1871 for one last visit.   Ironically enough, he would be the one to die first while Catherine held on despite her declining health.   Their surviving children were taken in by Henry's landlady after his death and Catherine hardly noticed her husband was gone.   Catherine Dawson died in 1876, completely bedridden and with only occasional episodes of sanity.

By the time of her death, other women had also given birth at Broadmoor.   A second woman, Mary Anne Meller was admitted to the hospital after a near-fatal attack on a lodger in 1867.   She was found to be pregnant after arriving and her son, Henry Meller, was born a few months later.   Unlike Stephen Dawson, Henry had a family that wanted him and he was sent to them to be raised.   As for his mother, she was released in 1870 but relapsed fairly quickly.    In what was becoming a tradition for Broadmoor mothers, she would die young as well.

Once Broadmoor opened up a second ward for women inmates, conditions became somewhat better and staff became better prepared to deal with pregnancies as they arose.   They also developed procedures for placing the babies either with their families  for those that were wanted or into workhouses for the ones who weren't.   Keeping the infants with their mothers was not an option given the potential violence of the inmates.   Some of the workhouses demanded money to help provide for the infants delivered into their care which led to legal wrangling in several cases.   Fathers could no longer plead poverty and refuse to take in their children and  many women recovered enough to be allowed to leave the hospital with their infants.

Throughout Broadmoor's Victorian era, whether or not the infants born there were placed in a caring family or an impersonal workhouse largely depended on the social status of their parents.   Hospital staff did little to investigate how well the Broadmoor infants did after they were placed in the community.  Of the hundreds of women who were housed in Broadmoor Hospital,  only a relative few gave birth there and their infants rarely remained in the bleak environment for long. 

While modern prisons have become more flexible with many women being allowed to care for their infants while serving their sentence, this was never an option for a hospital that continued to house some of the most dangerous offenders in the United Kingdom.   By 2007, Broadmoor became a male-only unit with women being housed in a hgh-security facility of their own.   Despite better access to contraceptives and prenatal care,  the problem of dealing with infants born in high-security psychiatric hospitals and prisons around the world still remains.  

Finding a real solution may be as unsolvable now as it was during the Victorian era.



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