Ellis, Sir William Charles

Pioneer in mental health, he was born on 10 March 1780 at Alford, Lincs., the son of a clergyman. He was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary at Hull and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. Following his marriage to a Methodist wife he became a Methodist local preacher. He developed an interest in mental health and became associated with a private lunatic asylum, the Sculcoates Refuge. In his Letter to Thomas Thompson, Esq., MP (1815) he set out his views on how the proposed county asylum should be run, stressing a curative approach and the employment of patients in productive work. As a result, in 1817 he was appointed Governor of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum. In 1831 he became superintendent of the new Hanwell Asylum, Middlesex, the largest in the country, where he treated the patients on 'phrenological principles' and by humane methods described by Harriet Martineau. He was knighted for his pioneering work and retired in 1838. He lived at Southall Park and he and his wife were class leaders for many years in the Southall society. He died of dropsy, after 'a severe and protracted illness', on 24 October 1839.


'This institution [Hanwell Lunatic Asylum] is for pauper lunatics alone. Here - thanks to Dr and Mrs Ellis - we see at length, an instance of the poor receiving from. society as much of their rights as the rich, and more. Here, if Dr and Mrs Ellis had their will, we should enjoy the animating spectacle of the most dependent class of society, receiving their due of enlightened aid as well as support. That Dr and Mrs Ellis have not their will fully gratified, is owing far less to any fault of individuals, than to circumstances of society hitherto uncontrollable…

'The proportion of cured in the Hanwell Asylum must also hitherto be small, because very few of the cases now there were recent. The malady of the greater number was brought on by gin-drinking, and rendered irremediable by a long infliction of chains and idleness. Subjects originally so bad, and then kept in a state of exasperation for years, cannot be expected to yield a good proportion of curables. But, taking the recent cases, (which is the only way of estimating the treatment fairly,) it will be found that Dr Ellis cures ninety in a hundred…

'It is nearly twenty years since Doctor and Mrs Ellis began to treat lunatics as much as possible as if they were sane; and in all that time no accident has happened. This was, of course, the point of their management most anxiously pondered by them, when they took the charge of the Wakefield institution, which was conducted by them with high honour and success for many years. The question of confinement or liberty was that on which the whole of their management hung. They decided for liberty; determining that the possible loss of a life, perhaps of their own, would be a less evil than the amount of wo inflicted by the imprisonment of a great number of irritable persons for a long series of years. They threw open their doors, were lavish of air, sunshine, liberty, and amusement to their patients; and have been rewarded by witnessing the happiness they proposed, without paying the possible penalty...

'For those who cannot visit Hanwell, it maybe enough to know that no accident has happened among Dr Ellis's many hundred patients, during the twenty years that he has been their guardian; but there is a far higher satisfaction in witnessing and feeling the evident security which prevails in the establishment, where the inmates are more like whimsical children, manageable by steadiness, than wretched maniacs, controllable only by force.'

Harriet Martineau, Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, June 1834, pp.305-10

  • WM Magazine, 1839 p.1023
  • Oxford DNB


Category: Person
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