Archivist Colin Gale showed five items from the remarkable Bethlem Royal Hospital collection to provide a snapshot of the history of mental illness in England. The first two, blogged about earlier, are the statues of Mania and Melancholia, and Dr Monro’s 18th century medical notebook.
Colin Gale chose this third piece because it illuminates a patient’s point of view, rather than that of the medical professionals. It is a drawing of the ‘Air Loom Machine’, by James Tilly Matthews, made while he was in the hospital.
The drawing gives an insight into the suffering of Mr Tilly Matthews, an intelligent and accomplished man who believed that thoughts were being forced into his head by an all-powerful machine operated by a nightmare cast of characters including the sinister Glove Woman and Jack the Schoolmaster. The machine ran on – among other things – putrid human breath.
‘It’s the earliest and best-documented conspiracy theory, record of delusions, that we have,’ says Colin Gale. ‘James Tilly Matthews thought that he himself was under attack and being influenced by the Air Loom machine. So this is the picture he made of it. The Air Loom was operated in order to influence the crowned heads and other important persons of Europe, as well as himself.’
Before his illness took hold, in the last years of the 18th century, wealthy tea merchant James Tilly Matthews had had an eventful life as a freelance peacemaker between England and revolutionary France.
But by the time he was hospitalised in Bethlem, in around 1800, he was convinced that – via the Air Loom Machine – a hostile gang of political opponents was controlling his mind.
‘It was all going on in James Tilly Mathew’s head,’ says Colin Gale. ‘No one else believed it. But it’s an instance of the true significance of our archive – not just in reconstructing the history of the hospital’s administration but in reflecting patients’ perspectives, patients’ experiences, within the hospital.
‘James Tilly Matthews had a quite extraordinarily fertile imagination – and the drawing does give you a sense of the insides of a patient’s mind. He is a draughtsman of considerable skill.’
With strong Republican sympathies, James Tilly Matthews may have been ill-treated by the politicians of the day. Some of his sense of persecution was well-founded, according to Mike Jay, author of The Air Loom Gang.
Bethlem’s then-apothecary, John Haslam, was determined to prove that Tilly Matthews was mad and wrote a book on his case, called Illustrations of Madness.
But it seems that Mr Tilly Matthews – who always protested his sanity – may have had the last word.
‘The hospital was relocating,’ says Colin Gale. ‘And had a competition, to design the new institution. James Tilly Matthews submitted drawings and won £20 – which in the early 19th century was an extraordinary sum of money. And he did all that within the hospital.’
John Haslam by contrast was later sacked from his apothecary’s post by Bethlem governors for ill-treating patients. Afterwards, he appeared to lose faith in his conviction about the polarity of madness and sanity. According to author Mike Jay, Mr Haslam testified in court near the end of his life that:
‘I never saw any human being of sound mind.’
Learn more about the history of Bethlem Royal Hospital and its staff and patients through the archive website.