York Civic Trust plaques

Samuel Tuke (1784-1857)

Quaker, social campaigner and pioneer in the treatment of mental health

Location of plaque: Tuke House, Lawrence Street, York

SAMUEL Tuke would no doubt have been deeply upset to hear the news that The Retreat mental hospital in York is planning to close to inpatients.

This is, after all, the mental hospital founded by his grandfather William, and of which he himself was general manager for many years.

The Retreat was founded by William and other York Quakers in 1796 in a deliberate attempt to improve the way people with mental illnesses were treated.

William was a member of one of York's most prominent Quaker families and a businessman who ran the successful tea and coffee house started by his mother Mary. Like other Quakers in the city he had been shocked by the death of a young Quaker widow, Hannah Mills, at York Lunatic Asylum (later Bootham Park Hospital) in 1790.

Hannah had been admitted suffering from melancholy - what we'd today call clinical depression. Mental illness at the time was little understood, and usual practice was to chain 'lunatics' to walls in unheated cells. York Quakers were denied permission to visit Hannah, and were deeply shocked when she died just six weeks after being admitted.

Determined to change the way that patients with mental illnesses were treated, William, his son Henry, and other Quakers spent four years collecting donations for a new mental hospital. The Retreat, which opened in 1796, pioneered the removal of chains from patients, provided decent food, offered what we would today recognise as therapeutic treatment regimes - and generally aimed to treat patients with respect and dignity.

William's son Henry, and then Henry's son Samuel after him, continued William's work at the hospital. Samuel served as The Retreat's manager, and used his position to advocate keeping patients under close observation and giving them day rooms as well as bedrooms, so that they had somewhere else to go. He also wrote two important books: a 'Description of The Retreat' published in 1813 and the 'Statistics of the Retreat' published in 1841. The latter sought to share information about the good treatment of patients with other mental health institutions - an early example of what we'd probably refer to today as sharing best practice.

Samuel was also a co-founder of Lawrence Street and Hope Street schools (set up to provide 'bible classes and moral guidance to young men') and helped to establish a school at York Castle Prison for prisoners awaiting trial.

He is buried in the Quaker cemetery in the grounds of The Retreat. The York Civic Trust plaque is on Tuke House in Lawrence street, where he lived.

Stephen Lewis

To read the stories behind other York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk