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The Retreat at York led the world in the humane treatment of the mentally ill. It was founded by William Tuke and the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1792, and opened in 1796. Tuke was inspired by seeing the appalling conditions in York Lunatic Asylum when a Quaker from Leeds, Hannah Mills, died there. Ill treatment of patients was widely accepted in the asylums of the time. Many believed that ‘lunatics’ were insensitive to hot and cold, sub-human, like animals. Beatings and confinement were accepted practice, as was underfeeding patients. In 1786, Joseph Townsend wrote on the subject, “Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection to the most perverse”.
It was in response to these attitudes that the Retreat was born, based instead on the Quaker principles of self-control, compassion and respect. Originally, the institution was primarily for Quakers to be treated in an environment sympathetic to their needs. However it did open its doors to non-Quakers, although they were charged a higher weekly residence fee. The Retreat marks the beginning of the move away from chains and fetters to gentler restraint such as the straight jacket. The Quakers did not see the insane as animals, but believed the ‘inner light of God’ to be present in all. The patients were not to be beaten or chained up, but were considered as children and the Retreat as a loving family environment to bring patients back to reason, and recovery.
Another innovation was ‘The Appendage’, a half-way house ‘for those needing least supervision’. This radical approach began a series of reforms and greater understanding in mental health in the nineteenth century and psychiatry textbooks today still refer to the Retreat. Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said, "It is perhaps easy for us looking back from our apparently enlightened times not to recognize the true impact ot this extraordinary leap forward in the care of mentally ill people and the bravery of Tuke in pioneering.
In recent years The Retreat formed a partnership with the Disabilities Trust to create York House within the grounds of The Retreat. This 28-bedded unit provides an intensive neurobehavioural assessment and rehabilitation service for individuals with severe cognitive, physical and/or emotional problems following acquired brain injury.