Category Archives: Chris Philo

Introducing: Prof Chris Philo

Chris Philo is a Professor of Geography in the School of Geographical & Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, and can be contacted by email:


My PhD and subsequent research centred on what I have termed the historical geography of the ‘mad-business’ in England and Wales (‘mad-business’ being a term occasionally deployed to reference all manner of institutional responses to ‘madness’). Setting the stage with the largely non-institutional experience of ‘madness’ in Medieval/Early Modern England and Wales, I reconstructed the origins of a more systematic (although never all-encompassing) institutionalisation of ‘madness’ following legislation of the early-1700s which directed local Justices to confine ‘dangerous lunatics’ in ‘secure places’. Initially meaning a chaotic mixture of gaols, houses of correction and poorhouses, such spaces ultimately proved incapable of holding the ‘mad’. Private madhouses – profiteering on the back of these unfortunates – sprang up, partly to cater for ‘rich lunatics’ but sometimes to service parochial authorities, but they proved equally problematic. Parliamentary inquiries from the later-1700s into the early-1800s continually exposed the deficiencies of these institutional responses, and – inspired by the few charitable lunatic hospitals which had arisen in urban centres during the 1700s – the British government eventually passed a series of acts (from 1808 to 1845) which enabled, then compelled, county magistracies to open state-funded and –inspected public county lunatic asylums for their ‘pauper lunatic charges’. Mentally unwell individuals could still be found elsewhere, but gradually the public asylums, these forerunners of the mental/psychiatric hospitals which began to close from the 1960s onwards, became the dominant institutional presence within the ‘mad-business’. They peppered the landscapes of England and Wales, a familiar if somewhat fearful sight, often found just ‘out-of-town’ in relative rural seclusion, set back amongst fields, woodland and rolling hillsides, but sometimes more remotely located on/in distant valleys, heaths and hill-tops.

There is an extraordinary ‘spatial history’ to recall of these diverse spaces comprising the English and Welsh ‘mad-business’, crossing many centuries and with numerous regional inflections, and (foolishly) I set myself the task of recovering as many chapters of this history as I could manage. Drawing upon well-known archival sources in the Parliamentary Blue Books, notably the various Select Committees and Reports from the Commissioners in Lunacy, but also a wealth of printed and manuscript sources less familiar to historians of psychiatry, I assembled this ‘spatial history’ from the Dark Ages to the 1860s (when the public asylum system had properly matured). Borrowing too from other authors and their theoretical positions, notably Michel Foucault, I nurtured an interpretative framework that viewed the rise of asylum spaces as the installing of soft ‘social control’ – wherein windows were as important as walls, grounds as gates, fresh air as restraint, visits as solitude – and accepting that the undeniable inadequacies and brutalities of asylum life were largely unintended consequences of usually quite humane expert policies and plans. In 2004, I published my complete findings in a c.700 page monograph, The Geographical History of Institutional Provision for the Insane from the Medieval Period to the 1860s in England and Wales (Edwin Mellen Press), with a subtitle (originally intended as the main title) borrowed from Foucault, ‘The Space Reserved for Insanity’.


In so doing, I helped to pioneer this subfield of inquiry into the historical geography of ‘madness’ or mental ill-health, insofar as it has involved sustained archival labour in concert with theoretical reflection. More recently, I have continued to work on asylum-related topics, including attention to: animals, ‘madness’ and asylums; patient artwork and physician analyses; immobilities in the asylum; ‘idiot’ asylums (for people now identified with learning disabilities); deinstitutional and community care experiences for people with mental health problems living in remote rural locations; links with psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic geographies; and broader coordinates of ‘Reason’ and ‘Unreason’. Since the mid-2000s I have also been fortunate enough to recruit a wonderful series of postgraduate students who have themselves become innovative investigators into the histories and historical geographies of ‘madness’, asylums and psychiatry in Scotland.  Some of their contributions can be found in the posts on this blog.