What happened 180 years ago?
06 May, 2021
by Fiona Watson, Library and Archives Manager.
For our 180th anniversary, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has been reflecting on what psychiatry was like when the College was founded and how it has developed since. Often that can show us a disheartening, checkered past. What doctors back then may have seen as best practice, can seem horrific to us now. It is a recurring struggle to try assess the actions and attitudes of the people who went before us, without either excusing them, or taking them completely out of context.
So what happened in 1841?
Firstly, Britain was at war. Or rather the British Empire, still working towards its territorial peak in the early 20th century, was at war with both China and Afghanistan. 1841 marked the mid-point of both the First Opium War and the First Anglo-Afghan War. On January 26th Britain occupied Hong Kong for the first time, it would not cede control for a staggering 156 years. A Hong Kong census from 1841 records the population as around 7,500 in the entire territory. Today there are around 6,659 people per square kilometre, with an overall population of 7.507 million.
HMS Nemesis at the Battle of Chuenpi 1841.
Back at home, the UK had also just finished its first Census, recording a population of just 18,553,124, compared to 67,886,011 in 2021. Back then, Queen Victoria had been reigning for 4 years and her first child, Victoria, was 8 months old. Despite that, she was already pregnant with the future Edward VII.
Over in the United States, the College shares it’s anniversary with the founding of Dallas, Texas, a city that has since become the 9th most populous in the US at around 1.3 million inhabitants. 1841 also saw the shortest ever term of a US president. William Henry Harrison was sworn in on March 4th and stayed on office until April 4th when he died of pneumonia. Later that year, his successor John Tyler caused sparked outrage by vetoing a bill calling for the re-establishment of the Second Bank of the United States. Whig Party members proceeded to riot outside the White House in what has been remembered as one of most violent demonstrations on White House grounds in U.S. history. An event with parallels in 2021, when four people died in the chaos following a Trump rally near the White House, while Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building.
US President John Tyler
Trump supporters outside the US Capitol Building.
In Europe, 1841 marked a step forward in the ongoing struggle to end the transatlantic slave trade. The British Parliament had finally abolished the slave trade in 1807 after William Wilberforce presented a bill for abolition every year from 1791 until 1807. However, given the number of countries and vast areas of the globe involved in the slave trade, it was extremely difficult to police and the 1807 Act had not been properly enforced. The chance of a ship carrying slaves being noticed was low and the odds that it would be caught by its own country’s authorities, with the power to stop it, was even lower. On December 20th 1841 Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia signed the Treaty for the Suppression of the African Slave Trade, which gave countries the right to search each other’s ships if they suspected one was carrying slaves.
In the papers
So, what might those six men have read about in their morning papers on the way to that first College meeting on the 27th of July? Well, some of the key points from the front page of The Morning Chronicle discuss: serious concerns about the price of wheat in England, the recent defeat of the Whig-Radicals and the end of an insurrection in Crete, which was at that time under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
Turtles all the way down, or tortoise all the way through?
To finish on a lighter note, 180 years may seem like a long time, especially when we consider how different the world was back then. But it’s not necessarily more than a lifetime. When Dr Samuel Hitch and the other asylum officers came together to found the College, Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise, was already nine years old. He’s still living happily on the island of St Helena to this day.