William Charles Ellis

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Sir William Charles Ellis

Sir William Charles Ellis (10 March 1780 – 24 October 1839) was the superintendent of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum.


He was born in Alford, Lincolnshire. His early career was as an apothecary but he soon took an interest in the treatment of mental disorders. This he learnt at the Sculcoates Refuge in Hull; which was run on a similar model as the York Retreat.

In 1817 a William Ellis was appointed as superintendent to the newly built West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Wakefield. A Methodist, he too had strong religious convictions and so with his wife as matron he employed the same principles of humane treatment and moral therapy as practised at Sculcoates Refuge. After 13 years their reputation had become such, that they were then invited to run the newly built first pauper asylum in Middlesex called the Hanwell Asylum.[1] Accepting the posts, the asylum opened in May 1831. Here the Ellis's introduced their own flavour of 'humane treatment' and moral therapy combined with 'therapeutic employment'. The approach he used went down well with patients, it was always voluntary, it made them feel valued and appreciated, it enabled them to recover their self-esteem. Also, by having something with real 'purpose' to do that helped with the care of others or help with the running of the asylum, not only occupy their time but also took the minds off their troubles and suicides became extremely rare. By preserving their everyday life skills in this way he made it easier for his patients to pick up their lives again when they were well enough to leave, which now came sooner because these methods speeded recovery. Ellis became famous in his own lifetime for his pioneering work and his adherence to this 'Great Principle of Therapeutic Employment' and was rewarded with a knighthood.

It may be helpful to point out here that those records that appear to show poorer recovery rates than achieved today, are total patient counts. As the new asylum system grew so the number of those admitted that were always deemed 'incurable' and were quite different from the 'lunatic insane' which is what these institutions for were originally built for. The greater part of these new classes of patients were the elderly, sent by the workhouses as being ill and very close to death. Also, before the introduction of antibiotics there were other incurables such as those with tertiary syphilis and gonorrhea that came in. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, greater numbers of people suffering from epilepsy were also getting admitted. All this had the effect of considerably slewing some of the modern accounts critical of the effectiveness of these early establishments, even though there survives a great mass of comprehensive and detailed records from this period.[2][3]

Ellis resigned his post at Hanwell in 1838.[4] This came about because the visiting Justices wished to expand the capacity of the asylum again. Also, for such an institution which was wholly funded by a levy on the local rates, it was becoming of the utmost importance, in the opinion of the visiting justices, that that best use be made of the assets and money spent, and that there were records and statistics to demonstrate that this was indeed being achieved. However, this required an organisational change in the way and in the detail that the asylum was managed and run.

William and his wife Mildred enjoyed being involved with all aspects of patient care and oversight of staff in order to create a 'domestic' or homely environment (or as is being reinvented today as Nidotherapy).[5]

As Ellis stated that same year:

These intended changes made it impossible for the two of them to continue to do what their heart felt conviction demanded.

He and Lady Ellis then set up their own private asylum for a few ladies and gentlemen of the upper social classes, quite nearby, in the grounds of Southall Park; this being the former residence of Lord Montford.

Alas, Ellis was a very large man and plagued throughout his life by ill health. This no doubt lead to his untimely death from dropsy just as short while later on 24 October 1839.


Benjamin Lambden (age 19), was indicted of stealing one sheep on 30 November 1838. Valued at 25 shillings (₤1 – 25p) which, it was said belonged to William Ellis of Southall Park. He was found guilty and sentenced to be Transported for ten years.[7]


  1. ^ Smith, Leonard D. (2004) "Ellis, Sir William Charles (1780–1839)" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/53734
  2. ^ Bynum, W.F; Porter, Roy; Shepherd, Michael (1988). The anatomy of madness: Essays in the history of psychiatry. Vol III; The asylum and its psychiatry. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-00859-X. 
  3. ^ London Metropolitan Archives. Accessed 5 June 2007.
  4. ^ The Phrenological journal, and magazine of moral science. (1837). The resignation of Sir W. C. Ellis. Edinburgh, Scotland: MacLachlan, Stewart, and Co. pp. 285–286. OCLC: 7800030.
  5. ^ Tyrer, P. (2005). "Nidotherapy: Making the environment do the therapeutic work". Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11 (3): 232. doi:10.1192/apt.11.3.232. 
  6. ^ Ellis, William (1838) A Treatise on the Nature, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment of Insanity. Holdsworth, London. (Reprinted 1976 by Ayer Publishing ISBN 0-405-07427-1)
  7. ^ Buckler, Henry (1838) Central Criminal Court Summary Case 350: Benjamin Lambden. Vol 9 sessions 1 to 7; pp. 312–313. George Herbert, Cheapside, London.

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