Remember Thomas Hodgson: The Victorian asylum and the history of British archaeology

A few years ago, while looking through a drawer at the British Museum, I came across a hand-drawn map showing the eastern part of Yorkshire. It intrigued me and stayed on the fringes of my thoughts. When Amara Thornton asked if I’d like to contribute to UCL’s History of Archaeology network, my mind wandered down the roads that criss-crossed the Yorkshire Wolds, passed place names in a spidery hand. A clue to its significance was written in the bottom right-hand corner of the map sheet:

‘Drawn for Dr. Thurnam
by T. Hodgson,
Surveyor 1849’

The map of east Yorkshire, drawn for Dr. Thurnam by T. Hodgson, surveyor, 1849 (Trustees of The British Museum)

Dr. Thurnam was, of course, John Thurnam, one of the most influential English archaeologists of the Victorian period. He is remembered for his archaeological digging and writing, and for his study and treatment of mental health. He left The Retreat, an institution near York famed for its progressive attitude to psychiatry, to take up a new role at ‘Wiltshire County Lunatic Asylum’ in 1849. Thurnam’s collection of antiquities were acquired by the British Museum following his death, in 1873. Presumably the map arrived at the same time, although there is no record to confirm this.

Dr John Thurnam (1810 – 1873), archaeologist and medical doctor during his time at the Retreat (Borthwick Institute for Archives/Wellcome Library: RET/1/8/7/21/2)

The ‘German Ocean’ for the North Sea confirms the map’s age, tinted greenish-blue fading to orange-brown at its fringes. The land of the chalk Wolds is strangely unfinished and flat by comparison, dotted with place names, including several with 19th century archaeological significance: ‘Dane’s Dyke’, ‘Dane’s Graves’, and ‘Arras’. At Driffield a barrow (‘tumulus’) is picked next to a tiny cross-section through the mound.

There are small, green paddocks, each containing a series of smaller circles. The key to deciphering these was an excellent, recent account of the short-lived activities of the Yorkshire Antiquarian Club (c.1849 – 1860), written by Stephen Harrison (2010). Thurnam had been a key figure in the Club and the map’s green circles corresponded neatly with the sites excavated by its members between 1848 and 1849. But the name of its maker, ‘T. Hodgson, Surveyor’, does not feature in connection with the Club.

Detail of the map of east Yorkshire, drawn for Dr. Thurnam by T. Hodgson, surveyor, 1849 (Trustees of The British Museum)

In search of more clues, I turned to Thurnam’s time at The Retreat. Fortunately, the Wellcome Library and the Borthwick Institute for Archives had recently digitised the asylum’s papers for the period 1792 – 2000. Among them I found the hand of Thomas Hodgson, land surveyor – and patient. He had been a Quaker by religion and a land surveyor by trade, from Naburn, York, he had married but had been diagnosed with ‘mania’ and been admitted to the Retreat repeatedly between 1842 and his death in 1869 (MS RET/6/19/1/73).

I found his beautifully realised plan of the Retreat estate, drawn in 1849, the same year as the British Museum’s map of east Yorkshire. Its serene colours and calmness are testaments to his personality and skill but also visual translations of the very ethos of the institution, as captured by a visitor in 1798:

‘This house is situated a mile from York, in the midst of a fertile and smiling countryside; it is not at all the idea of a prison that it suggests, but rather that of a large farm; it is surrounded by a great, walled garden. No bars, no grilles on the windows.’ (De La Rive, cited by Foucault [1961] 2001, 229-30)

Plan of the Retreat Estate and Buildings by T. Hodgson (Borthwick Institute for Archives/Wellcome Library: RET/2/1/16/3)
Detail of plan of the Retreat Estate and Buildings by T. Hodgson (Borthwick Institute for Archives/Wellcome Library: RET/2/1/16/3)

Hodgson’s letters are also preserved in The Retreat’s archive, still in his beautiful hand but lacking the composure and calmness of his maps. There are anxious and angry words, underlined and rewritten, over and over.

A key element in the treatment of Hodgson and other patients by Thurnam at the Retreat and, later, in Wiltshire, was the role of distraction and outdoor pursuits, walking and working out of doors (see Digby 1985, 43; Steele 2000, 1-2, 13). In an attempt to understand his patient’s minds, Thurnam also turned to the newly developing ‘science’ of phrenology, measuring the skulls of his patients (Digby 1985, 113). Around 1849 he began to apply the same techniques to the human remains recovered from archaeological excavations. Hodgson’s map of east Yorkshire represents an example of Thurnam’s two vocations and the way in which they overlapped in surprising – and often untold – ways.

Thomas Hodgson, land surveyor, should not be overshadowed by his status as patient or by his dapper Victorian doctor, nor was he was an isolated instance. By tracing the biography of the objects in Thurnam’s collection and consulting relevant archives, it’s been possible to start acknowledging the intertwined contribution of Thurnam and his patients to a formative period in the history of British archaeology.


Digby, A. 1985, Madness, Morality And Medicine: A Study Of The York Retreat 1796-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Foucault, M. 1961 [2001], Madness and Civilization, A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, London: Routledge

Harrison, S. 2010, The Yorkshire Antiquarian Club 1849–c.1860, Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 20(1), pp.38–48

Steele, P. 2000, Down Pans Lane : the history of Roundway Hospital, Devizes, 1851 – 1995, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Lucy Cummings; Gaetano Ardito, David Dawson, Lisa Brown, Francesca Hilier, Jennifer Wexler, Amara Thornton and Angela Grimshaw.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *