fonds RET - The Retreat Archive

Audiotape: "Sunnyside Up", Nurses' Entertainment, 6 August 1960, with programme

Identity area

Reference code



The Retreat Archive


  • [late 18th century-21st century] (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

37 cubic metres

Comprising 1631 boxes, 279 plans, maps, paintings and drawings and 14 other items

Context area

Name of creator


Administrative history

The Retreat is historically one of the most important centres for the care and treatment of the insane

It was founded by, and for, the Society of Friends and opened in 1796. The moving spirit in its foundation was William Tuke, a tea dealer from York. He pressed for a Quaker facility for Friends suffering from mental illness after learning that a Yorkshire Quaker woman, Hannah Mills, had died at the York Lunatic Asylum in 1791 without the Quaker community being allowed to see or minister to her. The Tuke family was closely and personally involved with the foundation and the running of the Retreat for its first fifty years: William Tuke and his grandson Samuel Tuke were particularly active in Retreat management and both gained a reputation as experts in the field of asylum provision

The Retreat quickly attracted attention for the astonishing success of its pioneering mild methods of treatment of the insane, under its lay superintendent, George Jepson (Superintendent 1797-1823). The Retreat became famous, and its influence on the development of the treatment of the insane in this country, America, and elsewhere, was immense

In the mid nineteenth century the Retreat became much more like other middle class asylums in terms of staffing, facilities and approach. It became a Registered Hospital for the Insane under the 1845 Lunatics Act. From the early nineteenth century onwards, patients were a mixture of Quakers and private middle class patients of all denominations. The fees paid by the latter were used to subsidise poorer Quaker patients as well as forming a resource which allowed the Retreat to continue its work. The lay nature of its early therapies and therapists was superseded by a medically centred management after the appointment of a resident surgeon in 1839 who became the first medical superintendent after the 1845 Act. The Quaker identity of the Retreat continued, however, through its governing body, its superintendents and many of its staff. Special fundraising efforts for further buildings and facilities were well supported by the Quaker community at large

The concerns and problems at the Retreat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century mirrored those at other asylums. There were increasing numbers of chronic patients, there were strains between resources and the desire to expand accommodation in order to treat different types of patients on a more clearly classified system, and there was a need to continually modernise in order to compete in the middle class asylum market. But the Retreat had some advantages compared with other institutions. It has always been relatively small in size: opening with a dozen patients in 1796, it had around 40 by 1800, 60 in 1820, rising to around 150 by 1870, a peak of around 250 in the mid twentieth century with subsequent falls to around 140 in the 1990s. Staff were also loyal, and the Quaker ethos, shared by a constant proportion of staff and patients, has always generated a strong sense of identity, family and home. In the early twentieth century the Retreat was indeed a like a comfortable rest home for many patients. The then Medical Superintendent (Dr Bedford Pierce, Superintendent 1892-1922) was active, well respected and prominent in professional psychiatric circles as well as being much revered at the Retreat and in the Quaker community. The Retreat was also progressive at that time in exploring new treatments and in pioneering greater professional training for its nurses

The Retreat did not enter the NHS in 1948, and it has continued to operate as an independent hospital. The last fifty years have seen an enormous number of changes and pressures which the Retreat has had to deal with in a flexible way, in order to maintain its existence. With the radical changes in the population of mental hospitals from the 1960s onwards, the Retreat has had to rethink its role. It has physically modernised (there was a large rebuilding and upgrading programme promoted through the 1950s and 1960s which has continued when necessary since then). It has reformed and refocused its management and staffing and maintained and adapted its roles both within the Quaker community and in the market for mental health so that it continues to operate as a successful independent hospital today

There is an important study of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Retreat: Anne Digby, Madness, morality and medicine; a study of the York Retreat 1796-1914 (1985). An overview of the history of the Retreat in the twentieth century can best be gained through a study of the Retreat's annual reports and the various publications issued by the Retreat - see catalogue for details. Further details on specific events and buildings also appear in the annotations to the catalogue entries

Archival history

The archive was kept at the Retreat until transfers of archives to the Borthwick Institute began in 1975.
Many researchers used the Retreat archive while it was still at the hospital, and the Retreat also had, at various times, honorary or official 'archivists' who looked after and did some sorting of the archives. Harold C Hunt, who was at the Retreat between 1900 and 1936 as assistant secretary and then steward, also acted as Retreat curator and librarian, and he made catalogues of the archives in the 1930s (see RET 1/10/2/20). During the 1960s, George Halliday acted as Retreat archivist and he inventoried and listed the archives (see RET 4/1/8)

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

The Retreat archive was received from the Retreat. The first accession was deposited in the Borthwick in 1974. Further major accessions were received in 1976, 1979, 1980, 1982 ,1999, 2006 and 2007.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

Three aspects of the Retreat archive make it important to the history of medicine

First, it reflects the special character of the Retreat. It is impossible to underestimate the significance of the archive for an understanding of the development of the care of the insane from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, given the Retreat's pivotal and influential role.

Secondly, it can be used as the means to study a 'typical' type of institution. The Retreat increasingly had features in common with other asylums as legislation and regulation modified management and standardised record keeping. Changes in the market for psychiatric care, as has been indicated above, led the Retreat to become a more standard middle class institution, although it continued to maintain its high reputation and distinctive ethos.

Thirdly, the archive is unusually complete. The administrative, financial, staff, estate and patient records are very extensive. The Retreat appears to have thrown very little away. In particular, patients' case notes are very detailed and the mass of other supporting evidence includes letters and diaries written by patients themselves. There is a very large amount of Retreat correspondence 1796-1930s, including incoming and copy out-letters and correspondence files. Staff material includes mid nineteenth century Retreat manuals of duties, time books, and bundles of applications for posts, along with twentieth century material on nurse training. There are papers on the Retreat annexes, including 'Millfield' in York, acquired in the early twentieth century, and various properties leased in Scarborough for holidaying and long term patients. The archive also includes material relating to other institutions, including important tracts and correspondence relating to the early nineteenth century scandals at York Lunatic Asylum, a case book for 'The Poplars', Acomb, York (which housed a single patient), and visitors books for two other private York asylums. There is also other miscellaneous material in the archive, including statistical returns of causes of death in York collected by York Medical Society in the early 1840s.

The new catalogue has uncovered many of these facets of the archive. Much of the Retreat archive had come to the Borthwick in a very jumbled state - even ostensibly well ordered files have been found, during cataloguing, to be full of unrelated and misplaced material. The new catalogue has achieved, for the first time, a complete sort out of the archive.


Accruals are expected.

System of arrangement

The ordering of the Retreat catalogue follows the same model as that used for other asylum archives at the Borthwick, making comparison and location of material in and between these different archives much easier.

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access

The Retreat archive is open to researchers subject to the provisions of data protection laws. Material restricted under data protection laws is noted at sub-fonds, series, subseries and item level in the catalogue. Potential users of restricted material should consult with the Borthwick staff who will operate the necessary protocols, including, where necessary, obtaining permission from the Retreat.

Conditions governing reproduction

A reprographics service is available to researchers. Copying will not be undertaken if there is any risk of damage to the document. Copies are supplied in accordance with the Borthwick Institute for Archives' terms and conditions for the supply of copies, and under provisions of any relevant copyright legislation. Permission to reproduce images of documents in the custody of the Borthwick Institute must be sought.

Language of material

  • English

Script of material

Language and script notes

Physical characteristics and technical requirements

Finding aids

This is a new updated version, made in 2014, of the Retreat catalogue of 2004. The 2014 version includes many additions and new material, though the structure and format of the catalogue remain the same. The updating reflects the fact that large further accessions of Retreat material have come to the Borthwick since the 2004 catalogue was prepared. Although a great deal of this new material has been added in during 2014, there are still unlisted Retreat archives, which will be added into this catalogue in due course.

The 2004 catalogue was an entirely new, larger and more extensive finding aid than its predecessors. It thus superseded the original catalogue of the Retreat Archive of April 1975. It also superseded the draft Interim catalogue prepared at the Borthwick in the late 1990s which was an attempt to add in some of the new accessions which had greatly increased the size and scope of the Retreat archive at the Borthwick since the 1970s. The interim catalogue involved some necessary (and some radical) re-referencing to try and fit in the additions, but due to restraints on resources, it largely had to keep to the original (and inadequate) catalogue framework. It was this exercise, and its inadequate result, which revealed just how much the Retreat archive needed an entirely new catalogue. The 2004 catalogue was the result.

The Borthwick Institute is very grateful to the Wellcome Trust and British Library, without whose help and funding via the Research Resources in Medical History scheme the re-cataloguing of this important archive to modern standards during 2002-2004 would not have been possible.

Researchers have used, over the last 30 years, Retreat archive material under the original catalogue references, and latterly under the interim catalogue references. To re-locate material in the new catalogue (if not readily apparent) two concordances have been prepared and are available at the Borthwick.

Allied materials area

Existence and location of originals

Existence and location of copies

Much of the Retreat Archive has been digitised with funding from the Wellcome Collection. Copies of digitised records can be viewed online where available by following links provided within the catalogue.

Related units of description

The York Retreat Book Collection was deposited at the University of York Library in 2006 and can be accessed as part of Special Collections. The books can be found by going to the online library catalogue: Select 'Advanced Search' and then select 'Provenance' in the drop down menu and search for 'York Retreat'.

Tuke Family Collection, 1660-1946 (ref. GB 193 TUKE).

Publication note

The standard academic work is:
Anne Digby, Madness, morality and medicine: a study of the York Retreat, 1796-1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Samuel Tuke, Description of the Retreat (York, 1813), a hugely influential publication in its day, remains a key work on the principles and application of moral therapy, and it describes life at the Retreat in its earliest days.

Harold Capper Hunt, A Retired Habitation. A History of the Retreat, York (London 1932), while by no means an academic work is still useful: its author was the Retreat's steward, and it is very much an insiders account, with the later chapters giving an insight into life at the Retreat in the early 20th century.

Notes area

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Institution identifier


Rules and/or conventions used

ISAD (G): General International Standard Archival Description, International Council on Archives (2nd edition, 2000); Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names, National Council on Archives (1997).

Level of detail

Dates of creation revision deletion




Accession area