The Retreat Archive

1792 - 2000
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work


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.


1792 - 2000

Physical description

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


The arrangement 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.

Biographical note

The Retreat York

Terms of use

The Retreat archive is open to researchers subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Act. Material restricted under the Data Protection Act is noted at section, series, subseries and item level in the catalogue. Where material is caught by the Act, potential users should consult with the Borthwick Institute staff who will operate the necessary protocols, including, where necessary, obtaining permission from the Retreat. This material has been digitised by the Borthwick Institute for Archives as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project, and can be freely accessed online through the Wellcome Library catalogue.

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