Local History: Mason’s Madhouses – a family business

Bristol journalist Mike Jempson has delved into the history of a family who made their living running the predecessors of mental hospitals in Fishponds, and made a mark on Downend, for a new book.

LONG before what we would recognise as mental health hospitals came into being, there were three versions of what became known as ‘Mason’s Madhouses’ in Fishponds, which was then part of the parish of Stapleton.

These ‘lunatic asylums’ provided a good living for several generations of the founder’s family, from 1738 to 1859. 

Self-styled Doctor Joseph Mason, from Wickwar, set up his first asylum at the junction of Glaisdale Road and College Road in 1740.

No remnants remain, but the business was so successful that by the end of the century he had commissioned Fishponds House, a sprawling asylum that stretched along Manor Road and Fishponds Road, from College Road to Oldbury Court Road.

Later still, the family would lease the equally grand Upper Fishponds House, in what is now Beechwood Road, as a short-lived annexe for recuperating women patients.

Originally owned by Joseph Mason’s lawyer, the house had been used as a boys’ school and would return to that use before past associations were obliterated when its new owner Alfred Robinson, of the packaging family, renamed it Beechwood House.

Traces of the estate in which it sat can still be found, notably the weeping willow tree in Beechwood Road.

The story of the family’s exploits, and their often colourful approaches to mental illness, form the basis of ‘No Cure, No Fee, boarding excepted’, my book published this autumn by Bristol Radical History Group.

The title comes from one of the many adverts placed in local papers alerting the public to the family’s services.

They were Baptists, boasted their own chapel and daily prayers, and sponsored Downend Baptist Church.

But they also formed a relationship with St Mary’s Church in Fishponds once it was established in 1820. Its curate, William Mirehouse, would play a fateful part in the downfall of the Mason dynasty.

Although lauded at different stages for their methods, the Masons had a chequered history and all was not always well in the madhouse.

The founder amassed a great deal of property locally, and owned an extensive farm in St George, to which he sometimes took his patients. 

For the most part family members lived in the asylum, but Mason’s grandson, Joseph Mason Cox, developed a splendid family house, complete with an orchard on Downend Road. Overn Hill House is now the site of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. 

Descendants of Joseph Mason were certainly better qualified than him, though some were not so good with money. And in changing times, methods of care at the madhouse fell behind more enlightened approaches to mental health.

As a result, a public inquiry was held near Old Market, revealing some astonishing shortcomings which would eventually lead to the closure of Fishponds House.

The building was sold off at auction at the Full Moon Inn (now The Crafty Egg) on May 4, 1859.

It became Massingham’s Boot and Shoe factory for a time, and was then demolished to make way for the buildings that now cover the site.

The furniture, equipment and crockery were auctioned off in July 1859, by which time work had started on Bristol’s Municipal Lunatic Asylum on Blackberry Hill, premises currently used by the University of the West of England to train future generations of health workers.

By happy coincidence, the full verbatim account of the pubic inquiry into Fishponds House was digitised by the Wellcome Foundation while I was researching the book in Fishponds’ Glenside Hospital Museum.

Hearing the actual voices of those involved added a human dimension to the story I was trying to tell, and provided a vivid insight into attitudes at the time.

Publication of No Cure, No Fee, boarding excepted: ‘Mason’s Madhouses’ in old Fishponds by Bristol Radical History Group is planned to coincide with International Mental Health Day on Tuesday October 10. This year’s theme is ‘Mental health is a universal human right.’

The book will be available from the Glenside Hospital Museum (open on Wednesday mornings and all day Saturdays) or via the BRHG website www.brh.org.uk/site/pamphleteer.