The Retreat, York

The Retreat, Heslington Road, York, photographed in 2009 © Copyright Gordon Hatton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

More has perhaps been written about The Retreat since its foundation in the late-eighteenth century than almost any other psychiatric hospital in Britain. Alongside Bethlem it is probably the best known. The post here merely aims to provide a brief overview, principally of the buildings. The bare bones of its history are simply told. It was founded by the Society of Friends, and more particularly by William Tuke, as a lunatic asylum for fellow Quakers. The chief spur to its foundation was to provide an alternative to the York asylum, about which some serious questions were being raised regarding the treatment of patients there, particularly of the poorest class, and the conditions in which they were kept.

While the motive for the foundation may have derived from the Society’s spiritual beliefs, the groundwork was entirely practical. Recent works on asylum management and design were read, the new St Luke’s Hospital in London was visited and physicians consulted. But the choice of architect was less straight forward. In the 1790s there were still few purpose-built asylums in Britain, and the architectural profession was very much in its infancy. There were no particular specialists in institutional buildings, such jobs often went to the county surveyor. The top man locally, John Carr, might have been too expensive for the Society, but he had also been the architect of the York Asylum, and not only did the Society object to the management of that asylum, but it was also stylistically at variance with the Society’s preference for unostentatious buildings.

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St Luke’s Hospital, print, London, England, 1785, from the Wellcome Library,  Wellcome Images licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

And so they looked to one of their own faith, John Bevans, sometime carpenter and architect of London. He had never built a lunatic asylum before, and confessed that asylum planning ‘was a subject that never occupied my thoughts’, prior to his appointment. [1] However, there is some evidence that he was the designer of the Quaker Workhouse in Clerkenwell, completed in 1786, so not altogether irrelevant experience. [2]  Along with William Tuke he visited and was impressed by St Luke’s Hospital in London, and aspects of the plan were adopted for The Retreat, albeit on a reduced scale. The wings were two instead of three storeys, flat ceilings substituted for arches, and there was a central stair rather than separate stairs in each wing.  William Tuke and his son had also sketched out early plans as guidance, but as Bevans remained in London, a local architect, Peter Atkinson, was brought in to manage the construction, and draw up plans and elevations following Bevans’ directions. [3]

Before the plans could be finalised, money had to be raised and a site found. William Tuke, his son Henry and Lindley Murray raised funds by subscription from Friends throughout England and the site was acquired in 1793. When The Retreat opened in 1796 it comprised a central three-storeyed block with a recessed two-storeyed wing to the west. In the following year a corresponding wing was built to the east. The buildings were of plain brick with slate roofs.

A view of the North Front of the Retreat near York, from Samuel Tuke’s Description of the Retreat, 1813. Wellcome Library, London. Reproduced  under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Twenty-one years after the foundation of the asylum had been first considered, William Tuke’s grandson, Samuel,  published a description of The Retreat. He related that the idea had been to establish  ‘a retired Habitation, with necessary advice, attendance, &c. for the Members of our Society, …who may be in a state of Lunacy, or so deranged in mind (not Idiots) as to require such provision.’ [4]

From the outset the setting and the grounds were as important as the building itself. The founders wanted a site large enough to furnish a few acres of pasture land for cows and for gardens where the patients might take exercise. The financing was arranged on the established model of a voluntary hospital, whereby voluntary subscriptions were made towards the cost of running and maintaining the institution. Those subscribing over a certain amount could nominate poor patients on the lowest rates of admission, and could attend the governing committee meetings. [5]

Extract from the 6-inch OS Map, published in 1853. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The central block contained the main entrance, and, on the ground floor, the kitchen, a dairy, pantry and larder on the north side, and a parlour and dining-room on the south side, as well as the principal stair. A corridor, eight feet wide, ran along the east-west axis of the whole building and the patients’ accommodation in the wings comprised single bed rooms, pump room, closets and day rooms placed either side of the corridor. As at earlier asylums, including St Luke’s and Bedlam in London, the patients’ single rooms were lit by a small window, placed high up in the wall.

Ground plan of the Retreat near York, from Samuel Tuke’s Description of the Retreat, 1813. Wellcome Library, London. Reproduced  under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The Retreat was opened on 11 May 1796 and the first three patients were admitted in June. A local physician was appointed to attend the patients. [6]  The entrance retains its original pedimented doorcase but most of the windows have been refitted with modern sashes. The original sashes, of which only a few remained by 1992, were of iron with iron glazing bars; in order to give security without the appearance of bars one sash filled the whole height of the window but was only glazed in the lower part, and a second, moving, sash had glazing bars which, in the closed position, came exactly behind those of the first.

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Upper-floor plan of The Retreat, from Samuel Tuke’s Description of the Retreat, 1813. Wellcome Library, London. Reproduced  under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The Retreat became the most influential asylum of its time, not so much in terms of its design, but in the treatment and care of the patients it admitted. Although the roles of William and his son Henry Tuke should not be underplayed, it was William’s grandson, Samuel, who was largely responsible for the wide sphere of influence of the hospital through his systematic study of lunacy and his publications, notably the Description of the Retreat of 1813. It was at his father’s request that Samuel began writing ‘a history and general account of the Retreat’ in 1811, but it was on his own initiative that he turned this into an opportunity for himself to read as many authors as he could come accross on the subject of insanity. He also read William Stark and Robert Reid’s accounts of the planning and design of the asylums at Glasgow and Edinburgh, both of whom had visited the Retreat. In 1812 he visited St Luke’s in London to discuss the ‘humane system’ with Thomas Dunston, the superintendent there, but was neither impressed by Dunston nor the asylum, which he considered was too prison-like in appearance.

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One of the original-style of sash window at The Retreat, designed to look like a domestic sash window but modified to create ‘hidden’ iron bars to prevent patients from escaping

On its publication, Tuke’s Description… was thrust to the fore in the subsequent controversy involving the York Asylum, and its physician, Dr Best, who took great and public exception to Tuke’s well considered work. If Best had hoped to blight the prospects of this rival asylum in York, he was doubly disappointed. Not only did he attract much publicity to the Retreat but to his own institution which was very soon exposed as corrupt in administration and inhumane in its treatment of the poorest inmates.

Neither Samuel Tuke nor John Bevans considered that the plan of the Retreat was a perfect model. Tuke considered that ‘an inferior plan well executed, may be more beneficial than a better system, under neglected managements’. [7]  Tuke was also critical of the airing courts on the south side of the building which were bounded by eight foot high walls. Although the natural slope of the ground preserved a reasonable view of the surrounding countryside, Tuke nevertheless felt that the courts were too small and that they must appear uninviting to patients where ‘the boundary of his excursion is always before his eye; which must have a gloomy effect on the already depressed mind’. Another defect of the plan which Tuke noted in his Description… was the arrangement of patients’ rooms on either side of the corridors, or galleries: ‘for, though a large portion of light is admitted, by the window at each extremity of the building, yet, the galleries on the ground floor, at least, are rather gloomy’. [8]

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Detail from a survey of The Retreat of 1828 by Watson and Pritchett.  This shows the walled airing yards on the south side of the building that Samuel Tuke criticised.  (Public Domain image)

The treatment of the patients set the Retreat apart from its contemporaries, in particular the larger London asylums. Whilst the system of ‘moral management’ developed there did not necessarily have direct expression in the design of the building, it did have an effect and elements of building reflect the greater understanding of the needs of those afflicted with mental illness. The Tukes, and the early staff of the Retreat, rejected the widely held belief that lunatics were insensible to the usual comforts of the sane, such as warmth or an appreciation of their surroundings. At both Bedlam and St Lukes the windows in the patients’ cells were unglazed, as it was considered that lunatics were insensible to cold, and the ventilation helped to disipate the stench of soiled straw which formed the patients’ bedding. In response to their more enlightened views Bevans devised the iron-framed windows for the Retreat and the fires and stoves were provided with safety guards to protect the patients. Similar thought was given to the furnishings – curtains were designed specially without any element that could be misused by a patient to harm himself or others.

The Retreat quickly became a success and additional accommodation was soon required. The first addition of the west wing, part of the original design, was made almost as soon as the first phase of construction had been completed in 1796. In 1799 a building was added for male patients and a separate airing ground provided. This was the five-bay wing added at the south-east corner. It was appropriated to the more violent patients. Later, in 1803, a corresponding wing was added to the south-west corner for female patients. Further accommodation was still required and in 1810 a house near Walmgate Bar was acquired for £1,200. This house was, for a time, known as ‘the Appendage’. It was sold in 1823 to the Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting as a boys’ school. Another house was acquired in 1816 on Garrow Hill.

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Extract from the 6-inch OS map, revised in 1929, showing how The Retreat had been extended and added to, and also the encroaching suburbs of York. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

An annexe to the south, known as ‘the Lodge’ was built in 1816-17, rebuilt on a larger scale in 1875. In about 1827 the south-east wing was extended eastwards and two new wings had been added on the north corners replacing the stable block on the east and the brew house and bake house on the west. There was also an octagonal gate lodge on Heslington Road.

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The Lodge, added to the south side of The Retreat, 1875. Photographed in 1993.
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Detail showing the central part of The Lodge with its elegant iron and glass veranda. Photographed in 1993

Expansion continued in the second half of the nineteenth century, beginning with an appeal for building funds launched in 1852, resulting in another new wing in 1854. Further additions were made in 1858-60. Villas were acquired in 1879 (Belle Vue) and built in 1880 (East Villa) while from the 1890s the now ageing buildings were remodelled by Walter Brierley, and a new recreation room constructed in 1906. [9]

The North-West wing of The Retreat.  Begun in 1827, remodelled in the 1890s. Photographed in 1993.

A nurses’ home was built in 1899, but a newer and larger one was built in the 1920s following a limited competition for the design. This was won by Chapman & Jenkinson of Sheffield. Bedrooms for fifty nurses were provided on the first and second floors, and a kitchen, dining-hall and sitting-rooms occupied the ground floor. It was constructed of local grey bricks with hand-made red brick and some stone dressings, and Westmorland slates for the roof. The contractors were William Birch & Sons of York and work was completed by 1929. [10]

The Retreat continues to provide specialist mental health care, occupying its original site and most of its original buildings, a testament to the success of the original founders and the validity of their ideals. (see


  1. A. Digby, Madness, Morality and Medicine. A Study of the York Retreat, 1796-1914, 1984, p.18
  2. Survey of London vol.46 South and East Clerkenwell, pp.341-2
  3. Anne-Marie Akehurst ‘The York Retreat A Vernacular of Equality’, pp 81-4, in Peter Guillery, ed Built from Below British Architecture and the Vernacular, 2011
  4. Samuel Tuke, Description of the Retreat, an institution near York for Insane Persons of the Society of Friends, 1813, p.26
  5. Samuel Tuke, Description of the Retreat, an institution near York for Insane Persons of the Society of Friends, 1813, p.29
  6. Samuel Tuke, Description of the Retreat, an institution near York for Insane Persons of the Society of Friends, 1813, p.46
  7. Samuel Tuke, Description of the Retreat, an institution near York for Insane Persons of the Society of Friends, 1813, p.47-9
  8. Samuel Tuke, Description of the Retreat, an institution near York for Insane Persons of the Society of Friends, 1813, p. 106
  9. VCH
  10. The Builder, 12 Feb. 1926, p.276; 26 April 1929, pp 764-76

Further Reading

This is far from comprehensive, but just a few key texts or books/articles that I have read and found interesting.

Anne-Marie Akehurst ‘The York Retreat A Vernacular of Equality’, pp 81-4, in Peter Guillery, ed Built from Below British Architecture and the Vernacular, 2011
Anne Digby, Madness, Morality and Medicine. A Study of the York Retreat, 1985
Barry Edginton, ‘The Design of Moral Architecture at the York Retreat’ in Journal of Design History, 2003 vol.16 (2) pp.103-117
H. C. Hunt, A Retired Habitation, A History of The Retreat, York, 1932
R. Hunter and I. Macalpine, Description of the Retreat… 1964
Samuel Tuke, Description of the Retreat, an institution near York for Insane Persons of the Society of Friends, 1813