Mental Health

"Hi, I’m Betty Huffer. In 1960 I became national news after I escaped from Littlemore Hospital. My story started a discussion about the lives of people who had been left in psychiatric hospitals for many years when they could have been free."


town and gown in mental health treatment © Kati Lacey

Oxfordshire has a distinctive history in the field of mental health provision. Explore the timeline below or learn more about the Warneford and Littlemore Hospitals and their patients.

Find out more about the history of student mental health care in Warneford or explore more about the Littlemore Hospital, Oxford’s largest psychiatric in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its closure
in the 1990s.

Historically, the type of treatment you might receive for mental health conditions in Oxford could depend on your social status, and especially whether you were ‘town’ or ‘gown’.
mental health at oxford timeline

Click on the milestones below to explore the brief history of Mental Health in Oxford.



The Anatomy of Melancholy

University of Oxford Fellow Robert Burton publishes The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of the first works dedicated studies of mental illness, looking at causes, symptoms, and cures. In it, Burton also detailed his own experiences of

anatomy of melancholy cover

c. 1720s

Hook Norton Asylum opens

Hook Norton Asylum, a private asylum by run by Sarah Minchin opens, the first licensed mad-house in the county, attracting patients from across the country.

Over forty per cent of those received treatment at Hook Norton came from outside of Oxfordshire, sent far from their communities. Private ‘mad houses’ were often used to hide away family members who were perceived as difficult or troublesome.
How must have it felt for those sent to Hook Norton?



Private mad house opens in Witney

Dr Batt opens a private mad-house in Witney. The Batt family served as surgeons and apothecaries in the town for many years



Oxford Lunatic Asylum opens

Oxford Lunatic Asylum opens. It’s re-named the Warneford Hospital in 1843 in honour of its primary benefactor Samuel Warneford. The hospital was largely for the middle classes - patients and their families had to pay for admittance. But some allowance was made for poorer patients who could not pay.

In the nineteenth century whether you were wealthy or not determined the treatment you would receive for mental illness. When the Warneford opened, patients were separated into different wings depending on their class.


Two important pieces of government legislation are passed

The Lunacy Act and the County Asylums Act. The Acts improve regulation of asylums and oblige all counties in England to provide free Asylum for Lunatics.



Oxford County Pauper Lunatic Asylum open

Oxford County Pauper Lunatic Asylum opens. It is later known as Littlemore Hospital.

The opening of a ‘Pauper Lunatic Asylum’ in Oxford signalled further class divides in the provision of mental health care in the county.


The Asylum Journal

The first medical journal devoted to asylums, The Asylum Journal is published in Britain. It marks the developing specialty of “mental science”, eventually known as psychiatry.

the asymlum journal first page



Berkshire County
Lunatic Asylum opens

Later called Fair Mile Hospital. Following boundary changes it becomes part of Oxfordshire.

berkshire lunatic asylum


Thomas Saxty Good at Littlemore


Thomas Saxty Good is appointed Physician Superintendent at the Littlemore Hospital. Good announces an “open-door” system at the asylum, unlocking ward doors.



Military hospital for injured soldiers

The University of Oxford Examination School is converted into a military hospital to receive injured soldiers. 25 beds are reserved for “nerve cases”, those suffering from afflictions such as shell shock.

‘Shell shock’ was important in changing understandings of mental illness, and particularly the deeply traumatic effects of being on the frontline of combat.




The NHS is established under which Littlemore becomes absorbed.



First drugs hit the market

The first drugs to treat psychiatric disorders, principally for schizophrenia and psychosis, hit the market.

The introduction of pharmaceutical treatment in psychiatry was a huge development. It brought improved treatment for many people and enabled more patients to live outside of institutional care. However, not everyone wanted to take medication and some thought it was a sign of doctors’ increasing power over patients


Bertram Mandelbrote and Helmut Leopoldt

Psychiatric nurses often get left out of histories of mental health provision. But we know figures like Helmut Leopold played an important role in enabling change at psychiatric hospitals, as well as developing models of community care.

Psychiatrist Bertram Mandelbrote and nurse Helmut Leopoldt arrive at Littlemore to take charge of the Phoenix Unit. The Unit established daily meetings which all patients, nurses and doctors attended to discuss the events of the last 24 hours. No uniforms are worn by the staff.

John Hall, ‘The development of supported mental health accommodation and community psychiatric nursing in Oxfordshire’, History of Psychiatry 34(1) 2023. 34-37.



The Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford Opens

The department was founded by Michael Gelder. Many other Universities were also establishing psychiatric departments around this time.



Opening of Restore

Restore opens, a community-based rehabilitation service on Cowley Road. Drawing from occupational therapy, Restore seeks to train service-users in skills useful for working life, including gardening, screen printing and crafting. A shop is set up for service-users to sell their products. The Oxfordshire branch of Mind opens the same year.

Jonathan Leach, Peter Agulnik, and John Hall, ‘The development of a creative work rehabilitation organisation’, History of Psychiatry 34(1) 2023. 48-63.



Closing of Littlemore

Following a period of decline, as Oxfordshire shifts towards a Care in the Community model of mental healthcare provision, the Littlemore Hospital finally closes in 1998.

The second half of the twentieth century saw a better understanding that long-term stays in psychiatric institutions could be damaging to people. Stories like mine highlighted that some people were unfairly left to linger in asylums
and were discussed in newspapers and on TV.

Betty May Huffer



Oxford Student Mental Health Network

Read more here: (Link to deep dive on Student Health)..

The establishment of the Oxford Student Mental Health Network raises awareness of the high prevalence of mental health conditions within the city’s student population.


The history of mental health provision in Oxfordshire reflects national trends but also some distinct characteristics of care in the region. Oxford has long been a thriving hub for mental health charities. However, it also has
distinctive challenges. For instance, today, the city’s population suffers from higher-than-average rates of depression and other mental health conditions.

We have come a long way from the days of the asylum, but living with a mental health conditions can still be hugely challenging. Waiting times for therapy can be lengthy and services are struggling with funding challenges. How
can we ensure Oxfordshire citizens get the care they need?