A Rare Victorian Lunatic Asylum Key & Weighted Pouch c.1880; ‘Asylum Cage Only’

Origin: English
Period: Mid/Late Victorian
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1870-90
Length: 4.75”
Width: 2.75” (at bow)
The Pouch: 4” long

The heavy Victorian period part-barrel shafted iron key having an oval symmetrical bow, the bit with a large cut out, the shank with moulded waisted ripple sections, being marked ‘Asylum Cage Only’ to the shank, complete with weighted black leather pouch, and surviving from the latter part of Victorian period England.

The key is in very good condition with patination commensurate with age and no damage to report. The leather pouch is supple and tactile and the fact that it has survived is pleasing; the weight inside presumably to make the officer aware if the key was lifted from him rather than it being used as a baton.

The construction of asylums was widespread in Britain following The Lunacy Act of 1845, which resulted primarily from the work of John Connolly and Lord Shaftsbury. This act professionalised the asylum and ensured that each institution was mediated by the local authority. It marked a paradigmatic shift, wherein ‘lunatics’ began to be considered as patients instead of prisoners.

The cage referred to on the key relates to either a Belgian or Lunatic’s cage, a electrotherapeutic cage or a cage bed, which were all present in asylums at this time.

Cage beds were removed in asylums by 2004 in Czechoslovakia but are still used for extreme cases there, whilst electrotherapeutic cages were large spirals of heavy wire around a cylindrical frame forming a cage in which the sitting or reclining patient experience high frequency electrical currents with low voltage and high amperage.

It is most likely a key for the ‘Belgian Cage’ or ‘Idiot’s Cage’ which was a wooden cage on short posts. This type of cage had been used for centuries and countries around the world had their own versions that were used both to restrain and display insane patients to curious asylum visitors.

A rare survivor with a real gravitas and evocative weight to it.