Plaque at Tuke House, Lawrence Street, York, YO10 3BP

Cathy Waters, Chief Executive of The Retreat, unveiling the Samuel Tuke plaque

Born in York, Samuel Tuke was a member of one of the city’s most prominent Quaker families. He was the grandson of William Tuke and the son of Henry Tuke. In 1796, in response to the appalling conditions discovered in York Lunatic Asylum, William founded the Retreat, a home for “Friends [Quakers] deprived of their use of reason”. Members of the Tuke family were instrumental in changing the thinking behind the treatment of mental health patients, a legacy that lasted well into the 20th century. It is difficult to talk of Samuel without first summarising the work of his grandfather, William, for it

Drawing of Samuel Tuke

was his work that laid the ground for Samuel’s contribution. William Tuke was born in York on 24 March 1732. In 1755 he took over the sole running of the successful tea and coffee business which had been started by his mother, Mary, a few years prior to his birth. William married Elizabeth Hoyland in 1752 and had five children by his first wife and three children by his second wife, Esther Maud.

Lunatic Asylum controversy

The death of a fellow Quaker, Hannah Mills, in 1790, was to have a huge impact on the treatment of the mentally ill in England. On 15 March 1790, Hannah, a young widow, was admitted to York Lunatic Asylum. She was suffering from “melancholy” which today would be called clinical depression. In the eighteenth century, mental illness was not understood and sufferers were treated inhumanely. The usual practice was to chain “lunatics” to walls in unheated cells. They were abused and left naked, dirty and denied visitors. Hannah’s relatives asked the York Quakers to visit her at the asylum but they were refused permission. She died at the institution on 29 April 1790 after only six weeks. The circumstances of her death shocked the Quaker community.

For the next four years William Tuke and other Quakers, including William’s son Henry and the then well-known grammarian Lindley Murray, set about trying to redress this situation. William collected donations, debated the way forward, and with local Quakers and doctors set up the York Retreat in 1796. The Retreat pioneered the removal of “inmates’” chains, provided decent food and offered what we would now call therapeutic regimes; the mentally ill were treated, in the spirit of the Quaker ideology, as equal human beings to whom respect and humanity should be accorded. Despite the exposure of the reality of conditions at the Lunatic Asylum, the problems continued there and would not be fully addressed until 1814.

York Retreat original building c. 1796, lithograph by Gemälde von Carve

New approach to mental illness

Although William Tuke was suspicious of the medical profession of the day, he was sufficiently open-minded to investigate their claims for treating mental illness. With his encouragement, the first visiting physician to the Retreat, Dr Fowler, and his successors made a trial of the various medical treatments available and found them sorely lacking in success. An alternative approach known as “Moral Treatment” was developed which was seen, in the UK, to be revolutionary at the time – although Pinel in Paris and others in England were contemporaneously working along the same lines. Initially, reaction was cynical to this new form of treatment for the mentally ill. Nonetheless, within two years, a French physician, de la Rive, brought wider attention to the philosophy of mental care at the Retreat and the insitution eventually became a model of good treatment throughout the continent. William’s son, Henry (1755-1814) and his grandson Samuel (1784-1857), continued the work. Samuel’s Description of the Retreat (1813), written at William’s request, was critical in contemporary debates on the reforms of “madhouses” at the time. His great grandson, Daniel Hack Tuke (1827-1895), went on to write A Manual of Psychological Medicine in 1858. The work of William and his dynasty was cited in psychiatric training into the 20th century and the Retreat continues to provide specialist mental health care.

William’s son Henry continued to develop the family tea and coffee business and wrote a large number of Quaker books. He set up bookshops and a printers’ company, publishing more than 200 Quaker works. Henry died in 1814 at the age of 59 when his son, Samuel, was only 30. Samuel had been enrolled in a Quaker girl’s school initially but went to the Ackworth Quaker school near Pontefract in 1792. In 1797 he finished his education at George Blaxland’s School in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Samuel went on to work as a “Tea Merchant of York & London” in the family firm which he helped to develop well into the middle of the 19th century. He lived at St Saviourgate and then in Lawrence Street, York. In 1810 Samuel married Priscilla Hack and they had 13 children.

Tuke’s house in Lawrence Street

Samuel Tuke and the Retreat

Samuel took “vigorous action” to raise local subscriptions for the new Retreat in 1813. He worked as its manager and continued the work of his grandfather and father, helping to publicise the term “moral treatment” and, in particular, became known for his Description of the Retreat published in 1813. In 1841, The Statistics of the Retreat; consisting of A Report and Tables exhibiting the experience of that Institution for the Insane; from its establishment in 1796 to 1840 was published in Samuel Tuke’s name when he was treasurer and a member of the management committee. Samuel was treasurer between 1820 and 1852. His preface finishes by saying that he hopes this publication will promote the exchange of information between similar institutions. What would now be called “data sharing” was a popular preoccupation at this time and, according to historian Anne Digby, Samuel helped open up the state of asylums to public scrutiny. A similar exercise of his was the publication of a volume about another asylum, Plans, elevations, sections and a description of the pauper lunatic asylum erected at Wakefield (1819). It is evident that he was involved at every level in the running of these institutions.

In the 1841 volume we are told that the Retreat had been opened 44 years at this point and that it was situated half a mile out of the city on a site extending to 28 acres, “affording excellent air and water”. In the days of cholera and beliefs about “miasma” this was seen as important. Samuel clearly had a practical input into the Retreat. At its design stage, he recommended the provision of adjacent day rooms so that the patients had somewhere to go, other than their bedrooms, in the daytime. This was primarily for therapeutic reasons but, according to Anne Digby, was also a ‘tool of moral management’ which, according to Samuel, helped separate violent patients from others. In a letter of 1814, he speaks of ‘as complete a system of espionage as possible’ under the officer who was a ‘sort of head spy, in order to control the patients.

In ensuring the best care of the patients whilst acknowledging the challenges this presented for the staff, Samuel did not lose sight of the proper management of the Retreat’s finances. Inhabitants who were not Society of Friends members were expected to pay for their treatment and to pay on time, though this group was kept as a low ratio of the whole as possible. Samuel’s motivation in his work was quite clearly religious and he speaks of healing as a ‘divine art’. He was also a governor of the York Asylum. There is no doubt that the Tuke family made a major contribution to the development of mental health services, in York and the wider world, in the nineteenth century.

Other charitable work

Samuel Tuke contributed to a host of other Yorkshire charitable activities. Along with Joseph Rowntree, he founded the Friends Provident Institution in 1832 in Bradford. This was a friendly society for members of the Religious Society of Friends and continues to this day with the name Friends Life. In 1845, it became a mutual life assurance company but there is no formal link between Friends Life and the Religious Society of Friends today. He was also heavily involved in the development of York schools. In 1829, he was a co-founder of Lawrence Street and Hope Street schools with the aim of ‘providing bible classes and moral guidance to the young men’. He also helped to establish a school for untried prisoners in York Castle Prison. His interests were not confined to York; Samuel visited Newgate Prison in London with Elizabeth Fry and she visited the Retreat.

In a busy life, he was involved in extending the York Meeting House and sat on the management committees of the York Gas Light Company and of York Savings Bank as well as on various committees of York City Council. He declined an invitation to stand as a Member of Parliament in 1833. In his last 10 years, he withdrew from public life due to ill health perhaps caused by the effort involved in the major contribution he made to many institutions in York and Yorkshire and to the continuing debate about the treatment of mental ill health at a national level.

Samuel Tuke is buried in the Quaker cemetery within the hospital grounds of the Retreat in York.


William Bynum, ‘Rationales for Therapy in British Psychiatry: 1780-1835’, Medical History, 18, (Cambridge, 1974) p323

  1. Digby, Madness, morality and medicine: a study of the York Retreat 1796-1914 (Cambridge, 1985)

M.R. Glover, The Retreat, York: an early Quaker experiment in the treatment of mental illness (York, 1984)

Andrew T. Scull, Museums of Madness: the social organization of insanity in 19th century England (London, 1979)

W.K. & E.M. Sessions, The Tukes of York (York, 1971)

K.A. Stewart, The York Retreat in the light of the Quaker way (York, 1992)

D.H. Tuke (1855) ‘William Tuke, the Founder of the York Retreat.’ Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology, 8, pp507-36

Samuel Tuke, Description of the Retreat (First published in York, 1813; London, Process Press, 1996)

Samuel Tuke, The Statistics of the Retreat; consisting of A Report and Tables exhibiting the experience of that Institution for the Insane; from its establishment in 1796 to 1840, (York, 1841)

A memorial of the York Monthly Meeting held 14th of 5th month 1823, concerning William Tuke, (York, 1823)

Tuke Papers, Borthwick Insitute, University of York

Sheila Wright, Friends in York: The Dynamics of Quaker Revival 1780 -1860 (Keele, 1995)

© Sue Grace