Rowntree A-Z

The Retreat

The Retreat was founded in 1792 and opened in 1796 by William Tuke. It was established initially to provide a place where Quakers who were mentally ill could be treated with respect and dignity. The first buildings were designed and built 1794, and include the work of several of the foremost architects of the city.

Its principles of ‘moral treatment’ were in stark contrast with some contemporary asylums, where doctors treated their patients with cruelty in an effort to tame them and force them into obedience. Tuke’s efforts to provide an alternative were partly a result of the death of a Friend from Leeds, Hannah Mills, a few weeks after she was admitted to York Lunatic Asylum (today Bootham Park Hospital). When Friends visited the York asylum after her death, they were shocked to find the inmates chained up in stable-like accommodation.

Violence was forbidden

In the Retreat, patients were given their own private rooms and encouraged to perform useful tasks, and violence was forbidden. Tuke tried to create a community rather than an asylum, where there were no doctors, only ‘attendants’ who lived with the patients, ate with them and performed chores with them, encouraging a familial atmosphere. Unlike those committed to asylums, patients at the Retreat often recovered and were able to go home, a testament to the effectiveness of the establishment’s principles.

The ‘moral treatment’ practised at the Retreat was highly influential on the developing treatment of mental illness. The 19th century saw the emergence of the new discipline of psychiatry, which emphasised communicating with the mentally ill rather than merely trying to subdue them. As more humane treatment became the norm, the Retreat became a more conventional medical facility rather than a ‘community’. When Quakers were finally permitted to attend universities, William Tuke’s great-grandson, Daniel Hack Tuke, trained as a doctor and came to work at the Retreat.

The establishment continued to follow conventional medical practice throughout the 20th century. In recent years the NHS-funded Retreat has made an effort to return to Quaker principles, and it has regained its reputation for innovation. Many of the buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries and include work of several of the foremost architects of the city. The Retreat was designed to be airy and spacious with large windows giving views of the grounds. There is a Quaker burial ground on the property in which many prominent York Friends, including members of the Rowntree family, were laid to rest.


W.K. & E.M. Sessions, The Tukes of York (Sessions, 1971), pp.55-69
MR Glover, The Retreat, York: an early Quaker experiment in the treatment of mental illness (Sessions, 1984)

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

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

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