From Fyrish to Bedlam: Migration, Assimilation and the Monro Family in Early Modern London

Dr Allan Kennedy is Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. His research focuses on the social and political history of early modern Scotland, with a particular interest in the seventeenth-century Highlands, Scottish migration to England, and the reign of Charles II.

Probably born near the family lands of Fyrish, Easter Ross, in 1648, Alexander Monro was for most of his life solidly successful. A cleric and academic by trade, he was made principal of Edinburgh College in 1685, and looked poised to be named a bishop by James VII shortly thereafter. But James’s overthrow in the ‘Glorious’ revolution of 1688-91 changed everything. Monro was a convinced Episcopalian, and he could not abide the rigidly Presbyterian settlement that took root in Scotland. So he left, settling in London and spending the remainder of his life – he died in 1698 – writing Episcopalian propaganda for London’s printing presses, all the while dreaming about returning home, if only to die peacefully on his native soil.

If Alexander Monro was always a reluctant exile, the same could not be said about his children, especially his son, James, with whom began a story of remarkable migratory success. James Monro (1680-1752) trained as a physician, not unusually for England-based Scots, but where he stood out was in his specialisation in mental health.  He quickly became eminent in the field, so much so that, in 1728, he secured appointment as attending physician at Bethlam asylum (popularly known as ‘Bedlam’), England’s oldest and most prestigious institution for the treatment of ‘lunacy’. It was a role that allowed Monro’s name to become a byword for the mad-doctoring trade, as well as providing him with a web of clients and associates that lent both social cache and significant material wealth. By the time he died in 1752, this offspring of a penurious Scottish exile had transformed himself into one of the richest and most famous professionals in England.

Where James Monro led, his eldest son, John, followed. Well-educated, and possessed of the social and cultural graces expected of an English gentleman, John Monro (1716-91) followed his father as attending physician at Bethlam, likewise becoming a nationally respected mad-doctor, recognised by Parliament as an expert in the field and, towards the end of his life, consulted, albeit apparently informally, over the appropriate treatment for George III during the first of the king’s bouts of madness in 1788-9. But John outdid his father by progressing from merely consulting for London asylums to actually owning them; he controlled institutions at Brooke House and Wood’s Close by the 1780s, all the while continuing to direct the medical regime at Bethlem. If James Monro had established his family’s claim to leadership in the treatment of lunacy in England, John Monro emphatically confirmed and expanded this pre-eminence. And it persisted, too: Monro’s two immediate successors at Bethlem were his son and grandson, eventually stretching the family’s dominance over the most famous lunatic asylum in Britain to nearly 130 unbroken years.

Bethlam

image from: William Maitland, The History of London (London, 1739)

But what is really interesting about the Monro family is not so much what they did or what they achieved, but more what their experience can tell us about the assimilation of Scottish migrants in early modern England. The Monros integrated into English society rapidly and thoroughly, and their ability to do so, apparently without provoking any meaningful resistance on account of their Scottish roots, was partly down to their own attributes. They were, after all, well-educated, well-connected, comparatively affluent, and Anglophone, all of which helped them avoid some of the common hazards facing migrants. But the Monros’ assimilationist trajectory also underlines some important truths about the society around them. Firstly, it demonstrates that the Scottish community in London, of which Alexander Monro at least was a self-conscious part, occupied something of an optimum. They were sufficiently well-developed to offer a ready-made support-network for Scottish newcomers, while not being so all-encompassing as to encourage permanent ghettoisation. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it suggests that England itself was reasonably open to immigrants, so long, at least, as they were economically active and had skills that were of benefit to England.

But there is another, even more interesting thing about the Monro odyssey. As the generations passed, the Monros became progressively less Scottish, cutting most material links with their homeland (James Monro, for example, had sold off all his Scottish lands by the 1710s) and demonstrating precious little cultural connection. But there is no evidence that they attempted to replace this identity with any sense of ‘Britishness’. Instead, they underwent a process of thorough Anglicisation, marrying English spouses, joining English clubs, reading English books, and cultivating English friendships.

What this middle-ranking, professional family tells us, then, is that ‘Scottishness’ in the eighteenth century may have been much more easily shed as an identity than accepted historical narratives, which tend to emphasise the tenacious clannishness of the Scots, might imply. Simultaneously, while it is perhaps tempting to view the Monros’ journey from Fyrish to London as a microcosm of the emergence of ‘Britishness’, the reality is much more straightforward. You did not need to construct an innovative ‘British’ identity to succeed as a Scot in England. Instead, you could opt simply to become English.

Further reading

K.M. Brown and A. Kennedy, ‘Becoming English: The Monro Family and Scottish Assimilation in Early Modern England’, Cultural and Social History, forthcoming.

Andrews and A. Scull, Undertaker of the Mind: John Monro and Mad-Doctoring in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 2001)

S. Nenadic (ed.), Scots in London in the Eighteenth Century (Lewisburg, 2010)

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