Our Quaker History

Founded in 1792 by Quakers in York, North Yorkshire 

Founded in 1792 by Quakers in York, North Yorkshire

For over 200 years The Retreat has been a source of hope, comfort, support and care for people with mental health difficulties.

We were founded in York in 1792 by William Tuke, a Quaker tea merchant and his family. William knew nothing about mental health when he founded this unique organisation, but he cared about people, he cared about equality and he wanted to share hope.

Our Story

The Retreat’s history began on 15th March 1790 when a 42-year-old Quaker widow, called Hannah Mills, was admitted to York Lunatic Asylum, with “Melancholy”. By 29th April 1790 she had died.

Quaker Friends had attempted to visit her on a number of occasions during her time at the Asylum, but were constantly refused entry. Her death was unexplained, but Friends discovered that during her stay it is very likely she was treated inhumanely and cruelly. This was very common at the time, with the behaviour of people with mental health difficulties being considered something to control and silence, something from which the public needed protecting, using whatever methods were felt to get the result required. This often led to mental health patients being shackled and beaten, kept in isolation and, like Hannah Mills, often dying from their treatment.

William Tuke and his family vowed that never again should any Quaker be forced to endure such treatment.

With funding from Yorkshire Quakers and other Quaker groups across the country, William Tuke established what he referred to as a “retired habitation”. His aim was to provide Quakers with “suitable companionship and humane care and treatment”. His approach was to ensure that residents received nourishing food, outdoor exercise, had a purpose via the work they were encouraged to undertake and had the experience of gentle and kind social interactions in beautiful surroundings. The Retreat’s life began and on 13th July 1796 The Retreat received its first patient.

Patients were treated with humanity within an environment that valued their lives. William Tuke believed in the importance of nature for healing, hence providing beautiful grounds for patients, which still exist and which are still used as part of the therapeutic process today.

By 1813, The Retreat’s revolutionary humane approach to mental health care was attracting visitors from around the world, with the publication of ‘Description of The Retreat’ by William’s grandson Samuel Tuke. Other institutions became interested and when the St Mary’s of Bethlehem (‘Bedlam’) asylum was being rebuilt its superintendent visited The Retreat and said “…the best thing we have seen is something which we cannot take away with us to copy, and that is the atmosphere of your Hospital”.

The Retreat in York influenced the revolution in care for York Asylum too and the political influence exerted by William, Henry his son and Samuel his grandson led to major legal reforms in the care of mental health in the UK and beyond. Every textbook on the history of mental illness mentions the unique part played by The Retreat in the reshaping of attitudes.

This approach of innovation and humane care continues to this day and although we no longer have an inpatient hospital, we continue to care for the mental health of people in York and across the UK through our Adult Psychological Therapies Service, our Children and Young People’s Psychological Therapies Service, our Adult Autism and ADHD Service and our Children and Young People’s Autism Service. In addition to privately funded therapies, we offer some services free at the point of delivery through contracts with NHS partners and through charitable funding. Our aim is to continue Tuke’s legacy and deliver high quality, sustainable, renowned mental health services, alongside Autism and ADHD services, helping people to live well with themselves so that we all live better together. We do this with a strong foundation of Quaker values, through compassion, collaboration and community building, enabling people to gain hope and encouraging resilience.