Collegium Insanorum

Like several members of staff at Bretherton Law your commuting route into St Albans from the north and west may bring you into the city along the A5183, otherwise known as Verulam Road. Crawling through the rush hour traffic the mind seeks out anything to make the time pass. On one such journey recently the sign for College Street caught our attention, lying just a minute’s walk from the Bretherton Law offices on Alban Row.

College Street leads off Verulam Road to the south, towards the Abbey and what is now St Albans Boys School. You may have assumed, like us, that the ‘college` in College Street refers to the school,  but this is not the case, as further investigation in the office during a wet lunch break revealed.

The road is actually named after the “Collegium Insanorum”, or lunatic asylum, set up by local resident Dr Nathaniel Cotton in the mid-18th century, and it turns out that Dr Cotton was a well-known figure in the early days of the scientific treatment of mental health. In those less-enlightened times the standard treatment for the mentally ill at public institutions like Bedlam Hospital in London consisted mainly of physical restraint, cold baths, and public humiliation. In contrast, Cotton was an early advocate of fresh air and a good diet as a cure for many ills, and took pains to work closely with his mental patients to gain greater understanding of their problems and to suggest methods of occupying and diverting their minds.

After studying medicine at Leiden University in Holland, Cotton initially found employment in Dunstable before moving his family to a house in St Peter’s Street, St Albans in 1739. By now he was running his own medical practice in the city, and in 1757 he leased a large house on Lower Dagnall Street for use as a private asylum, which became known as the “Collegium Insanorum”. His most famous patient was the poet and hymn writer William Cowper, from nearby Berkhamsted, who was treated there by Dr Cotton from 1763 to 1765. (Cowper is famous for the words: God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform, from his poem Light shining out of Darkness, published in 1774).

Not much else is known about Nathaniel Cotton and the rest of his life in St Albans. In 1749 he wrote a treatise on a scarlet fever outbreak in the city, and produced several volumes of poetry. He is known to have married Ann Pembroke, of Dagnall Street, in 1738, who bore him seven children before her death in 1749. Cotton’s son Joseph went on to become a Director of the East India Company. Nathaniel subsequently married Hannah Everitt from London, in 1751, and had three more children. Living to a ripe old age, he died in 1788, aged about 81. Cotton and his two wives are buried beneath a stone slab in St Peter’s churchyard, under the simple inscription “Here are deposited the remains of Ann, Hannah and Nathaniel Cotton”.

The building housing Dr Cotton’s “Collegium Insanorum” survived until around 1910, and the plot on the corner of Lower Dagnall Street and College Street was used until recently as offices. Did anyone working there ever pin up a witty sign saying “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”? If only they knew the history of the place…..

This article is part of our Celebrating St Albans History series. You can view all our historical facts on our Celebrating St Albans History page. If you have a historical fact you would like to add please let us know by using the contact form below or by emailing


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