England Lunatic Asylums (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Lunatic Asylums

First a word about the meaning of term asylum which nowadays tends to mean a place of treatment for the mentally ill. This was not the case formerly when the word had its original meaning of a sanctuary or place of refuge. This might have been for criminals, debtors, or any afflicted or destitute persons. Thus not every institution termed an asylum was for the mentally ill.

The genealogist will encounter various terms to describe those with mental problems of one kind or another. It is impossible to really define these, they were not used consistently in the past, and some have different meanings today. A rough guide follows:

  • Feeble-minded—Senile dementia
  • Idiot—Congenital mental deficiency with no lucid periods. Natural fools from birth. Incapable of attending to own personal needs
  • Imbecile—Persons who have fallen in later life into a state of chronic dementia. Could perform some simple functions of self-help, whilst having only a limited grasp of ideas.
  • Lunatic = Insane = Mad (but see other meaning)
    In the 17th C it was used for a person who had lucid periods, thought to coincide with phases of the moon. Some were merely highly intelligent and/or eccentric in their behaviour. By 1845 the term was officially persons of unsound mind. In the 19th century censuses the term sometimes included idiots and imbeciles. Now we restrict these old terms to those having such mental unsoundness as interferes with civil rights or transactions.
  • Mad—Formerly a raging lunatic, but nowadays has connotation of being a wildly foolish person.
  • Melancholia—Clinical depression.
  • Mentally ill—A more modern term for having a temporary, usually treatable, disordered mind.
  • Mentally disabled—A more modern term for having a permanent insufficiency of mental power.

The last column on 19th century census returns (the so-called deaf-and-daft column) asked householders to classify their mentally infirm relatives as imbeciles, idiots or lunatics but the results are very untrustworthy.

Before the Mid-1700s

Prior to the mid-18th century mental illness was not recognized as such and the sufferers were treated as criminals, paupers or vagrants. Most would have spent time in the workhouse, prison or wandering and constantly hounded by the authorities. In London, there was one ancient hospital which catered for them, St. Mary of Bethlehem or Bethlem, founded as a priory in 1247 and converted into an asylum in 1547.
It was known colloquially as Bedlam, from whence derives the modern word for a cacophonous situation, and people were allowed to view the inmates as an entertainment!

Those who could afford to do so committed relatives whose behaviour was an embarrassment to fashionable society to one of the numerous small private mad houses. They were profit-motivated and conditions in many were deplorable. Hawker has stated that none kept records identifying inmates, a discreteness required by their families. However from 1774, when they had to raise their standards to be licensed by the justices of the peace, records of the JPs and medical practitioners survive in county archives. These include admissions, discharges, deaths, the official visitors’ reports and minutes of meetings. Hawker reports on some examples in Dorset, Burt on Hampshire and Jenkins in more detail about treatments and records at the Somerset asylum. Adams reports on conditions prior to and during his 30-year career as a male lunatic nurse.

The County Asylums Act of 1808 encouraged the provision of a lunatic asylum in each county, and in 1854 this was made mandatory. Numbers of beds rose from 12,000 in 1850 to 100,000 in 1900 (Mitton), but harmless paupers were left in workhouses from the 1870s as it was cheaper; only the dangerously insane being sent to the county asylums. Commissioners in Lunacy were appointed in boards of ten for inspecting asylums. Other terms that will be encountered in the records are:

  • Commission of Lunacy which authorized an enquiry into a person’s sanity.
  • Visitor or Master in Lunacy was the officer investigating cases of alleged lunacy.
  • A single lunatic was one being cared for at home.
  • A chancery lunatic was a wealthy person who became insane and incapable of managing his own affairs and the Chancery Court protected his estate.
  • A criminal lunatic was a convicted criminal whose reason was impaired and was considered dangerous to society.

Most of the surviving patient records will be found in the county or local archives in sections on private madhouses, poor law records and county asylums, as well as in quarter sessions. Some institutions which continue as hospitals retain their records. Others, such as criminal cases involving the insane, poor law returns of insane inmates, naval lunatics, and chancery records concerning property of lunatics can be found at The National Archives (TNA). The registers of patient files from 1846-1960 are at TNA in MH94 and contain name and sex of the patient, institution, admission and discharge (or death) dates (Cleaver 2003).

Chart: Bill and Receipt from Kent Lunatic Asylum to Crayford Parish 1833 - Overseers Misc PA/103/16/2

(To) The Overseers of the Poor of the Parish ofCrayford
Dr. --- To the VISITING JUSTICES appointed
to Superintend the Management of the
Kent Lunatic Asylum
For the Maintenance and Care, Medicine and Clothing, of the undermentioned Pauper
Name of Pauper William Palmer
During what Period Maintained From 30 Sep to 31 Dec 1833
Number of Weeks 13
Rate per Week 9/-
Amount Due £5.17s.0

RECEIVED the 22nd day of January 1834 of
the Overseers of the Parish of Crayford
the sum of Five Pounds and Seventeen Shillings
for Maintenance and of Paupers in the Kent County Lunatic Asylum.
£5. 17 .0 R. Harrison
for J. Wallambry (?),Treasurer

For further information consult TNA leaflets D104-105 for official acts, commissions and central records and Mitton’s The Victorian Hospital for information about lunatic hospitals. Faithfull gives the history of how lunacy was viewed, treatments and asylums, as well as how to find records of lunatics. She has separate sections on women, chancery, criminal and naval lunatics as well as famous mad doctors i.e. doctors specializing in treating lunatics; all this in one inexpensive booklet. The Wellcome Institute has a register of the location of most hospital records.

An application for a chancery inquisition concerning the supposed lunacy of a distant relative in 1859 is given below. These records are at TNA under C 211/32/24/116938.

Chart: Application for Chancery Lunacy Inquisition for Rachel DASHWOOD 1859

[Two £1 chancery stamps
affixed here] Saturday the Sixteenth day
of April in the Twenty second
year of the reign of Her Majesty
Queen Victoria and in the year
One thousand eight hundred and
Fifty nine
In the Matter of Rachel Hannah
Dashwood Spinster a supposed Lunatic

Whereas John Allfree and Sydney Aleyne the Executors of the Will of William Allfree deceased who was the surviving Trustee and Executor of the Will of Robert Dashwood the Father of the said supposed Lunatic have preferred their Petition in this matter stating as therein is stated and Praying that the Masters in lunacy or one of them may be directed to enquire and certify concerning the lunacy of the said Rachel Hannah Dashwood. Now upon reading the said Petition the two several Affidavits of Thomas Harvey Lowry and Charles Christopher Hayman sworn respectively the seventh day of March last the Affidavit of the said Sydney Alleyne sworn the Tenth day of March last and the Affidavit of William Henry Morgan sworn the Twenty fifth day of March last of the due service of notice of the presentation of the said petition on the said Rachel Hannah Dashwood on the twenty fourth day of March last. We do order that Francis Barlow and Samuel Warren Esquires the Masters in lunacy or one of them do in pursuance of the general Commission under the Great Seal of Great Britain to them for that purpose directed inquire concerning the alleged lunacy of the said Rachel Hannah Dashwood now residing in the asylum kept by the said Thomas Harvey Lowry at West Malling in the County of Kent. And we do further Order that the said Inquiry be held at the place of abode of the said Rachel Hannah Dashwood or as near thereto as conveniently may be.
J. L Knight Bruce (?)
G.J. Turner
Annotated at side: By virtue of Her Majesty’s General Commission and of the Order I have made the Inquiry thereby directed as appears by the Inquisition hereunto annexed.


Chart: Chancery Lunacy Inquisition for Rachel DASHWOOD 1859

Filed 14th May 1859
County of Kent to wit AN INQUISITION taken at the house of Thomas Harvey Lowry situate at West Malling in the County of Kent this twelfth day of May in the twenty second year of the reign of our Sovereign Lady Victoria by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith and in the year of our Lord One thousand eight hundred and fifty nine by Francis Barlow esquire, one of the Commissioners of our said Lady the Queen by virtue of Her Majesty’s General Commission under the Great Seal of Great Britain bearing date at Westminster the twenty sixth day of February One thousand eight hundred and fifty nine to Francis Barlow and Samuel Warren Esquires the Masters in Lunacy directed and under an Order of The Right Honorable the Lords Justices of the Court of Appeal in Chancery made on the sixteenth day of April One thousand eight hundred and fifty nine and which Order is to this Inquisition annexed to enquire of the Lunacy of Rachel Hannah Dashwood spinster now residing in the asylum kept by the said Thomas Harvey Lowry at West Malling in the County of Kent aforesaid. He the said Francis Barlow having personally examined the said Rachel Hannah Dashwood and taken Evidence and called for Information to ascertain whether or not the said Rachel Hannah Dashwood is of unsound mind Finds that the said Rachel Hannah Dashwood is a person of unsound mind so that she is not sufficient for the government of herself, her manors, messuages, lands, tenements, goods and chattels. And the said Francis Barlow certifies the same accordingly, In testimony whereof the said Francis Barlow has to this Inquisition set his name and seal the day and year first above written.
Francis Barlow


Additional Information

See: Lincoln Lunatic Asylum, Lincolnshire


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.