Researching Lunatics in England 1


The history of mental health is poorly understood and many of those who were labeled as ‘lunatics’ in the past would have a very different diagnosis in the present. There are a number of sources that tell us more about these unfortunate members of our family. From 1871, the census columns concerning disability added idiot (later replaced by feeble minded), imbecile or lunatic to the options. These not very politically correct terms were imprecise diagnoses and conditions were often inaccurate, or under recorded.

The Bethlem (or Bethlehem) Royal Hospital in London, from whose name we get the word ‘bedlam’, has been in existence since the thirteenth century. It began to take in those who were deemed, in the vocabulary of the time, to be ‘mad’ in 1407. Although this hospital was in London, patients were sent there from all over the country. Its records are held at The National Archives in London and can be accessed on www.findmypast.co.uk. Amongst these are Admissions’ Registers for 1683-1932, Minutes of the Court of Governors 1559-1689, Incurable Patient Admissions Registers’ 1723-1919 and Discharge and Death Books for 1782-1906. The most informative are the Patient Case Books which date from 1815-1919. Name, address, occupation, age and religion are noted. They also give details of the background medical history and symptoms; sometimes there is also a physical description. There are observations from two doctors and members of the family, followed by details of the patient’s progress.

To take just one example: Ellen (her surname is in the record but has been withheld here), a 35 year old Draper’s wife from Devon, spent the majority of 1874 in Bethlem. She had given birth to her sixth child seven months previously and this is when her illness had started. It is acknowledged in the notes that the condition was ‘puerperal’ i.e. brought on by childbirth. There are statements by two doctors describing her fear of water and fire and her delusion that her mother-in-law was keeping her children from her. Her husband stated that Ellen felt it was sinful to eat. There are further comments on her symptoms by her sister and mother-in-law. For several months the bulletins on her progress record that she had difficulty eating but by the end of the year she was considered to be cured.

For information about the archives for the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem see www.bethlemheritage.org.uk.

An Act of 1808 gave Justices of the Peace the authority to build county lunatic asylums and their records can usually be found in the appropriate local archives. In 1815, parish overseers of the poor sent lists of pauper lunatics to the Clerk of the Peace and these lists will be found with records of the Quarter Sessions' Courts in County Record Offices.

The National Archives holds records of the Office of Commissioners in Lunacy. They have a research guide Asylum Inmates, which can be downloaded at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk. There are Admissions Registers for asylums and psychiatric hospitals of the Lunacy Commission and Board of Control in class MH94 at The National Archives, dating from 1846-1960. Those for the period up to 1912 can be viewed on www.ancestry.co.uk. Criminal lunacy and warrant entry books for 1882-1898 are also held at The National Archives in class HO145; these too are available on Ancestry. Some records of individual hospitals can be accessed via Ancestry and FindmyPast.

For more information about asylums see http://thetimechamber.co.uk/beta/sites/asylums/asylum-history/the-history-of-the-asylum.

I am running a five week course ‘In sickness and in Death: researching the ill-health and deaths of your ancestors' in August 2017. See https://www.pharostutors.com for details.


About Janet Few

Janet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who writes and lectures regularly on these subjects throughout the English speaking world. She is well known for her appearances as her alter ego ‘Mistress Agnes’ who aids Janet’s work as an historical interpreter. Janet is the manager of Swords and Spindles https://swordsandspindles.wordpress.com, a company providing living history presentations for history groups and schools. For further information see http://thehistoryinterpreter.wordpress.com


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