Michelle Higgs explains how to use these poignant documents to gain detailed insights into the life of a mentally ill ancestor
Track down asylum patients’ records online
‘Private “madhouses” had a reputation for profiteering’
The mental health of our forebears was just as fragile as our own. Common problems such as bereavement, the breakdown of a marriage, financial worries and stress caused by overwork could spiral out of control, leading to debilitating mental illness.
However, until the middle of the 18th century London’s Bethlem Hospital (colloquially known as Bedlam) was the UK’s only public lunatic asylum. There were private ‘madhouses’ for those who could afford to pay for their treatment, but they had a reputation for profiteering and neglect. Most ‘lunatics’ were cared for by their families or the parish, and were often locked up if thought dangerous.
From 1808 local authorities in England and Wales were encouraged to build county lunatic asylums for pauper patients. After the 1845 Lunatic Asylums and Pauper Lunatics Act, these asylums were made compulsory. Five years later, 24 such institutions had been founded to accommodate an average of about 300 lunatics each. By 1890 the number had increased to 66 asylums, with capacity for more than 800 lunatics in each. Most ‘harmless’ lunatics were
Patients at Bethlem Hospital in London, c1860