Michelle Higgs ex­plains how to use these poignant doc­u­ments to gain de­tailed in­sights into the life of a men­tally ill an­ces­tor

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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