A History of Insanity in 19th Century Britain


Kathryn Burtinshaw explained that her talk centred on how the Asylum System changed in Britain in the 19th Century. She concentrated on Herefordshire and surrounding counties and using medical records to provide insight into the lives of individuals locked away.

Before the 19th Century

Asylums were unregulated. The most well known was Bethlem or Bedlam in London based in a vast building begun in 1676.

Two expressive statues there showed the two faces of insanity as it was understood that time: Mania was shown as a manacled figure;  Melancholia was shown as figure without expression.

Crowds would visit out of morbid fascination, almost as entertainment. Interest increased during the time that George III was mentally ill in the late 18th Century.

The straitjacket was introduced or patients could be kept in a pen. There was little expectation of cure.

The 19th Century

In 1815 Parliament legislated to provide a better standard of care for the insane.

There was however no legal provision to deal with the criminally insane. However, in 1800 James Hadfield who had been injured in combat and wished to die, tried, without success, to assassinate the king. He was tried for high treason and acquitted on account of insanity; he was incarcerated for 40 years rather than executed. The subsequent Criminal Lunatics Act provided for indefinite detention for the insane criminal and the Asylums began to be crowded with criminals.

From the 1820s many new asylums were built and in 1845 it was decided that each county should have its own provision. Some smaller counties joined together to do this, for example 6 northern Welsh counties.

The asylums changed in character at this period. Chains largely disappeared and patients were provided with ‘moral therapy’, generally occupation to keep them busy in the asylum farms or workshops. Doctors began to try to understand the causes for patients’ conditions.

In the Welsh border area 4 counties including Herefordshire ran an asylum in Abergavenny for 350 patients; this was then enlarged. In 1868 a new asylum was built at the cost of £88,000 in Hereford. It seems to have been well run.

In 1863 Broadmoor in Berkshire was opened as a specialist institution for the criminally insane.

Kathryn showed us an example of a page from the 1871 census where the patients were categorised as either

  • Lunatic – mentally ill
  • Idiot – no ability to learn
  • Imbecile- people with an IQ of 26–50

Many children were said to be idiots or imbeciles. Kathryn showed us a picture of some of these children being entertained. The implication was that they were not treated unkindly.

Kathryn showed examples of records of individuals

The Oldfield Family from Cheshire.

Parents Amelia and John had 4 sons and 1 daughter.

 Amelia was a pauper patient from October 1883 to March 1885. She was described as suicidal and dangerous, with acute mania and intended to cut the throat of her child. She went on to have 4 more children and was never readmitted.

John had mania and could not perform his duties as a policeman. He was admitted to the asylum and became calmer.

Daughter Jane was aged 20 when she was sacked from her job as a servant after 2 epileptic seizures; she was said to be maniacal on admission and was said to suffer from ‘epileptic insanity’. (There was no understanding that epilepsy was a neurological condition).

Mrs Mullard was a patient who was apparently strangled in bed. Exhaustive enquiries could not find the culprit.

Martha Bacon was sent to an asylum for 4 months after the birth of her second child; after her release her children were murdered. She was arrested but insisted that the culprit was her husband. They stood trial together and the jury decided that Martha was guilty by reason of insanity and she was sent to Broadmoor for the rest of her life.

Kathryn answered a number of questions at the conclusion of her talk.

  • A number of records had photographs attached and this made the records very real. However, many patients were short term and photographs could not always be taken.
  • Dementia sufferers might often be taken to the workhouse rather than an asylum for reasons of public cost. Dangerous individuals would be taken to the asylum. The decisions would be made by doctors.
  • Families would often write to ask if they could take their relatives back home, especially if they were epileptic but if they were violent this was often refused.
  • There are not the statistics to allow comparison of the prevalence of mental illness in the 19th Century to that of recent or current times.
  • The children in asylums were mostly ‘idiots’ or ‘imbeciles’ and so education was rarely provided for them. Some children were epileptics.
  • Kathryn then explained she was especially interested in the treatment of epileptics because of her own experience of the illness. She was fascinated by explanations for epilepsy including ideas of witchcraft. Medication was not available until the late 1950s.


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