How to look for records of... Mental health

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide explains which records of mental health patients are held at The National Archives and which are held in local archives. The guide covers records of lunatic asylums and records relating to the administration of the estates of people deemed incapable of managing their own affairs.

You may wish to start your research by consulting our introductory guide to research on asylum inmates.

2. Essential information

Records of lunatic asylums are not centralised – some are held at The National Archives and others are held locally.

Please note that this guide uses terms that you will find in the historical records. These reflect people’s attitudes and language at the time and may now be considered derogatory or offensive. Many terms had a specific meaning: for example, ‘lunatic’ was used to describe a person who was ‘sometimes of good and sound memory and understanding and sometimes not’, while ‘idiot’ described ‘natural fools from birth’.

3. Types of asylums

3.1 Private madhouses

Before the 1890 Lunacy Act, people of means had to make private arrangements for any lunatics in the family. Private madhouses were licensed by the justices of the peace, and were examined by several series of government commissioners. Records of private asylums are kept locally.

One register of admissions to private asylums outside London, for 1798-1812, is in MH 51/735. It includes the names of 1,788 patients, and is indexed by both names of inmates (at the front) and keepers of licensed houses (at the back).

3.2 Pauper lunatics

Before the establishment of lunatic asylums in the mid-nineteenth century, pauper lunatics were dealt with locally under the poor law, vagrancy law or criminal law. They were therefore likely to end up in workhouses, houses of correction or prisons. These records are kept in local archives.

Workhouses were run by poor law unions and administered by central government. To find out in which union a particular parish was, see Gibson and Youngs, Poor Law Union Records: 4 Gazetteer of England and Wales.

Where records survive, The National Archives holds returns of insane inmates in workhouses and asylums from 1834 to 1909 in MH 12. Some of the records in MH 12 have been digitised – see Discovery, our catalogue, for more information. These give name, age, type of disability and whether considered dangerous. Unfortunately, they are arranged by county and poor law union, and there are subject indexes only (MH 15). Correspondence with asylum districts in MH 17 may be worth looking at.

There are also returns of insane prisoners in prisons and houses of correction, submitted in March 1858, in MH 51/90-207.

3.3 County lunatic asylums

Following the County Asylums Act of 1808, justices of the peace were encouraged to build county lunatic asylums to house any pauper lunatics in their county. In 1845, this became compulsory. The 1890 Lunacy Act gave them a wider role, and patients with means began to be admitted. Records of the county asylums are likely to be kept locally.

3.4 Naval lunatics

There are several musters of lunatics who were patients at Hoxton House, 1755-1818 (ADM 102/415-420) and at Haslar, 1818-1854 (ADM 102/356-373); Yarmouth too was a major hospital for naval lunatics. Reports on the treatment of naval lunatics, 1812-1832, are in ADM 105/28. The musters of sea-going hospital ships can be found with the other musters in ADM 36 and ADM 37.

4. Records of lunatic asylums held locally

To find records held locally, search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters. You can find contact details for local archives using Find an archive.

The Hospital Records Database can be searched by name or place of the hospital, or using keywords such as ‘lunatic asylum’, ‘insane’, ‘pauper lunatic’ and ‘mental’. The results will list the type of record (for example, administrative or clinical) available, the date ranges and their current location.

5. Patient files

Most patient files have been destroyed. A very few survive in MH 85, MH 86 and MH 51/27-77. Some of the files are closed for 75 years, although under the Freedom of Information Act 2001, a request can be made via email, or in writing, for a review of closed files – see the section on freedom of information on our website.

The registers to the patient files survive in MH 94 for various categories of inmates from 1846 to 1960. The registers give name and sex, name of the institution, and dates of admission, discharge or death. A union card index to all patients admitted (possibly from as early as 1774) was destroyed in 1961: apparently it covered over 2.5 million names.

6. Property of lunatics and idiots – the role of Chancery

For most of the past the state has only become involved in assessing people’s mental health when they owned a certain amount of property. Many of the relevant legal records relate to attempts to establish whether or not a person was of sound mind for the purposes of administering or disposing of their property. Pauper lunatics were dealt with locally.

The Crown took charge of the property of idiots and lunatics, as well as deciding on their care. They were the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor (although the Court of Wards took this over from 1540 to 1646), and were sometimes known as the ‘Chancery lunatics’. The king was entitled to administer the lands of an idiot during his life, but of the lunatic only during periods of insanity. The lands or possessions were not generally retained in Crown hands, but granted out for the term of the lunacy or idiocy to ‘committees’ (that is, those to whose care the lunatic or their estate was committed – possibly the next of kin).

Although the Crown’s interest was at first paramount, over time the priority appears to have become the proper administration of the lunatic’s estate, an issue often of vital importance to the next of kin. The point of getting a person declared of unsound mind by a Chancery inquisition was to take away his or her power of independent legal action in the disposition of property: it had nothing to do with committal to an asylum, which was a separate medical procedure. In many cases the alleged lunatic was already in an asylum when the inquisition took place: the only requirement for committal to an asylum was for two doctors to issue a certificate.

6.1 Being made a Chancery lunatic

Lunatics and idiots were brought to the Chancellor’s attention by people with a particular interest. These could include relatives, solicitors, or others, acting as the executors of a will, or trustees, where one of the beneficiaries was a supposed lunatic. The Lunacy Commissioners might also be involved, fearing that the money of an asylum inmate was being misappropriated. Creditors of the alleged lunatic might also alert the Chancellor, as they could claim payment from the Master in Lunacy once their debtor had been declared of unsound mind.

All petitioners had to support their request for a commission of inquiry with at least two sworn affidavits supporting their opinion of the state of mind of the supposed lunatic. These affidavits do not generally survive, but the gist is given in the abstracts of the petitions in C 211, covering 1627-1932. About 1,000 affidavits supporting petitions for a lunacy commission are in C 217/55, dating from 1719 to 1733. They are not yet listed individually or indexed.

6.2 Commissions and committees of lunacy

The Lord Chancellor had to establish whether or not a person was of sound mind. He did this by ordering commissioners to hold an inquisition. If the person was deemed not to be of sound mind, the Chancellor committed the custody of the lunatic and his estate to suitable people (called ‘committees’). He then had to examine the accounts of the committees.

Commissions and inquisitions are in Latin until the interregnum, and between 1660 and 1733. For the interregnum and from 1733 they are in English. Inquisitions of lunacy before 1540 are with the inquisitions post mortem in C 132-142. From 1540 to 1648 they are in WARD 7. Inquisitions from about 1648 to 1932 are in C 211 (or in PL 5 for Lancashire). There are few lunacy commissions for England in the twentieth century. The later records, however, include copies of inquisitions taken in Ireland, and in some British colonies. The latter are concerned with the mental health of the person, and with getting them transported back to Britain.

6.3 Disputed inquisitions

Disputes (‘traverses’) on the validity of an inquisition are in the records of the common law (‘plea’) side of Chancery. Pleadings for Edward I-James I are well-listed, in C 43 and C 44; pleadings for Elizabeth I to Victoria are in C 206. There are remembrance rolls in C 221 and C 222, and writs in C 245.

6.4 The Clerk of the Custodies

Information on the estates and possessions of a lunatic was sent to the Clerk of the Custodies, who granted out the custody of the estates of lunatics and idiots, and the care of the people themselves, by the issue of letters patent to the committees. These were not generally enrolled on the patent rolls, but in a separate series of rolls, which unfortunately appear to have been destroyed in the later nineteenth century. However, there is a register of bonds by committees, 1817-1904, in J 103. From 1900, registers of bonds given as security by the committees are in J 92. Some bonds given by committees from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries are in J 117.

6.5 Committees’ accounts

Accounts were supposed to be submitted annually by the committee to the Chancery Master. These are easy to find (if they survive) by checking the indexes – in IND 1 – to C 101, the Chancery Masters’ accounts.

6.6 Chancery Masters’ reports and exhibits

The Chancery Masters’ reports and exhibits can be informative, although there is no guarantee of finding anything. You can pick out lunatics from Chancery litigation because they are described as ‘In re Smith, a lunatic’. The reports are in C 38: there are indexes in IND 1, which can be identified from the C 38 list. Some exhibits from cases relating to lunatics are in C 103-115. There is an index to exhibits in C 103-114, filed before the C 103 list. Later exhibits are in J 90. These are kept off-site and need to be ordered three working days in advance.

Decrees and orders relating to lunatics are in C 33 and J 79 (records from this latter series need to be ordered three days in advance).

Official visitors’ reports on Chancery lunatics, from 1879 (with a 75 year closure) are in LCO 10: they give name, address, age, income and allowance.

7. Further reading

All of the publications below are available in The National Archives’ library at Kew.

Gibson and Youngs, Poor Law Union Records 4: Gazetteer of England and Wales (The Family History Partnership, 1993)

Jones, Kathleen, Law and conscience, 1744-1845: the social history of the care of the insane (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955)

Lappin, James Harold, Central Government and the supervision of the treatment of lunatics 1800-1913: a guide to sources in the Public Record Office (thesis, available in The National Archives library and the Wellcome Trust)

Llywelyn Parry-Jones, William, The trade in lunacy: a study of private madhouses in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century (Routledge, 1972)

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 104