How to look for records of... Lunatic asylums, psychiatric hospitals and mental health
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1. Why use this guide?
This is a guide to records of lunatic asylums, their inmates and other records relating to mental health, primarily from the 19th century, held at The National Archives. Lunatic asylums were first established in Britain in the mid-19th century.
Records of lunatic asylums are not held in any one place and often not all their records have survived. Many records of asylums, prisons and houses of correction are kept in local archives and especially those of the patients and inmates. However, most patient files have been destroyed.
The records held by The National Archives relate mainly to the administration of the institutions, though some of these records may include the names of inmates. We also hold some records relating to the administration of the estates of people deemed incapable of managing their own affairs (see section 9).
In this guide we have used the terms used to refer to people with mental health problems that you will find in the records themselves. These terms reflect the attitudes and language of the historical period in which the records were created and some would now be considered derogatory or offensive.
‘Lunatic’ was used to describe a person who was ‘sometimes of good and sound memory and understanding and sometimes not’.
‘Idiot’ described ‘natural fools from birth’.
3. Mental health and the State
Until the 19th century the custody of ‘idiots’ and ‘lunatics’, as well as the ownership of their land and property, fell to the Crown. Before the establishment of lunatic asylums in the mid-19th century, pauper lunatics were dealt with locally under poor law, vagrancy law or criminal law. They were therefore likely to end up in workhouses, houses of correction or prisons.
Wealthier people had to make private arrangements for the care of family members with a mental illness. Private ‘madhouses’ were licensed by the justices of the peace, and were examined by several series of government commissioners.
The County Asylums Act of 1808 encouraged justices of the peace to build county lunatic asylums to house any pauper lunatics in their county. However, the response was slow and many patients continued to end up in prisons and workhouses.
Under the Lunacy Act 1845 and the County Asylums Act of the same year, county lunatic asylums became compulsory and the Lunacy Commission was established to take responsibility, among other things, to regulate them.
The 1890 Lunacy Act gave asylums a wider role, and wealthier patients began to be admitted.
4. Online records of patients and inmates
5. Other records of patients and inmates
A very few patient records 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 our Freedom of Information pages for more information.
See section 9 for court records regarding lunatics and idiots.
5.1 Patients’ admission registers (1846-1960)
Search, by date, MH 94 for admission registers of asylums and psychiatric hospitals. This series also contains diaries which contain further details on patients.
Please note, some of the early admission registers are available online – please see above.
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.
5.2 Records of Broadmoor and Bethlem (c1820-1941)
Search our catalogue, in record series HO 8 (1862-1875), HO 20 (1820-1843), HO 144 (1869-1941) and HO 145 (1882-1921) for records of criminals who were confined at Broadmoor and Bethlem (Bethlehem) asylums after being certified at court, or after imprisonment, as being insane.
Records in HO 145 and HO 20 are available online (see section 4.2 and 4.3).
5.3 Quarterly returns of criminal lunatic asylums (1862-1876)
Search our catalogue, in record series HO 8, by name of asylum and year for quarterly returns of criminal lunatic asylums.
5.4 Correspondence with Poor Law Unions and other local authorities (1834-1900)
6. Records of the Ministry of Health and related organisations (1798-2001)
Search our catalogue for records of the Ministry of Health and related organisations from 1798 to 2001 (record series MH and KB) using keywords such as ‘madhouse’, ‘lunatic asylum’, insane’, ‘pauper lunatic’ and ‘mental’; or for the 19th century, terms like ‘imbecile’, ‘idiot’, ‘idiotic’, ‘lunatic’, ‘weak’, ‘weak minded’, ‘mental defective’, or ‘criminal lunatic’.
In a few cases names are mentioned in the online records, so it is also worth trying a search by last name within record series MH.
7. Records of private and county lunatic asylums
Records of private and county lunatic asylums are generally held locally, though there are some records here.
7.1 Private asylums
Among the records held at The National Archives on private asylums, you are most likely to find correspondence sent to and from government departments, or reports or minutes of commissioners.
However, you may also find the odd document containing details of patients. For example, MH 51/745 is a list of patients names, ages illnesses and causes of death from Haydock Lodge. MH 51/735 is a register of admissions to private asylums outside London, for 1798-1812 – 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).
7.2 County lunatic asylums
Records of the county asylums are likely to be kept locally. See section 10 for advice on using our catalogue to search for records held locally.
8. Naval asylums and lunatics
There are several musters of lunatics who were patients at the following institutions:
The Royal Naval Hospital in Yarmouth was also a major hospital for naval lunatics and searches with the hospital name in our catalogue will return document references for various records.
9. Chancery records: determining lunacy and administering the property of lunatics and idiots
While pauper lunatics were dealt with locally, the ‘care’ of idiots and lunatics who owned significant amounts of property was administered by the Crown, which also took charge of their property and possessions. The responsibility for this fell to the Lord Chancellor (although the Court of Wards took this over from 1540 to 1646), and those concerned were subsequently sometimes known as ‘Chancery lunatics’. The king was entitled to administer the lands of an idiot until he or she died, but of the lunatic only during periods of insanity. However, such land and possessions were not generally held directly in Crown hands, but granted to ‘committees’ for the term of the lunacy or idiocy. Committees were made up of those to whose care the lunatic or their estate was committed – possibly the next of kin.
By declaring a person of ‘unsound mind’ a Chancery inquisition removed his or her power of independent legal action in the administration of the lunatic’s estate, an issue often of vital importance to the next of kin. The role of Chancery had nothing to do with committal to an asylum, which was a separate medical procedure (the only requirement for committal to an asylum was for two doctors to issue a certificate). In many cases the alleged lunatic was already in an asylum when the inquisition took place.
Lunatics and idiots were brought to the Chancellor’s attention by relatives, solicitors, or anyone else that might have an interest in their estate, including anyone 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.
The following Chancery records are concerned with attempts to establish whether or not a person was of sound mind for the purposes of administering or disposing of their property are recorded. Many of these records are not searchable, other than by date, in our online catalogue – to make any progress with this area of research you will need to visit us at our building in Kew where you can use paper indexes and view the original records themselves.
9.1 Commissions and inquisitions to determine lunacy (mostly 1627-1932)
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. 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.
The above-mentioned affidavits do not generally survive, but the gist is given in the abstracts of the petitions in C 211, covering 1627-1932. Use the search box below to search record series C 211 for commissions and inquisitions of lunacy. These records are name searchable from 1853 onwards.
Please note, this is a search across all names that appear in each catalogue description. Search results will include any instance of the name you search for, whether that person was the petitioner, the supposed lunatic or anyone else. Commissions and inquisitions are in Latin until the interregnum, and between 1660 and 1733. For the interregnum and from 1733 they are in English.
Search in PL 5 for records from Lancashire. 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.
There are few lunacy commissions for England in the 20th 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.
Other inquisitions of lunacy:
9.2 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
- Remembrance rolls are in C 221 and C 222
- Writs are in C 245
9.3 The Clerk of the Custodies and related records
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 19th 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.
9.4 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.
9.5 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’.
- Reports are in C 38. Indexes are in IND 1. Use the printed version of C 38, available in the reading rooms, to identify indexes.
- Some exhibits from cases relating to lunatics are in C 103-115. An index is filed with the printed version of C 103 list, available in the reading rooms.
- Later exhibits are in J 90. These are kept off-site and need to be ordered three working days in advance.
9.6 Decrees and orders
9.7 Visitors reports
Official visitors’ reports on Chancery lunatics, from 1879 (with a 75 year closure) are in LCO 10. They provide
10. Records of lunatic asylums held locally
Search the Hospital Records Database 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.
11. 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)