Category Archives: Mental health law

Select Committee report into the state of madhouses: 1815/1816

I have spent some time today looking at some of the fantastic documents freely available over at Google Books. Although many caught my eye, one to recommend is:

House of Commons papers, Volume 6, 1816 (HMSO)

Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee appointed to consider of provisions being made for the better Regulation of Madhouses, in England.

To put it into its historical context: Parliament first tried to regulate care for the mentally ill with the Act for Regulating Private Madhouses, 1774. At this time mentally ill people were variously housed in prisons, workhouses, public hospitals (e.g. Bethlem) or private madhouses. This Act set out regulations for the private institutions, which were to be inspected and licensed by Commissioners in the London area, and Justices of the Peace in the provinces. See here for more on the 1774 Act.

Despite the legislation, standards of care continued to be poor in many areas. The reform movement led by individuals such as Samuel Tuke brought the public’s attention to the inhumane conditions often suffered by sufferers of mental illness. Following some high-profile cases including William Vickers, at York Asylum in 1813, and James Norris, at Bedlam in 1814, the Select Committee was set up in 1815 to examine the matter, and re-appointed in 1816. See here for more information about Bedlam and the Doctors in charge at the time.

The findings of the Committee were published in three reports, all of which are available as part of the above linked volume. Here is an advertisement for the publication of the report, also found through Google Books.


So who sits on a select committee?  An article in The Morning Post on May 30th 1816 (Issue 14153, pg. 1) announces the publication of the first report, and the members of the Committee as:

Rt. Hon. Lord Baring, Rt. Hon. Lord Lascelles, Rt. Hon. Lord Compton, Rt. Hon. George Rose, Rt. Hon. Charles Williams-Wynn, Rt. Hon William Sturges Bourne, Hon. Henry Grey Bennet, Charles C Western, Esq., J.A. Stewart Wortley, Esq., Thomas Thompson, Esq., William Smith, Esq.

Andrew Robert’s fantastic website (here) identifies a number of other committee members. See here for more information on select committees from the Government’s website.

I’ve selected some of the passages from the Select Committee Report that caught my eye, for their depiction of the prevalence of cruelty within madhouses. There were many parts of the accounts that I could have highlighted, and if you are interested I strongly encourage you to have a look at the whole report.

Death of Mrs Hodges after being forced to swallow (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary):

Death of Mrs Hodges after being forced to swallow

More on forcing patients to swallow (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary):

Typhus fever (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary)

Ill-treatment of patient Mrs Elliott (evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary)

Chains for patient James Norris (evidence of Mr John Woodall, smith):

And look at the contrast in the treatment of patients with money (Evidence of Edward Wakefield, land surveyor):

For those of you who like figures, the number of registered lunatics:

I am also fascinated by the classification of patients in the Glasgow Lunatic Asylum into “frantic”, “incurable”, “convalescent” and “ordinary”. Of course, these are  the days before standardised classifications such as DSM/ICD.

The Appendix of the Third Report, which is a summary of an inspection of the state of public and private madhouses in Scotland also makes interesting reading.

Update: Have just found the following document which has a handy index of the 1815/1816 reports and summaries of contents of witness statements.

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Filed under Cruelty and neglect, Individual cases, Mental health institutions, Mental health law, Reform