The Lunacy of English Lunacy Laws

26 February 2011

Antoine Wiertz. Hunger, madness, crime. Canvas. 1853.

Antoine Wiertz. Hunger, madness, crime. 1853.

As one may suspect, Victorian mental institutions were not, shall we say, the paragons of compassionate good sense and enlightened medical science that they are today. While the days when the practice of psychiatry consisted of scourging out demons were long past, a pauper committed to an asylum may have been subjected to any combination of beatings, neglect, long-term physical constraint, sexual molestation, and myriad other forms of abuse. What may come as a surprise, however, is just how very easy it was to get someone committed.

All that was needed were two certificates of lunacy, which could wrested from any medical practitioner one could dazzle with a shiny yellow sovereign, and the signature of a sympathetic clergyman or magistrate. Probably this was not much more challenging than it is to score a prescription for Adderall today, assuming that it wasn’t Queen Victoria or Benjamin Disraeli that you were trying to certify. “Hysterical” wives, inconvenient heiresses, senile and neurotic relatives were all candidates for easy disposal at the hands of the medical profession.

Once committed, inmates could not be discharged except by the same doctor who signed the original order of incarceration. Friends and relatives were not guaranteed visitation rights. In theory, an inmate was entitled to write to the lunacy commissioners who oversaw conditions in Britain’s asylums. However, according to Ronald Pearsall, there were only ten of these to serve the interests of “106,611 inmates scattered throughout England and Wales,” so one can imagine how worthwhile it must have been to send them letters pleading one’s sanity. In practice, inmates’ contact with the outside world was largely at the pleasure of those who had incarcerated them to begin with. Sanctions against corrupt medical practitioners were, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.

Wealthy inmates received the best care that money could buy. That is, their own money, or that of their family.These so-called “private patients” were confined to individual homes where, according to Pearsall, fees could reach as high as £500/year: a healthy middle-class income at the time. Many were not able to recover until their bank accounts had been fully amputated.

One famous case was that of the medium Mrs. Louisa Lowe, who was committed in 1870 when she attempted to leave her husband. Pearsall writes:

Unquestionably Mrs. Lowe was neurotic, but te ground for her committal would have been ground for almost any active spiritualist of the period. Dr. Maudsley, to whose private asylum she was sent and who milched her husband of £420 for treatment of Mrs. Lowe, complained that her spirit communications were ‘all communications with the Almighty. Many of them were of a very puerile character, some of them read very blasphemously, and others rather tend to the obscene.’ Naturally these spirit writings woud not have commended themselves to her clergyman husband, and there is little doubt that Mrs. Lowe was committed because of her religious of pseudo-religious beliefs. There is also little doubt that without the intervention of her sister Mrs. Lowe would have had great difficulty in getting out of the asylums, especially if the superintendents had recognized the sexual connotations of her writings (‘Father, thou saidist Satan helped him to slip in and out like an eel. Who, my friend and comforter, doubles him up like an opera hat; but how can a great big six-feet man get in and out of the chimney like this?’). [p. 82]

Sadly, Pearsall does not cite a source for Lowe’s automatic writing, as we should very much like to read more of it. However, Lowe did go on to write a scathing indictment of Britain’s lunacy laws, The Bastilles of England (1883), in which she likens her country’s orders of incarceration to the infamous lettres de cachet issued in France. Here she breaks it all down nicely:

An Epitome of English Lunacy Law Concerning Private Patients

1. Any registered medical practitioner in actual practice may give a certificate of lunacy.

2. Any person whatever who can obtain two such certificates against an individual may order that individual’s incarceration and detention in any asylum, or licensed house for detention of lunatics, or in any unlicensed place he pleases, provided that not more than one patient is there received.

3. No private person can release or discharge a patient except the one who signed the order for his incarceration; nor can the patient be removed for change of air, or the benefit of his health, without the written permission of the same person. The commissioners may, if they think fit, discharge a patient on recovery from an asylum or licensed house, but they cannot discharge ” a single patient ” — that is, one in an unlicensed house where no other is received. No one can do that except the signatory of the order or the Lord Chancellor, upon the report of the commissioners.

4. No claims of relationship or affection give right of access to a certified patient.

5. As a matter of fact, no patient under restraint can write to any person not approved of by the incarcerator, except to the lunacy commissioners. The law enjoins that every letter written by a private patient shall either be at once sent to the addressee, or endorsed by the superintendent, and laid before the commissioners or visitors at their next visit. A penalty, not exceeding £20, is attached to each infraction of this statute, but it can only be enforced by the lunacy commissioners, who, by the testimony of their own secretary, are  shown never to prosecute for misdealing with letters. By more than one superintendent has it been frankly avowed that a regular practice is to transmit all letters written by a private patient to his incarcerator, unless he or she ordain otherwise. No pretence is made of considering the statutory enactments as binding in this matter.

6. No penalty is attached to the indefinite detention of a patient after recovery.

7. Neither the patient himself, nor any one else on his be- half, except the signer of the order, may know the contents of the certificates, or even the general grounds of the incarceration till after the patient’s release, when he or she is entitled to a copy both of order and certificates from the lunacy commissioners.

8. Although the law declares all false statements in medical reports to constitute “misdemeanours,” all such reports are held by the lunacy commissioners to be confidential commu- nications, and unless some action at law compels their production as evidence, neither during confinement, nor after release, can a patient learn whether the reports sent in concerning him are true or false.

9. No criminal prosecution for breaches of the lunacy laws can be instituted by any private| person.

10. A private patient may be incarcerated on one medical certificate, if circumstances make it inconvenient to get two, provided that within three days of his incarceration two fresh medical certificates of lunacy are obtained. He may also be incarcerated on the medical certificate of the parish doctor, and a joint order from the parish parson and overseer, or from a magistrate, whatever his social and pecuniary position may be, provided he be therein described as a pauper. It is specially enacted in 25 and 26 Vict. cxl. sec. 26, that the order and certificate required by law for the detention of a patient as a pauper shall extend to authorise his detention, although it may afterwards appear that he is entitled to be classified as a private patient. [pp. 4-6]

English asylums, then, in addition to their official role as a proto-scientific mental heath system, also served darker, more malevolent purposes within Victorian society. They were a system of social control, a source of unsavory profit, and a weapon in the hands of conspiring rivals.


Lowe, Louisa. The Bastilles of England: or, The Lunacy Laws at Work. (1883)

Pearsall, Ronald. Night’s Black Angels: The Many Faces of Victorian Cruelty. (1975).

Further Reading

Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England.
(2004) (contains a chapter on Louisa Lowe)

Article , ,