19th Century Insanity

Lunatics, imbeciles, idiots
2 Apr, 2019

19th Century Insanity

Lunatics, imbeciles, idiots and cretins – terms which in today’s society are only used as derogatory and insulting forms of verbal abuse were commonly used as medical definitions to label people with mental health disorders in nineteenth century Britain and Ireland.

For those of us who are used to researching our ancestors, some of these terms are visible on census returns from 1871 until 1911. By the 1921 census, the functional definitions of disability were removed as it was considered too difficult to frame appropriate questions in such a general survey.

Record Keeping

The nineteenth century is recognised as a century of record keeping. Starting with the introduction of the census in 1801, through to the registration of births, marriages and deaths later the same century, historians and genealogists can trace with relative ease the whereabouts and circumstances of their ancestors. These sources are used regularly but other records which are less commonly accessed in terms of research but are actually more revealing are asylum and poor law records. These specialist records ameliorate the information provided from census, birth, marriage and death records and allow a fuller understanding of individuals and their families. Newspaper reports and other sources can help to augment this further. A combination of all these records offers a far greater awareness of these people’s mortal existence, their way of life, the hardships they endured, and the circumstances of the way they lived and ultimately died.


At the start of the nineteenth century there was neglect of, and surprisingly little control over, the provision of care for individuals suffering from mental health problems. Prior to this, individuals who were considered ‘insane or mentally deficient’ were often treated in an appalling way with little or no thought to their likely recovery or how to treat them with compassion. They were chained up in outhouses, or cells in gaols, prisons or workhouses and treated as wild animals. People suffering from congenital disorders such as Down’s syndrome or cretinism, deaf mutes and epileptics were all included in this incarceration.

Improved legislation and the appointment of lunacy commissioners in the nineteenth century altered public perception about people who had previously been deemed ‘abnormal’. A building programme of new asylums began which were specifically designed to be self-contained ‘estates’ intended as curative shelters for people that society did not understand. They also became places where a new class of health professional, the ‘mad doctor’, ‘alienist’ or as we term it today ‘psychiatrist’ was trying to understand human mental affliction and finding ways to alleviate or cure it.

However, as new public asylums increased in number and size so did the number of patients requiring their assistance. Debilitated by a variety of mental and behavioural difficulties such as epilepsy, melancholia, mania, general paralysis or dementia, these people were admitted to asylums in the hope of care, cure and comfort.

Social Stigma

Due to the social stigma attached to mental illness, these individuals are largely forgotten even by their own families. Relatives regularly hid the details of what they considered to be shameful conditions, and many disorders, which today are either accepted or curable, would be hidden away and not spoken of. In effect all trace of their identity within the family is removed. Due to the one hundred year closure of census and medical case records – families could rest easy in the knowledge that information regarding mental health disorders would remain hidden during their lifetime.

North Wales Hospital Denbigh the Architect's impression 1845

As nineteenth century lunatic asylums were built to resemble palaces in spacious grounds, many of the buildings are listed as being of historical or architectural significance and therefore are protected. In the majority of cases they have been reused, either as hospitals or as luxury residential houses and apartments. The characteristic water towers, which many constructed to hold the vast quantities of water needed for daily use, often remain as the only reminder of the building’s original use.

Twentieth Century

The need for lunatic asylums declined during the twentieth century as care for those with chronic mental illness was transferred to community based psychiatric provision. There are differing views on the development of institutional care in Britain and researchers from a variety of different backgrounds have studied the subject. Some lament the abandoned, derided and deserted asylums, which accommodated isolated communities where the afflicted were cared for, sustained and supported away from the stigmatising view of the general public. Others view the demise of the asylum as a progressive move forward from what many consider was a ‘disaster for the insane’.


About the Authors

Kathryn Burtinshaw profile pictureKathryn Burtinshaw has had a passion for family and local history all her life and inherited a fascination in Victorian and Edwardian crime from her father. With careers in both the Diplomatic Service and the Security Service, she is an experienced researcher. She holds an Advanced Diploma in Local History from the University of Oxford and a M.Sc. in Genealogy, Palaeography and Heraldry from the University of Strathclyde. Her M.Sc. dissertation looked in detail at the lives of epileptic women in asylums in the nineteenth century.

Dr. John Burt is a qualified professional genealogist. A retired medical practitioner, he worked in the NHS for over 30 years and is now an author, researcher and lecturer in family history. John has a keen interest in the history of medicine, military history and Scottish social history. His M.Sc. dissertation in Genealogy at the University of Strathclyde looked at admissions to the Scottish Borders District Lunatic Asylum in the late nineteenth century, analysing patient demographics, reasons for admission, including hereditary illness and eventual patient outcomes.

They run a genealogy company, Pinpoint Ancestry with branches in North Wales and Scotland. http://pinpointancestry.co.uk

Insantity books

Kathryn and John have published two books on insanity. The first, entitled Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland was published by Pen and Sword in 2017. The second, entitled, Madness, Murder and Mayhem, Criminal Insanity in Victorian and Edwardian Britain was published by the same company last year.

RQG Member