Book Review: Tracing your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums

11 Feb, 2020

Book Review: Tracing your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums

Tracing your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums, A Guide for Family Historians

Michelle Higgs. 2019. Pen & Sword Family History.

Michelle Higgs is gaining herself a highly regarded reputation as an author of social history and genealogical books.  Her latest book does not disappoint. Starting from the foundation of Bethem Hospital in 1247, this publication takes the reader on a journey through to modern times, examining how people with mental illness were treated and cared for, from pre 1800 care in the community, to the building of large institutions in Victorian Britain.

A comprehensive account is provided of those with mental illness, including post-partum psychosis, depression, mania, shell shock, and epilepsy. Asylums of the 19th and 20th centuries are both given attention, with life inside the asylums described in detail with all evidence taken from genealogical and historical records that can be sourced in your own local archives.  Her use of pictures, photographs and case studies engage the reader from the start, and the detailed description of source materials leave the reader wanting to find out more. Speciality sectors of mental illness are also covered. These include armed forces record sources, criminals and those defined as idiots and imbeciles.

The source information that can be found in local archives, online census and register lists, and through BMD records is extensive. Of particular interest will the be Lunacy Commission records and Admission Registers.

An engaging read that I highly recommend.

Nikki Paine

MSc Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies. Member of RQG.

Clare O'Grady