‘Lunatics’ and the Poor Law Act 1834

Asylums had been operating in Britain for hundreds of years, the first recorded was the Bethlem Royal Hospital established in the C15th and were run  as private charitable institutions.

The whole business was a haphazard affair until the Madhouse Act of 1774 which established licensing and yearly inspections of asylums.

Still little provision was made for the mentally ill until an Act in 1808 required each county to provide an asylum for the ‘pauper lunatics’

In 1834 the introduction of the Poor Law Act, allowed parishes to unite in order to erect a workhouse for paupers but it stated that ‘nothing in this Act shall authorise the detention in any workhouse of any dangerous lunatic, insane person or idiot for longer than 14 days.

This was often misinterpreted and the problem remained, what to do with the pauper who was mentally ill? 

The Poor Law Commission considered the problem and generally were in favour of centrally regulated treatment of mentally ill paupers in specialist accomodation in the workhouse. Once assessed the pauper would be placed in the sick ward or a special ward for the mentally sick.

This led to an increase in the number of lunatics in workhouses who could not be removed.

This was not acceptable to Government and steps were taken to move pauper lunatics from the workhouse to purpose built asylums

Follow the suggested posts to discover more about workhouse conditions and other Acts of Parliament that affected how people in your family history lived


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