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Lunatic Asylum Records

Nature of Source

Records such as admission and discharge registers as well as administrative records from institutions established to house the mentally ill. Before the establishment of specialist places, those classified as lunatics were housed in hospitals, jails and workhouses whilst the wealthier used the services of private asylums. The first specialist asylum was called Bethlem Hospital (also known as Bedlam) which began operations in the 13th century. The majority of public or county asylums (sometimes run by Quarter Sessions) were built in the 19th century. This mass building programme began with the 1808 County Asylums Act which saw the building of asylums in many areas but not every county. National coverage was achieved with the passing of the 1845 County Asylum Act which oversaw the compulsory construction of at least one asylum for every county. Although provision now existed for sufferers, many were still sent to the workhouse.

Probably the most useful and widely available asylum records are the admission registers which show that patients were often admitted and discharged within a short space of time. Asylum records are closed to the general public for 100 years but may be accessed by family members however it is not uncommon to only find that a first name is given in the institution registers. Also be aware that the crown took custody of lands belonging to those classified as lunatics. Some county asylum patient lists can be found in the TNA series of records which mainly deal with the administration of asylums and the poor law. 

For the 1851 census, the returns covering asylums only supplied the patient's initial (s) and not the surname but this was not always the case. From 1861, the census returns made special provision for enumerating those with mental health problems by describing patients as either as 'idiots', 'imbeciles' or 'lunatics'. The distinctions are somewhat vague and overlapping but those suffering from dementia were mostly described as 'imbeciles'.

Where Found

The National Archives (MH 50, Lunacy Commission Minutes; MH 51, Correspondence and Papers; MH 51/735, alphabetical record of proprietors of private madhouses with a list of patients admitted, 1798-1812; MH 12, Correspondence with Poor Law Unions and Other Local Authorities; MH 83, Lunacy Commission Correspondence and Papers; MH 85, Representative Case Papers of Patients; MH 86, Selected Patients Precedent Files; MH 94, Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1960; MH 95, reports of statutory visits by commissioners; MH 100, Board of Control: Monthly Conference Notes; MH 103, Special Hospitals, Patients' Files; MH 118, Special Hospitals, Registered Files; C 211, Petitions, inquisitions, records of the possessions of lunatics, decrees and orders, and visitor reports. For a listing of Naval lunatic record series see the TNA guide: Mental Health.)

Name indexes to some TNA series are available at the TNA Discovery. First click on ‘Advanced search’ and then type in the name being searched. Then under ‘Search within’ select ‘Enter a reference’ and type ‘MH’.

County Record Office (County asylum records including casebooks. Most records will be found locally as no central repository of records exists)
Bethlem Museum of the Mind (The archives hold records of Bethlem Hospital, the Maudsley Hospital, and Warlingham Park Hospital. The records include: minute books, admission registers, medical case books and staff records. Some records of the Bridewell Hospital are held in the archives but most Bridewell records are held by the Guildhall Library. An online catalogue of the holdings is available at the website)
Wellcome Library (Books, articles, manuscripts, reports, photos and other material)
Berkshire Record Office (Broadmoor Hospital records and Fair Mile Hospital records. Records include patient case files, catalogued and indexed and available at the Record Office subject to 100 year closure rule)

Period Covered

1403 - 1985

Genealogical Value

Name of patient, occupation, diagnosis, date of admission, date of discharge or death and next of kin. Occasionally the inmate's date of birth. Inmate's address or name of parish. Name of institution.

Further References

Allderidge, Patricia. Bethlem Hospital 1247-1997: A Pictorial Record: Phillimore, 1997

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Andrews, Jonathan. The History of Bethlem Hospital: Routledge, 1997

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Arnold, Catharine. Bedlam: London and Its Mad: Pocket Books, 2009

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Bartlett, Peter. The Poor Law of Lunacy: The Administration of Pauper Lunatics in Mid-nineteenth Century England: Leicester University Press, 1999 Buy Now on Amazon

Berguer, David. The Friern Hospital Story: The History of a Victorian Lunatic Asylum: Chaville Press, 2012

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Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The National Archives, 2006

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Chambers, Paul. Bedlam: London's Hospital for the Mad: Ian Allan Publishing, 2009

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Chater, Kathy. My Ancestor Was A Lunatic: Society of Genealogists, 2015 Buy Now on Amazon
Cherry, Steven. Mental Health Care in Modern England: The Norfolk Lunatic Asylum/St Andrew's Hospital, 1810-1998: Boydell, 2003 Buy Now on Amazon

Cohen, Deborah, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day: Viking, 2013

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Davis, Mark & Kidd, Marina. Voices from the Asylum: West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum: Amberley Publishing, 2013

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Davis, Mark. West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum Through Time: Amberley Publishing, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Davis, Mark. Asylum: Inside the Pauper Lunatic Asylums: Amberley Publishing, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Draper, Christopher. Paupers, Bastards and Lunatics: The Story of Conwy Workhouse: Llygad Gwalch Cyf, 2005 Buy Now on Amazon
Early, Donal, F. ‘The Lunatic Pauper Palace’: Glenside Hospital Bristol 1861-1994: Its Birth, Development and Demise: Friends of Glenside Hospital Museum, 2003 Buy Now on Amazon

Faithfull, Pamela. Basic Facts About Lunatics in England and Wales. FFHS, 2002


Gardner, James. Sweet Bells Jangled Out of Tune: A History of the Sussex Lunatic Asylum (St.Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath): James Gardner, 1999 Buy Now on Amazon
Gardner, James. A History of the Brighton Workhouses: James Gardner, 2012 Buy Now on Amazon

Lappin, James. Central Government and the Supervision of the Treatment of Lunatics 1800-1913: A Guide to Sources in the Public Record Office, 1996 (available in TNA library)


Parry-Jones, William Llywelyn. The Trade in Lunacy: A Study of Private Madhouses in England in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: Routledge, 1971

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Perceval, John. A Narrative of the Treatment Experienced by a Gentleman During a State of Mental Derangement: Wilson, 1840 (Available to read online or download at the Internet Archive or Google Books)

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Porter, Roy. Madness: A Brief History: Oxford University Press, 2002

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Porter, Roy. Madmen: A Social History of Madhouses, Mad-Doctors & Lunatics: Tempus, 2006

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Rorie, James. History of Dundee Royal Lunatic Asylum: Hanlins Press, 2012 Buy Now on Amazon

Rutherford, Sarah. The Victorian Asylum: Shire Publications, 2008

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Smith, Leonard D. Cure, Comfort and Safe Custody: Public Lunatic Asylums in Early Nineteenth-century England: Leicester University Press, 1999

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Smith, Leonard. Lunatic Hospitals in Georgian England, 1750-1830: Routledge, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon

Stevens, Mark. Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum: Pen and Sword Books, 2013

Stevens. Mark. Life in the Victorian Asylum: The World of Nineteenth Century Mental Health Care: Pen & Sword Books, 2014  
Stubley, Peter. A Pauper's History of England: 1,000 Years of Peasants, Beggars and Guttersnipes: Pen & Sword Books, 2015 Buy Now on Amazon

Wise, Sarah. Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England: Bodley Head, 2012

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TNA Research Guide: Mental Health

Websites (TNA research signpost: Looking for records of asylum inmates) (Andrew Roberts' Home Page specialising in social science and mental health history) (Index of English and Welsh Lunatic Asylums and Mental Hospitals) (Mental Health History Words) (County Asylums: Rediscovering the Asylums and Mental Hospitals of England and Wales, including photos and information on individual asylums) (Bedfordshire Archives and Records Service: 150 years of Fairfield Hospital [Three Counties Asylum]) (Photographs from the City of London Asylum Archive) (High Royds Hospital: Digital archive dedicated to the former Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Menston, Yorkshire) (Stanley Royd Hospital: Digital archive dedicated to the former Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield) (Berkshire Record Office: Inside Victorian Broadmoor including a free download of the ebook 'Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum'; A History of Fair Mile Hospital 1870-2003) (Asylums: a historical survey) (Welcome to Testimony - Inside Stories of mental health care) (Urban Decay: UK asylums) (Biographical and Family History Resources in the Wellcome Library) (The history of mental health and community care - key dates)
(History to Herstory: Women & Mental Health) (TheTimeChamber: The Victorian Asylum: The site documents the current condition of Victorian Asylum Sites and where possible supply a history of the building. The site includes a section on the History of the Asylum and a list of all known Asylums in both England and Wales) (Researching Illness) (Lunacy Act 1845) (History to Herstory Celebrating the lives of women in Yorkshire from the 1100s to the present day: Women & Mental Health) (Mental health and illness)
(Scottish Indexes: Learning Zone: Mental Health Records in Scotland) (Greater Manchester County Record Office. Life inside Prestwich Asylum in 1900) (Socialist Health Association: Chapter 4 of England's First State Hospitals, by Gwendoline M Ayers 1971, published by the Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine)
(Mental problems Symptom Checker)

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including Access to Archives [A2A], National Register of Archives [NRA])
TNA Online Collections (19th Century Poor Law Union and Workhouse Records from series reference MH 12. TNA Online Collections is produced by The National Archives and contains online access to indexes, transcriptions and digital images of some of the TNA's most important holdings. Searches are free but a fee is levied for each downloaded item. However downloads are free if used at TNA or the Society of Genealogists)
Hospital Records Database (The National Archives and The Wellcome Trust joint project listing repositories which hold records relating to a particular UK hospital or asylum. The database will show the present and past name and location of the hospital, the administrative details and history of the hospital and the existence of lists, catalogues or other finding aids. Consult the ARCHON Directory for more information about the repositories holding the records) (Bethlem Museum of the Mind. Catalogue of the archives of Bethlem Royal Hospital, the Maudsley Hospital and Warlingham Park Hospital. Includes online indexes to admission registers)
(Wellcome Library: Mental healthcare: Digitised mental healthcare archives including Ticehurst House Hospital, East Sussex; The Retreat, York; Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow; St Luke's Hospital, City of London) (Broadgate Hospital Mental Hospital Archives, 1871-1906: Online access to the male and female case books from the Broadgate Hospital [formerly East Riding Mental Hospital], East Riding of Yorkshire archive [formerly East Riding Mental Hospital]. The records are housed at the East Riding of Yorkshire Archives and Local Studies)
(Bethlem Hospital Patient Admission Registers and Casebooks 1683-1932, including Warlingham Park near Croydon; Prestwich Asylum Admissions, 1851-1901. Produced in association with the Manchester & Lancashire Family History Society; Kent, Bexley Asylum Minute Books 1901-1939; South Yorkshire Asylum Admission Records, 1872-1910. The asylum, later known as the Middlewood Hospital, was established in Sheffield at Wadsley Park in 1872)
(London Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, 1430-1930 provided in association with London Metropolitan Archives: This collection includes browsable online access to a huge variety of different records created as a result of the Poor Laws in London including registers of lunatics) (History to Herstory. This website contains images from mostly female patient medical casebooks of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield. The books cover the period 1818 to 1902 and include address, occupation, length of illness, family members who have been ill, cause of illness, treatments and details of progress; some records include photographs of patients) (Powick Lunatic Asylum: Scanned and searchable indexed records from Powick Lunatic Asylum developed by the George Marshall Medical Museum based in Worcester) (Sheffield Archives and Local Studies: Patients admitted to South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum [Middlewood Hospital], 1872 to 1910) (Scottish Indexes: Mental Health Records, 1858 - 1915. Index of admissions and registers of Scottish Lunatic Asylums taken from National Records of Scotland series MC2 and MC7) (Scotland Mental Health Institutions Admissions, 1857-1859. Records from over 50 mental health institutions including asylums and poorhouses, transcribed by Graham and Emma Maxwell)

CD Roms

Devon Family History Society (Rich man, poor man beggar-man, thief, A collection of over 63,000 entries from records held at Devon Record Office)
Cornwall Family History Society (St Lawrence's Asylum, The Cornwall County Hospital for the Mentally Ill, by Sally Pocock)