The 1763 Committee on Madhouses and the 1774 Madhouses Act
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The 1763 Committee on Madhouses
and the 1774 Madhouses Act

The 1763 Select Committee of the House of Commons on Madhouses

2.3 Madhouses bills
2.3.1 Bills before 1774
2.3.2 The 1774 madhouse bill

2.4 Relation of Physician Commission to courts


7.2 for 1763 gives detailed references.

The 1774 Madhouse Act was based on the recommendation of the 1763 Select Committee of the House of Commons on Madhouses

"that the present state of the private madhouses in this kingdom, requires the interposition of the legislature".

When the Select Committee's short report was read (*) to the Common's, the recommendation was agreed and six MPs ordered to bring in a bill.

(*) The Journals of Parliament being stylized accounts of proceedings, this may not have meant actually read aloud, but the length and format of the report was consistent with a document prepared to be read aloud. The bill was not brought in that session, and a subsequent bill (or bills) failed to pass the House of Lords, but eventually a modified bill was passed in 1774 (See 2.3).

The Select Committee said they had decided to keep to two points:

A large part of their report was an examination of the issues raised by the (eventually successful) attempts of a Mr La Fortune to secure the release of a Mrs Hawley (confined in a Chelsea house 5.9.1762 to 4.10.1762) by writ of habeas corpus (see 2.4).

They were specifically concerned with the extent to which madhouses were used to confine people who were not lunatics. On this they examined Mr Turlington, proprietor of the house where Mrs Hawley was confined. He said he usually left house management and admission of patients to Mr King, his agent. His only instruction was a general rule to "admit all persons who were brought" and he added that although the house was intended for lunatics, other persons were admitted as lodgers.

There seems to have been no difference between the situation of a lunatic and a lodger. he considered a Mrs Smith "merely as a border", but "it was not in her power to go out of the house if she would". He

"took her into confinement merely at the desire of her husband, who alleged that the neighbours were afraid she would set the house on fire",

and who paid six guineas a quarter for her maintenance. The house was simply for confinement -

"no physicians attend ... no register of the persons is kept."

Turlington said he believed Mrs Hawley a lunatic; but King, in his evidence, said he had never admitted any lunatics. Previously in the wool trade, he had been keeper for six years. There were several patients when he was first employed, "and all lunatics", but

"he frankly confessed, that out of the whole number of persons whom he had confined, he had never admitted one as a lunatic during the six years".

he never

"refused any persons who were brought upon any pretence whatsoever, provided they could pay for their board".

Persons confined

"had the liberty of walking in the garden, and passing from one room to another", but

"it was the established order of the house that no letter should be sent by any of the persons confined to their friends or relations".

The diet and apartments of inmates varied according to how much was paid for their keep, the range of charges being from £20 to £60 a year.

The Select Committee assured the Commons

"that a variety of other instances, arising in other houses, offered themselves for examination, and that Turlington's house was in no degree a selected case".

They had not investigated more than they thought necessary to establish the abuses in the present state of madhouses

"out of regard to the peace and satisfaction of private families" (1763 SCHC)

The Select Committee's report was not only published in the Journals of parliament, but also, privately (*), in a separate edition for the public. It was also printed in the then equivalent of Hansard (see 7.2).

(*) The separate edition is inscribed "Published by Order of the House of Commons" and "Printed for John Whiston and Benjamin White, at Mr Boyle's Head, and Charles Bathurst, at the Cross Keys, in Fleet-Street; Lockyer Davis and Charles Rayners, opposite Grays-Inn-Gate, in Holborn, and William Bawyer, in White-Fryers. MDCCLXIII."

2.3 Madhouse Bills

See 7.2 1763-1774 for Parliamentary references

2.3.1 Bills before 1774

The Royal College of Physicians Annals record that in December 1754 a Sir Cordell Firebrass approached the college with "heads" of a bill intended to be brought into parliament for licensing private madhouses ... proposing, among other matters, that licensing and visiting should be by the President and other Royal College of Physicians officers. The Royal College of Physicians rejected the proposal, saying they were grateful for the good opinion of them expressed in suggesting so great a trust, but apprehended its execution would be attended with such difficulties as to make it very inconvenient for them to perform. (Hunter and Macalpine 1963 p.452)

This may have been an early draft of the bill that became the 1774 Act, and the 1763 Select Committee on Madhouses very probably had a draft before them. The earliest bill traceable through parliamentary indexes is dated 1773.

Two debates were summarized in Hansard. Its main sponsor, Thomas Townshend Jnr (*a) was reported to say that:

"A matter of this sort had been formerly agitated in Parliaments, and was carried on with great expedition, but did not succeed owing to the part the gentlemen of the long robe took against it" (Hansard 11.2.1773 col.696)

Which suggests bills had previously been brought in and may even have passed through the Commons and been rejected by the Lords (*b).

(*a) Thomas Townshend born 24.2.1733, died 1800. Lord Sydney from 1783. MP for Whitchurch 1754 to 1783. Eldest son of Thomas Townshend Senior (born 1701, died 1780) MP for Winchelsea and then Cambridge.

(*b) I do not believe indexes compiled for the Journals at this period were exhaustive and I would not be surprised if the Journals themselves were less than complete records. Gentlemen of the long robe probably means the legal profession - whose leaders sat in the House of Lords.

Townshend said that: "within seven miles of London there are eighteen of these houses". Seven miles was the radius of the Royal College of Physician's supervision of physicians (1.2.2). He outlined a scheme for inspection by "persons appointed by the College of Physicians" who would examine inmates once or twice a year. "The college", he said, "do agree to the plan".

"It has been suggested that this Bill will abridge the power of the Lord Chancellor over lunatics;" (see Chancery Lunatics) "but, Sir, this is a great mistake: on the contrary, it will facilitate the operations of that court, and enlarge its power" (Hansard 22.4.1773 cols 837-8))

Seconding the bill, a Mr Mackworth dealt with its provisions for regulation of county houses:

"I do not wish to see private madhouses suppressed, but put under such regulations, that the magistrates in the counties through England may have the power to see justice done to those who are unhappy enough to become inmates of those places" (Hansard 11.2.1773 col.697)

The 1773 bill passed the Commons but was rejected by the Lords (Hansard 11.2.1773 p.697, end note) who deferred proceedings beyond the end of the session (JHL 22.6.1773)

2.3.2 THE 1774 Madhouse Bill

Townshend re-introduced the bill in 1774 and (with Lords amendments the Commons agreed to) it became the Act. There are two important differences between the bills (as brought in) of 1773 and 1774:-

  1. In 1773 it contained clauses (pp 12 + 21) empowering commissioners and Quarter Sessions to revoke licences. These were omitted in 1774 (See London and county provisions).

  2. 2) Both required admission notices, but the qualification excepting paupers was in the 1774 bill, but not in the 1773 bill (1773 Bill p.16).

The two principle criticisms of the Act in operation were that, as the commission could not refuse or revoke licences, it had no real power to control madhouses, and that because notices of paupers were not required they were effectively excluded from its operation.

Two less important provisions in the 1773 bill omitted from 1774 bill were that every licensed house was to carry, in large capital letters, the inscription:


and that the Act should be read at the first session of the commission and at County Quarter Sessions when licences were granted (p.23).

LORDS AMENDMENTS The House of Lords inserted the search provisions (section 19) and the clause preserving access to the courts (section 31).

2.4 Relation of the Physician Commission to the Courts

The purpose of the Act (as passed) is best understood if we consider the Physician Commission an agency subservient to the Westminster Courts, not in itself an agency of control, but one to facilitate the traditional judicial control.

Townshend insisted in 1773 that his bill would enlarge, not infringe, the powers of Chancery (2.3.1). Subsequent alterations (2.3.2) increased the emphasis on facilitating the Westminster courts and removed the power to revoke licences which would have given the commission its own control over the madhouses. In the counties a court (Quarter Sessions) was to issue licences and appoint visitors; the Act extended the powers of County JPs as keepers of the King's Peace (2S.3 passim and 2.3.1 Mackworth quote).

The control discussed in 1763 (2.2), exercised by the courts, which the Act was intended to facilitate, sought only to prevent madhouses detaining the sane. Later Acts were concerned to control the treatment of the insane in the houses (3.2.2), but this one was not concerned to control madhouses as madhouses, but to prevent their misuse for other purposes!

I found nothing in the 19th century records remotely comparable to King's statement that no one he had confined had been lunatic (2.2). His house could not have been typical (most, surely, must have contained some lunatics?), but the Select Committee thought it "not untypical" and their report is evidence of a widespread "trade in general confinement" merely masquerading as confinement of the insane.

As 19th century Select Committees of Parliament reported nothing suggesting a widespread confinement of the sane, it seems reasonable to conclude the Act achieved its objective and 19th century houses only rarely detained the sane. (*)

(*) This may have been as much by a re-classification of admissions, so that people who would have been considered `sane' became 'certified lunatics', as it was by preventing admissions that would have taken place before the Act was passed. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that whilst legislation, by providing for certification and in other respects, contributed to an enormous extension of the range of behaviours classified as insanity in the 19th century, nevertheless, the control the legislators thought they were achieving was not entirely illusory.

The Bills that became the 1774 Act were formulated in the context of court cases, such as those considered by the 1763 Select Committee on Madhouses concerning detention of the allegedly sane. The two established remedies for such infringements of the British liberties were an application to the higher courts for a writ of habeas corpus, or a request to a JP to intervene. The confined person was in no position to make such an appeal (*) and those who confined someone did not advertise their actions or allow the confined to communicate with those who might assist (at Turlington's patients were prevented from sending letters). The applicant, therefore, was usually someone who suspected another had been confined.

(*) Unless, like Alexander Cruden in 1738, he escaped and applied to the public authorities to prevent his recapture. Cruden applied to the Lord Mayor.

Sometime if the mid 1750s a Mrs Gold suspected her son in law had confined his wife in Miles's Hoxton Madhouse. She asked a local JP for assistance, he drew a confession from the husband and then accompanied Mrs Gold to Miles's where the release of her daughter was secured (1763 SCHC).

In 1762 La Fortune and Mrs Hawley (2.2) dined together, subsequently she disappeared and he suspected her mother and husband had confined her in a madhouse. He applied to Lord Mansfield for habeas corpus which was refused because he was not a relative, but Mansfield sent a Doctor to the house suspected (Turlington's) to investigate. He was refused admission, but managed to see and speak to Mrs Hawley through a window. Subsequently a writ was granted, Mrs Hawley was brought before the court and his lordship discharged her. (1763 SCHC)

The fundamental problems in both cases were

  1. the inability of the inmate to communicate with anyone who might help

  2. the inability of anyone concerned about a disappearance to establish what had happened or effectively investigate.

Both problems were deliberately manufactured by those who ran the houses.

The significance of the Act's provisions becomes evident in the light of the problems it sought to remedy:-

certificate was required before admission (section 21). Given the variety of medical practitioners who could who could provide one this was a very weak safeguard, but it did operate before confinement and so before the courts could be called on to redress a grievance.

Requiring madhouses to have licences (section one) meant they would be registered and known. In 1828 a Royal College of Physicians commissioner described this as the whole object of the licence. Dr William Heberden insisted the Act had sought:

"merely to prevent people being smuggled into confinement, and therefore the object of the licence was only that of knowing where the houses were that people were to be found."

He contrasted this with the revocable licences proposed in the 1828 Madhouses Bill (3.2). In reading that, it had seemed to him:

"as if those who framed this Bill had considered the licence of a house of this kind as the licence of a public house, and that the licence should be withdrawn if they misconduct themselves" (1828 SCHL p.726)

As the 1773 Bill had a revocation clause licences must have been intended originally to do more than register the houses (and finance the commission), but the concern to identify the houses was shown in the 1773 clause requiring a notice to be displayed (2.3.2)

admission notices (section 21) and registers (sections 15, 17, 21, 24) meant a central authority knew who was confined in a licensed house and where. By the search procedure (section 19) the information was available to anyone with a "reasonable" interest: so if one suspected a friend was confined, there was a comparatively simple means to find out if the suspicion was correct.

lose its licence if admission was refused (section 16), broke through the totality of confinement in which some houses attempted to keep patients by preventing any communication with the outside world.

By itself the Act gave no remedy for the detention of a sane person if certified and notified on admission. The commissioners could not liberate and any powers JPs had to do so were external to the Act. The knowledge of what was happening made possible by registers and visits must have enabled commissioners or interested enquirers to secure a release through persuasion (of the keeper, or the person who confined the patient) sometimes, but if that failed, the formal remedy lay where it always had done: in the courts.

court order (section 29) gave the Westminster courts means to establish basic facts without lengthy and expensive enquiries. From the registers they could find out if someone had been sent to a licensed house, the name and address of the person who sent and the doctor who certified; and (from visiting minutes) the character of the house. All but the last (*) might have been ascertained by the complainant by a search enquiry before going to the court, but although a commissioner could refuse an enquirer, the court's order could not be refused.

(*) The minutes in the registers (apart from any extracts displayed in the censor's room (section 15)) were available to no one outside the Royal College of Physicians except the Westminster courts (see note on access)

The courts could also examine anyone engaged in executing the Act, or order commissioners or county visitors to visit a house and report on any issue. The doctor sent by Lord Mansfield to Turlington's was simply refused admission. Such an obstruction of the court could now lose a house its licence.

(see section 27). The only points on which they could enforce were the five offenses with penalties or forfeitures attached:

a) Keeping an unlicensed house: £500 penalty (section one)
b) Receiving a patient without certificate £100 penalty (section 21)
c) Not giving notice of a non-pauper admission £100 penalty (section 21)
d) Refusing official visitors admission: Forfeiture of licence
(section 16 and section 26)
e) Being a commissioner whilst interested in keeping a house £50 penalty (section 10)

The Act, therefore, amounted to this: If a person kept a house without a licence he could be prosecuted and loose £500. The keeper of a licensed house was required to admit patients only on certificate and to give notice of admissions to the commissioners. If he broke these rules the Royal College of Physicians or County Clerk could sue for the recovery of £100 pledged when the house was licensed. Being licensed meant being open to inspection and he forfeited his licence if he refused; so becoming liable to prosecution for keeping an unlicensed house.

Fully enforced, the Act could only ensure that people were not confined without a certificate, that those confined were known and recorded and that the courts through the official visitors had access to the houses and patients. The medical certificate provided a safeguard against the detention of the insane that was new, but the other provisions were to facilitate the operation of the traditional safeguards which lay in the operations of the courts, external to the Act.

© Andrew Roberts 1981-

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1763 Select Committee

1754 Bill

1773 Bill

1774 Bill


borders and lodgers

Chelsea madhouse

confinement only

Country houses

Court of Chancery

Alexander Cruden


expanding categories

Sir Cordell Firebrass


Mrs Gold

habeas corpus 2

Mrs Hawley

House of Lords

Hoxton House



Mr La Fortune

licensed houses

Lord Chancellor

Justice of the Peace (JP)

Mr King


lunatics and not lunatics

Mr Mackworth MP

Lord Mansfield

mad houses



misuse of madhouses


pauper lunatics


Physicians decline

Physicians agree

Quarter Sessions

Quarter Sessions

Seven miles of London

Mrs Smith

solving problems

Lord Sydney

Thomas Townshend MP

Thomas Townshend senior MP

Timeline 1763.

Timeline 1774.

Mr Turlington

Westminster Courts