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1845: Ashley's Lunacy Bills

4.10 Lord Ashley's July 1844 speech

4.11.1 Ashley's 1845 Bills
4.11.2 A great economy
4.11.3 Perceval and Duncombe's opposition

4.12 Like a thief in the night

4.10 Lord Ashley's July 1844 speech
Treatment of Lunatics - 1844 Report

On 23.7.1844 Ashley delivered a long speech outlining the Metropolitan Commission's case for a reform of the law, and moving for an address to the Crown to take its report into consideration.

"The speech" he recorded in his diary "did its work so far as to obtain a recognition from the Secretary of State that legislation was necessary and should be taken in my sense of it" (Hodder 2 p.66)

Ashley's sense of it was that JPs should be compelled to provide County Asylums for all pauper lunatics, whether dangerous or not, that workhouses were unfit places for any lunatics and that special asylums should be provided for incurables.

In the debate Home Secretary Graham said that with respect to dangerous lunatics in workhouses:

"The construction of the law was extremely doubtful ... but, whatever the law might be, he had no manner of doubt that whether the subject were regarded in relation to the possibility of a cure, or to the safe custody of the person in a confirmed case of lunacy; in neither case was a workhouse a fit receptacle for such persons, whether they were dangerous lunatics or not."

In his opinion it would not be long before the government found "effectual means" to provide asylums both for the immediate treatment of "incipient lunacy" with the objective of cure, and the long term care and custody of chronic lunatics:

"The expense of making such arrangements alone prevented them from being carried out; but he believed the law would hereafter compel the different Unions to incur the necessary outlay which would enable such asylums to be erected."

and he thought the expense would not be found much greater than under the present "most imperfect and unsatisfactory treatment of lunatics". (Hansard 23.7.1844 col.1273)

Stafford O'Brien, the Tory member for Northamptonshire North wanted to know why, as both sides of the House seemed agreed on the need for a remedy, they should wait a year. Henry Goulbourne, Peel's Chancellor of the Exchequer, replied that it was impossible to take a vote without an estimate of what the buildings would cost, and he had not yet received any plan or estimate (Hansard 23.7.1844 col 1287)

Ashley said that he felt grateful for the expressions of the Home Secretary and "in full confidence that the subject would receive attention" he withdrew his motion. On 21.11.1844 he recorded in his diary that Graham had asked him to undertake the Bill, promising to treat it as a government measure, and that he had agreed on condition of full Government support in every respect ( Hodder 2 p. 78)

4.11.1 Ashley's Bills

Two closely interrelated bills were introduced by Ashley; Home Secretary Graham and Robert Vernon Smith on 6.6.1845. They proposed a permanent Lunacy Commission to regulate all asylums, and supervise plans for county asylums to be erected throughout England and Wales by the JPs. At least part of the drafting was done by the Metropolitan Commission which paid £200 "By fees to counsel settling new bills" (Account 1845)

Despite determined filibustering from a minority of MPs, the support of the Government ensured that the Bills passed relatively unscathed to become the 1845 Lunacy and County Asylums Acts on 4.8.1845 and 8.8.1845 respectively. On 9.8.1845 parliament was prorogued.

A great economy

Ashley presented the Bills to the House of Commons as a series of "amendments" to the existing laws. "An attentive perusal" of which, the Lancet said:

What Ashley presented to the Commons appeared, in fact, to be a magnificent scheme for the care of pauper lunatics that would be both humane and economic.

The central provision was that every county and borough in England and Wales would be required to provide County asylum accommodation for all its pauper lunatics (5S.1.7 + 5S.4). The belief that underpinned this proposal was that insanity was in most cases curable if it was treated in an asylum early enough:

    "The system we propose to substitute for the present one will effect a cure in seventy cases out of every hundred" (Ashley, Hansard 6.6.1845 col.193) [A little earlier he said 60%]
He explained to the House of Commons that the expense of constructing a national network of County Asylums was, in fact, an economy.
    "The financial part of our project ... a most dry and uninviting topic ... is of the most essential importance, and hon. Members will allow that without some explanation on this head I shall have little hope for any Bill." (Ashley, Hansard 6.6.1845 col.190)
The usual complaint about tardy admission of pauper lunatics to asylums was (as Ashley put it) that the parish authorities were indolent, indifferent or sought to avoid the expense. (See above ###) Another impediment was a recent Queens Bench ruling that in counties with a County Asylum the JPs could not authorize a pauper's admission into a licensed house when the County Asylum was full. But Ashley argued that the greatest impediment was the lack of asylum accommodation due to "the fear of the enormous cost" supposed to be necessary to construct a County Asylum.

Massive savings, however, were possible. The cost of existing asylums, he said, was excessive and was increased because chronic patients were not separated from the curable. But the greatest saving of all was that once the system had been put into order the costs of building asylums would be recovered through reduced poor law maintenance. Ashley's County Asylum scheme was the bargain of the 19th century!

Eleven existing asylums had cost, on average, £170 a patient. The commission thought that £80 a head would be "ample" for buildings providing for the "enlightened curative system ... recommended by the best authorities. This would make the cost of an adequate 300 bed County Asylum for recent cases only £24,000 rather than the £51,000 derived from the average cost of existing asylums.

"The greatest error", however, had been to assume that all patients required such facilities: "We look at the matter in a totally different way. Chronic lunatics, Ashley said, did not require the "minute care", "precautions", "careful supervision" or "the same medical attention" as recent cases "undergoing the whole of the curative process". Chronic lunatics, therefore, should be kept in separate departments or asylums, which could be constructed for as little as £50 a head.

At this rate, if 60% of patients were chronic, the cost of a 300 bed asylum could be reduced to £16,740 if divided into recent and chronic departments. But this was going too far, because all epileptic and violent patients would require special care in the recent case hospital - which would inflate the cost to £20,030, or about £67 per head.

From the finances of his model asylum Ashley turned to the finances of the whole scheme. The number of pauper lunatics not in asylums was 12,500 (See 4.17). At the established rate of £170 a head it would cost £2,125,000 throughout England and Wales to accommodate them in asylums. "Whilst under our plan it would be £813,750 ... a difference of £1,311,250".

He then argued that counties should set this expenditure against the cost of maintaining their pauper lunatics for life if asylums were not provided for their early treatment and cure. He proceeded to calculate this and to show that it was more expensive not to provide adequate asylums than to provide them. Actually he only appears to calculate it. He seems to have been confused by the figures, so I have re-worked them below as I think he intended to present them.

In his calculations he said that 60% of the chronic pauper lunatics in asylums and workhouses would have been cured if treated early enough. There were, perhaps, 13,600 of these (5,600 in asylums, 8,000 in workhouses) of whom 8,160 could have been cured.

Conolly had calculated a lunatics average life at ten years. So, at a fixed rate per head, it would cost ten times as much not to cure someone as it would to cure them. If the maintenance of the pauper cost £20 a year the saving on 8,160 would be (8,160 x 60% = 4,896) x (£20 x 9 years = 180) = £881,280. Which is more than the £813,750 that the Commission estimated the cost of additional asylums.

On a different basis of calculation, but with the same conclusion, he argued that in Middlesex £30,000 a year could be saved by providing an asylum:

    "This is a saving which, in the course of ten years will more than cover the whole additional outlay for the construction of a new asylum"
These were conservative estimates of the total savings because, Ashley said, Conolly's estimate of ten years was "a very low average" and, Ashley was persuaded "far too low a basis to calculate upon. Dr Hitch, of Gloucester, says that insanity by no means shortens life, and he gives tables to show this." [The future for county finances looked very rosy!]

(Ashley. Hansard 6.6.1845 cols 190-193)

4.11.3 Perceval and Duncombe's opposition

Opposition to the Bills was mainly on Civil Liberties grounds. It also contained clear, if not always coherent, protests against the increase in executrive power, against a movement of power from the courts to the executive and against the further centralization of government.

The main opposition was from Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, Wakley's fellow radical MP for Finsbury. Duncombe presented petitions from John Perceval and other ex-patients, asking for a Select Committee of the House of Commons to inquire:

    "into the treatment of Lunatic and other patients and ... the laws affecting their seizure, detention and release"
before the Lunacy Bill became law.

If that was not possible Perceval wanted specified amendments be made to the bill to provide greater security of civil liberties. (Perceval's petition: JHC 1.7.1845)

Duncombe wished the Bill to be postponed to the next session:

    "in order that an inquiry might be made as to the manner in which the Commissioners had discharged their duty ... He would divide the House on every stage, if the noble Lord persisted in pressing on the Bill this Session." (Hansard 2.7.1845 col.1417)
He was supported by Sharman Crawford and Viscount Duncan and on one occasion secured 15 votes (to 117) for postponement (Hansard 2.7.1845)

John Perceval's Petition

Perceval's petition was directed only against the Lunacy Bill. It claimed that:

    "the said Bill is very defective, and may prove very injurious, and that it falls very far short of the objects for which it was intended; that the Board of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy is, in practice, contrary (as the Petitioner believes) to the intentions of and without the real knowledge of Parliament, a closed and secret court, where persons confined in asylums, without the knowledge of the charges brought against them, and without even any one specific charge amounting to a proof of insanity, have their cases inquired into behind their backs, without notice being given to them of the day on which such inquiry is to take place; without the power of being present by attorney, or of sending a friend to watch the proceedings; without any knowledge of the evidence against them; and consequently without power to cross-examine, refute, or answer the same; that the delays necessary to such a course of proceedings are very great, but that they are cruelly aggravated by the long intervals of time that elapse between each inquiry, that the present Bill tends to continue and sanction this system, which is foreign to and hateful to the constitution of these realms and furthermore tends to erect another Committee within their Commission still more secret, for inquiry into the cases of persons confined as of unsound mind in private houses; that it is the opinion of the Petitioner, from the reports he has heard of the manner in which the Commissioners conduct their inquiry into a patient's case, of such patient himself, that they are influenced by prejudice, and that they frequently conduct their examination in an unfeeling and negligent manner and that they are not worthy of so much confidence as they demand from the House ... " (Perceval's petition: JHC 1.7.1845)
Ashley protested against the allegations of prejudice and insensitivity, but neither he nor anyone else was recorded as responding to the picture of
the Commission as an executive court, not following due process of law and without consideration for the rules of justice; or to Perceval's assertion that:
    "the present Bill tends to continue and sanction this system, which is foreign to and hateful to the constitution of these realms"

4.12 Like a thief in the night

Part of the Lunacy achievement of the Inquiry years (1842-1845) was a massive increase in centralisation (see 5.3.4), comparable to that achieved by the Poor Law Commission from 1834.

The 1845 Acts finished the process off and turned the new machinery from one of inspection and information gathering into an engine of national transformation: the agency under whose auspices asylums for the lunatic poor would rise on green fields from Denbigh in North Wales to Warley in Essex and from Hampshire in the south of England to Northumberland in the far north.

As we turn to look more closely at the process of transformation it is as well to remember that tiny minority of MPs who condemned the process as un- English and un-constitutional. Notice how lost and how unreasonable their voices sound. What had they to hold on to? What evidence had they of this new tyrant that had stolen in on the autonomy of local government in England and Wales? When had anyone said "we are going to create a new government department to control the affairs of the Justice of the Peace with respect to the lunatic poor."? The Commission had come like a thief in the night. In 1841 it was not there, in 1845 it was there and all that Ashley and Graham sought to do was to extend its powers. "It is not the same commission!" Ashley called out to Duncombe. And he was right.

© Andrew Roberts 1981-

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Thomas Slingsby Duncombe (1796-1861) After a period as Whig MP for Hertford (1826-1832), Duncombe's political views became more radical. On 1.7.1834 he was elected (in the place of Robert Grant who was appointed governor of Bombay) for the newly created borough of Finsbury. He joined Thomas Wakley as one of the two Finsbury MPs - on the radical liberal fringe. Often their views coincided - but Wakley was a doctor concerned with developing medical care whereas Duncombe was a civil libertarian. Both MPs were sympathisers with the chartists. In 1841 Duncombe moved a motion for the merciful consideration of all political offenders then imprisoned in England and Wales. On 2.5.1842 he presented the People's Charter to Parliament.