The Lunacy Commission as a government department
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The Lunacy Commission as a government department

The first part of this chapter summarised the functions of the Lunacy Commission and the relevant legislation.

This part describes the Lunacy Commission as a Government Department. It looks at the powers of the Commission, and how the Commission related to other government departments.

The analysis is mainly based on the activities of the Lunacy Commission during the first four and a half years of its operation from 1845 to the end of 1849.

The beginning outlines the first meetings of the Lunacy Commission, and how the new functions emerge in the minutes. I then outline the order in which the commission gained powers and responsibilities in its development from a local Metropolitan licensing agency (1828) to a national Lunacy Commission (1845). After this, I show how the scope and authority of the commission were not adequately described in the 1844 Report, by Lord Ashley to Parliament or in the Bills themselves. The Acts do not give a true picture of of the commission's activities with respect to planning and creating rules for the new asylums, which I deal with next. After this I look at the commission's task of overseeing the planned cure of pauper lunacy and its responsibilities with respect to lunatics in workhouses and outdoor relief. Finally, I examine the relationship of the Lunacy Commission to other government departments and the respective roles in the commission of honorary and professional members.

The growth and change in the Physician, Metropolitan and Lunacy Commission over the whole period from 1774 to 1849 is looked at in the following part and the activities of the Lunacy Commission over a longer period than the focus of this thesis is touched on in several of the biographies of Lunacy Commissioners, notable those of Ashley, Barlow, Gaskell, Gordon,

In relation to the paucity of material for earlier periods, a wealth of data survives from 1845. In particular we have the hand written minutes of the Lunacy Commission and its printed Annual Reports.

Lunacy Commission Meetings and New Functions

The Metropolitan Commission met for the last time on 1.8.1845 and "by agreement" the commissioners met as the Lunacy Commission on Thursday 14.8.1845. There was so much business for the first meeting that much of it was adjourned to Friday 15.8.1845, when the Commission decided the pattern of its meetings and office organisation. The minutes are those of an ongoing organisation that has accumulated more responsibilities. Items concerning licensed houses intersperse with items respecting organisation. Their new responsibilities are indicated first by the production of circulars and forms. 14.8.1845: Resolved that in reply to questions upon points of law or construction of Acts - Secretary answer generally in a form to be drawn up". Form of circular to proprietors of licensed houses agreed. 15.8.1845: Form of advertisement respecting "patients singly confined" agreed. To be inserted twice at a week's interval in The Lancet, Medical Journal, Times, Standard, Morning Chronicle and London Gazette. Form of circular to Visiting Justices agreed. Hospitals Circular to Medical Superintendents adopted. Clerk of Peace Circular adopted. The Secretary to submit to the Board his views as to new forms or alterations to existing forms of official books and registers.

Shaw and Sons, Lord Ashley and the Commission's printers, published annotated Acts of Parliament. They asked the Board to sanction Lutwidge editing the Lunacy Acts. Instead (15.8.1845) the Secretary was to "offer to render any assistance to Mr Lumley, Assistant Secretary to the Poor Law Commissioners". William Golden Lumley had already edited Poor Law Statutes and the Factory Acts, and was to go on to publish Lumley's Public Health Acts. The New Lunacy Acts was published within the year, providing those who had to administer the Acts with a handy, indexed book, with notes clarifying difficult parts, and an extract for the 1844 Report explaining the different forms of insanity.

On 20.8.1845, with Procter in the chair, there being no honorary commissioners present, they considered the question of visiting workhouses. They corresponded with Lumley over the location of workhouses and, on 27.8.1845 (Ashley back in the chair) they read a circular he had drafted to send to Boards of Guardians. The legal commissioners were asked to look at this. On 4.9.1845 Procter and Mylne were to order printed forms with respect to enquiries to made with reference to the insane in workhouses.

On 4.9.1845 they considered the headings for their new Register of Hospitals. This was to record the name and address of each hospital, the date it was established, how it was governed, the name of the medical superintendent, the accommodation for private patients and the accommodation for paupers, and how the hospital was supported.

On the same day they asked the medical commissioners to prepare a form for the new Medical Case Book. Lutwidge was asked to write to the Home Office Office for a copy of the case book in use in Pentonville Prison.

On 24.9.1845 they read letters about plans, contracts and arrangements respecting the Derbyshire Asylum. This was the first day that the Master in Lunacy had attended, and some of the business was settling procedures respecting Chancery Lunatics.

On 2.10.1845 they considered a problem about the interpretation of the County Asylums Act outlined by the Guardians of Totnes Union, with the Poor Law Commission forwarded to them. It was to be a major issue. One interpretation of the Act (see law) was that every pauper lunatic or idiot was to be sent to a workhouse. The size of this problem that would be becomes apparent the moment one remembers that the new asylums had not yet been built. The reply drafted by Procter was that "Commissioners concur with Guardians that those lunatics and idiots only are required to be sent to asylums who are certified as not only of unsound mind but also proper to be confined". The Government law officers eventually supported the interpretation that every pauper lunatic or idiot was to be sent to a workhouse (see law).

On 9.10.1845 The Board read a letter from Shropshire Asylum asking if they proposed to draw up general rules for county asylums. They pointed to the letter of the law that this was not their responsibility but the Home Secretary's. On 9.10.1845 they read a letter from S.M. Phillips, for the Home Secretary, asking that the commissioners "cause a standard code of Regulations for County and Borough lunatic Asylums to be prepared" and transmitted to him.

At the same meeting they also read a letter from S.M. Phillips at the Home Office advising them that the Home Office had no document with names a stituations of gaols in which there were lunatics, but the provisions of the 1840 Insane prisoners Act, authorising the transfer of insane prisoners to lunatic asylums were believed to be generally complied with.


The Lunacy Commission was the Metropolitan Commission with new functions and powers. The Commissioners were not greatly changed (see first Lunacy Commissioners and Secretary) and the scale of operations had already been transformed during the Inquiry (see the period of change from a London to a national commission), but most of the Lunacy Commission's powers and functions were acquired in 1845 (see summary of principal functions and the table below).




London houses
1842 County houses and county asylums

Hospitals (except Bethlem) as required by the Lord Chancellor or Home Secretary

1845 Registered hospitals (without special sanction)

Workhouses and gaols with lunatics

Single houses (by Private Committee)

Any other place (including Bethlem) where a lunatic might be confined, as required by the Lord Chancellor or Home Secretary.



Licensing and enforcement with respect to London houses and power to release patients in them.
1842 Power to release patients from county houses an ambiguously worded power to enforce various acts
1845 A diverse range of powers and responsibilities covering, in different ways, all places (Bethlem excepted, except as above) in which lunatics might be kept.
Notable new powers were:

a) Power to recommend revocation or prevention of renewal of a county licence.

b) Responsibilities with respect to the plans (and, in practice, the rules) of county asylums.

c) Power to release people from registered hospitals.

d) Power to recommend a patient's removal from a Single house

e) General enforcement powers respecting the provisions of the 1845 Lunacy and County Asylums Acts.

Scope and authority of Lunacy Commission greater than described

Controlling London madhouses had been the Metropolitan Commission's only significant function, at least until 1837 (see Central records and national interests), hence its title.

The Inquiry Commission had visited County houses, County Asylums, Hospitals and some workhouses nationally, but although able to exercise influence, it had no formal powers outside London apart from being able to release patients from county houses (see law) . Control remained with the JPs (see 4.3 following) and the Poor Law Authorities until 1845.

It was not made clear in the 1844 Report; in Ashley's speeches on the 1845 Bills; or even in the Act itself that a commission of the scope and authority I have summarised was envisaged.

The 1844 Report's Suggestions for the Amendment of the Law made only three recommendations specifically relating to the need for a central board:

9. "That the Sites, Plans, and Estimates for every County Asylum hereafter to be erected, be referred to some Board or authority, constituted for the visitation and supervision of Lunatics, for the purpose of receiving suggestions, previously to the final adoption thereof by the Magistrates."

13. + 25: "That, with a view, amongst other things, to the formation of a complete Register of the Insane" notices and an annual statement of admission, discharge and death of certified patients should be sent to the Metropolitan board.

16. That all asylums and hospitals for the Insane should be subject to official visitation.

Ashley presented the Bills in a piecemeal fashion, itemising the amendment to existing legislation proposed. No mention of the overall transformation of the degree of Government intervention was made at any stage - apart from making it clear that the Counties were to be compelled to provide asylums. The spirit was one of cautious amendment to established legislation:

The second Bill.. will be an extension of the" [1828 County Asylum Act]. "We have.. been scrupulous in departing as little as possible from its provisions." (Hansard 6.6.1845 col 186)

The establishment of the full-time salaried commission was presented as a financial retrenchment, a control on the excessive expenditure occasioned by the 1842 Inquiry Act:

The first of the Bills.. will establish a permanent Commission, and thereby secure the entire services of competent persons. It will give the power of more detailed and frequent visitation and fix the limits of expense, now regularly increasing. (Hansard 6.6.1845 col 182)

In 5.3 I use the information Ashley presented to illustrate this point, in order to show the curves of the Commission's increasing activity before, during and after the Inquiry.

The extent to which the Commission (established under the Lunacy Act) had acquired new powers rested in a large part on the extent to which it was to regulate the activities of JPs under the County Asylums Act. Ashley seems to have striven not to present the bills as a unity. The one bill was:

to provide for pauper lunatics, and the other to render permanent the Commission, and provide rules for private asylums, and for general visitation. (Hansard 11.7.1845 col. 401)
The link between the two, mentioned once, was that:

To assist magistrates in erecting asylums and ascertaining the proportionate numbers of curable and chronic lunatics, and providing separate buildings for them, and for diminishing the expense of building asylums, the plans are to be submitted to the Commissioners in Lunacy; and the estimates to the Secretary of State. (Hansard 6.6.1845 col.187)

Even when, as I have done in the legal summary, the Acts are presented together, the Commission's role remains ambiguous: it was to advise the Home Office on plans for County Asylums and Contract Houses, but not on the estimates or the General Rules (see law).

This is misleading: In practice everything concerning County Asylum provision was referred to the commission for their consideration and report, before the Home Secretary approved or disapproved it. The commission's minutes record, for example, on 6.8.1846, that the Home Office had submitted proposed General Rules for Nottinghamshire and Hanwell, and on 28.8.1846 the proposed rules for Cheshire and Cornwall. Estimates were considered by the Commission and its architects along with plans (See County Asylums Plans and Rules). The distinctions in the Act had no practical significance and it is clear from the Commission's minutes that the Home Secretary dealt with his responsibilities under the County Asylum Act through the medium of the commission (*). When the Home Secretary made his first decision on the basis of the commission's report, the question arose whether the commission or the Home Office should communicate it to the JPs. The Home Secretary, it was noted, thought the commission should. (MH 50. 23.7.1846. Disapproval of Derby County Asylum Plans).

Generally Home Secretaries endorsed the opinion of the commission' reports; although when this conflicted with the JPs there could be strong pressure on him to overrule the Commission, and on at least one occasion (respecting plans for the new Middlesex County Asylum), he did so.

(*) The 1890 Lunacy Act contains a general clause which reflects the long- established practice:

s.272: "For the purpose of procuring the approval of a Secretary of State for any agreement, contract, or plan requiring approval under the Act" [it] "shall be submitted to the Commissioners, and to the Secretary of State, and the Commissioners shall.. report thereon to the Secretary of State, who may approve the agrement, contract or plan, with or without modification, or may refuse his approval."

5.2.2 County Asylum Plans and Rules


In October 1845 the commission received a suggestion (initiated by an architect) that they might consider appointing a consultant architect (MH 50. 31.10.1845). This was obviously taken seriously for in May 1846 the Home Office approved their doing so (MH 50. 6.5.1846).

In view of the claims that existing County Asylums had been designed and built on too costly a scale (4.8.5 + 4.11) the selection of Mr Moffat of Scott and Moffat as the Lunacy Commission's consultant architect is significant (MH 50. 26.5.1846). This firm were experienced workhouse architects, who, Wildman says, had

effectively cornered a large part of the market in workhouse design in the central and southern areas of England. (Quoted in Longmate, N. 1974 p.287)

Moffat had competed unsuccessfully for the design of Derby County Asylum and was therefore embarrassed when its plans were submitted to him as the Commission's consultant. To avoid such problems it was decided to retain three architects instead of one. A Mr Elms and a Mr Mosley were appointed, and the Derby plans were sent to Elms. (MH 50. 4.6.1846)

All plans and estimates for County asylums were sent to the consultant architects for their opinion (1847 Report (B)). At first, it appears, they were sent without guidance on how they should be evaluated because on 25.6.1846 a request from Elms for specific instructions was minuted and on the following week it was noted that the architects were to confer about some general rules (MH 50. 1.7.1846).

With the assistance of the architects the Commission drew up a set of general rules for County Asylum construction consisting of rules to be observed in selecting the site; a set of suggestions about design; and specifications for the plans, maps and contract details that the JPs should supply to the commission. These were printed and circulated to Asylum Committees in November or December 1846. With them went advice to the architects for County Asylums that if they attended to the suggestions it would

prevent the delay that might otherwise arise from returning plans.. for alteration.

In April 1847 Asylum Committees were told that they need not submit plans in such a finished state, and that this would save labour and expense in alterations when the commission objected to them. It was suggested preliminary plans should be kept in pencil and an ink tracing sent to the commission, so that alterations the Commission suggested could be made without delay or expense. (1847 Report (B) p.32 + appendix E. MH50 12.11.1846)

5.2.3 Pauper lunatics

Pauper lunacy had been the central theme of the 1844 Report of the Metropolitan Commission, which had recommended that every County should have a "Hospital" to receive "all recent cases" of insanity amongst its "insane poor", and had spoken of the need to remove chronic patients from these asylums. Concerned about dangerous lunatics in workhouses (who might be recent or chronic), Home Secretary Graham had said the government would ensure asylums were provided for both "incipient lunacy" and the long term care and custody of chronic lunatics.

By the 1845 County Asylums Act it was sought that eventually all pauper lunatics should be treated in County Asylums provided by the JPs. The programme was to be enforced and controlled by Central Government which was to provide most of the funds as a loan (see law), and to approve the plans. It could determine the General Rules, and enforce the Act on any recalcitrant JPs via the courts (see law).

The Lunacy Commission was the Government department which, under the Ministerial authority of the Home Secretary , oversaw the great scheme for the cure of pauper lunacy that Ashley had outlined in the House of Commons. It monitored County Asylum provision and it monitored the transfer of pauper lunatics from licensed houses, workhouses and outdoor relief to County Asylums. Because it reported to the Home Secretary on an asylum's General Rules (see law), it also monitored the management of County Asylums and their system of treatment.

Masterminding the County Asylums scheme, and dealing with the major problems that arose in its implementation, was initially the Commission's central function., its roles respecting licensed houses and paupers in workhouses being closely related.

The census of the insane in the 1844 Report had shown that the majority of pauper lunatics were in licensed houses or workhouses, or were on outdoor relief (see table). Clearly they could not be sent to County Asylums until the JPs provided them. The 1845 County Asylums Act, however required that those in workhouses or on outdoor relief were to be admitted immediately to an asylum.: if not to a County Asylum then to a licensed house or hospital (see law) Initially, therefore, large numbers of pauper lunatics had to be taken into licensed houses whilst the County Asylums were built.

This part of the programme obviously had to be vigorously controlled. Where JPs made contracts with licensed houses to take their pauper lunatics, the Home Secretary approved the contract on the commission's report, and the contract house became subject to County Asylum and licensed house controls. This meant that Commission had more control, because whilst the JPs retained immediate licensing control, the commission had acquired ultimate control over County licensing because the Lord Chancellor, on its recommendation, could revoke or prevent JPs renewing a licence.

In all licensed houses and hospitals the commission could determine the pauper lunatics' diet.

Pauper lunatics in workhouses and outdoor relief.

The Commission was the undisputed central authority with respect to all asylums. The paupers, in workhouses and on outdoor relief, who were to be sent to those asylums, however, were already the responsibility of the Poor Law Commission. With respect to them the two Commissions had to work closely together.

We have seen how, during the Inquiry years, co-operation had already been established between the two Commissions over the production of statistics.

The Lunacy Commission received the returns from the Poor Law medical officers of which paupers they deemed lunatic . Lunacy Commissioners regularly visited pauper lunatics who remained in workhouses and reports of their visits were sent to the Poor Law Commission (see law).

The Poor Law Commission, in its turn, referred reports from its own sources concerning lunatics to the Lunacy Commission. Of necessity the control of the local poor law authorities was a joint responsibility of both Government departments.

5.2.4 Ministerial Responsibility

The question of who the Lunacy Commission was responsible to was a problem even for contemporise. In Committee on the Lunacy Bill, Duncombe said they ought to have:

"paid Commissioners responsible to the Government and the country, and not men who were part amateurs and part professional, and who were responsible to nobody"

Wakley believed one commissioner, "who should be responsible to the Home Office for his actions", would do more good than the commission as it was composed.

Duncombe objected to any honorary commissioners

"He could see no advantage in having one of the Commissioners in the House; it would not make the Board more responsible. He wished to see them responsible to the Lord Chancellor or the Secretary of State"

Hansard 15.7.1845 cols 525-527

In fact the commission was responsible to both (in law and in practice) on different issues. If they had been appointed by the Home Secretary, as the Metropolitan Commission was from 1828 to 1832, and the Home Secretary had retained his other responsibilities under the 1828 Act, the situation would have been more straightforward, for the bulk of the commission's activities were primarily Home Office concerns. This is reflected in the Lunacy Commission's preferred choice for the location of its office, in the vicinity of Whitehall, close to the Home Office and other departments of administrative government.

Because of the political sensitivity of any investigation of the affairs of the rich, however, the appointments were transferred to the Lord Chancellor in 1832 (See 3.5). The same and related issues probably explain the continuation of this arrangement (See case of Mrs Henry Howard, for example). The commission had a judicial function, its activities infringed on issues of property and liberty that sometimes led to high-profile court cases (see 1858, 1872 and 1884), and some consistency was needed between its activities respecting lunacy and those traditionally belonging to the Lord Chancellor.

However, the pattern of departmental relations, outlined below, shows how lop-sided this arrangement was in term of the numbers of lunatics each Minister was responsible for.

Home Secretary


Poor Law Commission

Lord Chancellor


Lunacy Commission

Chancery Visitors

Poor Law Commission

Reported to the Home Secretary

Responsible for paupers, including pauper lunatics

Lunacy Commission

Reported to the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor

Responsible for Pauper Lunatics, Chancery Lunatics and all other lunatics

Chancery Visitors

Reported to the Lord Chancellor

Responsible for Chancery Lunatics

number of in 1845 pauper lunatics other lunatics chancery lunatics
in asylums 7,482 3,790 233
elsewhere 9,339 not known 282
total 16,821 not known 515

But, whoever had made the appointments, the commission would have had responsibilities to different Ministries. With respect to military and naval lunatics, for example, it reported to the War Office and the Admiralty (M50 -.-.-). Its activities infringed on several Ministries and departments and so it was, in fact, convenient that the commission had a semi-autonomous mature, and a chairman in one of the Houses of Parliament who preformed a quasi Ministerial function.

One reason the appointment of commissioners by the Lord Chancellor persisted after the acquisition of responsibilities under the 1845 County Asylums Act, must, I believe, have been because it was of little practical importance. It may even have been a convenient fiction that the Lord Chancellor appointed commissioners. Consider these named in the 1845 Lunacy Act. Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst told the House of Lords

"they were not named by him, but with his approbation" (Hansard 29.7.1845 col.1189)

A few days before, Ashkey had denied that "any arrangement had been made" between himself and those nominated for the offices, whereas Graham, the Home Secretary, had said he "was anxious" the commissioners named be continued in the commission and "would take upon himself all responsibility of having recommended these appointment to the Lord Chancellor" (Hansard 15.7.1845 cols 527-529)

5.2.5 Roles of honorary and professional commissioners

The Lunacy Commission was a professional commission on which the honorary commissioners served principally as Board members.

There was a maximum of five places for honorary commissioners (law) not all of which were always filled (see chart and evidence of Lutwidge in 1859 and Phillips in 1877)

In practice the part that each honorary commissioner played in the affairs of the commission varied considerably from commissioner to commissioner. Their attendance at meetings can be used as an index of this. The following table shows the attendance of each at boards during the first four and a half years of the Lunacy Commission.

Table 1. Commissioners Meeting attendance and Chairmanship, August 1845 to December 1848

The figures for 1845 are for the 5 months starting August. Other years are for 12 months.

  1845 1846 1847 1848 sum
Meetings held 28 68 86 54 236
Number of meetings attended by:
Ashley. 24 51 56 33 164
Ashley chaired all the meetings he attended
Seymour 2 33 24 3 62
Seymour chaired:   11 4 1 16
Gordon 8 17 22 26 73
Gordon chaired 1 2   2 5
Vernon Smith 0 14 14 3 31
Barlow 4 4 2 6 16
Barlow chaired   1     1
Dr Hume 14 36 42 27 119
Dr Turner 18 45 60 34 157
Dr Prichard 14 49 68 37 168
Procter 22 54 61 38 175
Procter chaired: 1 3 11 9 24
Mylne 21 45 66 43 175
Mylne chaired: 1 1 13 8 23
Hall 4       4
Campbell 4 48 61 37 150
The number of chairings of meetings does not match the number of meetings because sometimes the chair is not recorded and at other times, when one chair leaves early, there are two chairs to one meeting. The total meetings for 1847 include one where those present were not listed

Ashley always chaired meetings if he was present which, as can be seen, he was more often than not. Initially, if Ashley was absent and another honorary commissioner was present, an honorary commissioner chaired. If no honorary commissioner was present, Procter or Mylne took the chair. Later they tended to chair (in Ashley's absence) even if another honorary commissioner was present.

Table 2. Number of meetings at which there were four, three, two, one and no honorary commisioners present:
  number of meetings
  1845 1846 1847 1848 sum
four present 0 5 7 0 12
three present 1 9 8 4 22
two present 11 21 20 20 72
one present 13 30 26 19 98
none present 3 3 24 11 41
meetings: 28 68 85 54 245

Seasonal Attendance of honorary commissioners

The participation of honorary members in the affairs of the commission was seasonal. January to July was the town season. From August to December, when Parliament rarely sat and the gentry and nobility were usually out of town, the affairs of the commission were left much more to the professional commissioners. The following tables show the attendance at meetings of the honorary commissioners during this off season:

Table 3. Honorary Commissioners Meeting attendance in the Off Season.

Number of meetings attended August to December
  1845 1846 1847 1848
Ashley 24 22 14 14
Seymour 2 9 2 1
Gordon 8 2 0 4
R. V. Smith 0 1 0 0
Barlow 4 1 0 4
Totals 38 35 16 24
Preceding 5 months - 52 80 38

Table 4. Meetings Attended by no, one and more Commissioners in the Off Season.

No meeting was attended by more than two honorary commissioners except for one in November 1845 that was attended by Ashley. Gordon and Seymour.

  Number of meetings
Attended by 1845 1846 1847 1848
More than one 12 7 1 8
Ashley only 12 16 13 3
Seymour only 0 3 1 1
Gordon only 1 1 0 0
Barlow only 0 1 0 0
None 3 2 20 8
Meetings 28 30 35 22
Preceding 5 months - 27 34 25

Table 5. Known official visits to asylums by honorary commissioners

20.11.1839 visit to an unknown asylum by Seymour

18.11.1844 Peckham visited by Ashley and others (six hours) (Hodder)

23.8.1845 Kingsdowne House visited by Gordon, Turner and Procter

15.7.1846 Hoxton House visited by Gordon, Seymour and others

January 1849 St Luke's Workhouse visited by Gordon and Procter (See Edmund Halswell's communication )

16.4.1850 St Luke's visited by Gordon, Procter and Gaskell

10.1.1852 Hayes Park visited by Gordon, Ashley and Gaskell

Next part: Growth and change in the lunacy commission 1774-1849

© Andrew Roberts 1981-

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