250 years ago (1763 in case you’re not reading this in 2013), the British Government set up a Select Committee to investigate the unlawful detention of perfectly sane people in private ‘madhouses’. The Committee Chair was a Member of Parliament called Thomas Townshend Jnr, who would spend the next eleven years trying to legislate against locking up people who weren’t actually ill.
The impetus for this was some public concern and an anonymous article printed in The Gentleman’s Magazine, called ‘A Case Humbly Offered to the Consideration of Parliament’. This article sketched the case of a person without any mental health problems who was “forcefully taken or artfully decoyed into a private madhouse”, to be “seized upon by a set of inhuman ruffians,…stripped naked and conveyed to a dark-room.”
Private madhouses were established for people who were able to pay, but even they were run on the belief that people with mental illnesses were sub-human and should be punished.
The two madhouses the Select Committee chose to investigate thoroughly – out of roughly 45 across England – were both in London. The first, Hoxton House in what is now east central London, had come to public attention in the 1750s, when a Mrs Gold secured a magistrate’s help in getting her daughter-in-law released. Mrs Gold’s son had admitted his wife there, despite there being no evidence that she was in fact a lunatic. Hopefully Mrs Gold Jnr left her husband after Mrs Gold Snr helped her out, though, this being the 18th century, she probably didn’t.
The second madhouse was in Chelsea, south west London, and run by a Mr Turlington. Mr Turlington’s house constituted a large part of the Committee’s final report because of his treatment of Mrs Hawley, who was a ‘patient’ there for a month in 1762 before a friend secured her release.
Mr Turlington, in time-honoured fashion, refused to take any responsibility for Mrs Hawley’s admission, saying he didn’t deal directly with house management and left it to his agent, Mr King. He did say though that nobody was to be turned away, and Mr King agreed that he never “refused any persons who were brought upon any pretence whatsoever, provided they could pay for their board”.
Ah, so there it is. Money. According to the Select Committee’s report, charges at Chelsea ranged from £20 to £60 per year depending on the diet and rooms their loving families chose. Turlington and King said they sometimes took people on just as ‘lodgers’, though there wasn’t much difference. Poor Mrs Smith, whose husband had committed her because “he alleged that the neighbours were afraid she would set the house on fire” was viewed as a lodger but wasn’t allowed out of the house.
Her husband paid Turlington six guineas a year.
It was worryingly easy to keep people confined; Turlington admitted that no doctors ever visited, and there was no register of inmates. House rules also forbade letters between inmates and family and friends.
Brilliantly, King told the Committee that in six years of working there he had never admitted any lunatics. The Select Committee found people admitted for drunkenness, violent tempers, marital indifference, and by parents in order to break off unwanted relationships.
Turlington’s place was “in no degree a selected case”. Despite that, it wasn’t until 1774 that Thomas Townshend finally persuaded Parliament to pass the Madhouses Act, an Act which required all private madhouses in England to be licensed and reviewed annually, with financial penalties for admitting patients with no doctor’s referral.