Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Lunatic Asylum Records

The records of more than 840,000 patients committed to British mental institutions during the 19th and early 20th century have been collected by Ancestry.com.  The Lunacy Registers and Warrants 1820 - 1912 were digitised from records held at the National Archives in Kew, West London.  Each record contains the patient's name, institution name, admission date, death/discharge date and - in many cases - the reason for being transferred to the institution and past crimes committed. 

The admission records and warrant books were compiled by the Lunacy Commission, which was set up in 1845 to oversee the country's growing network of asylums.  They detail people who were either transferred from prisons on grounds of insanity or found not guilty and sent to asylums instead.  By the end of the nineteenth century there were over 300 mental institutions in the UK, some of which are still in operation today.  These include Bethlem Royal Hospital, where the word 'bedlam' originated and Hanwell Asylum, which is best known for its revolutionary and humane approach to the treatment and rehabilitation of those affected by mental disorders.

Within the collection are some of Victorian Britain's most notorious violent criminals who were judged not guilty of their crimes by virtue of their insanity.  They include Aaron Kosminski who has recently had been considered, though discounted, as being Jack the Ripper.  The Polish Jew emigrated to the UK in 1881 and worked as a barber in London's East End before being committed to Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in 1891 for lewd behaviour.

As well as more serious crimes, many of the people committed to these institutions were housed there for long spells after being found guilty of relatively minor offences.  This includes women like Elizabeth James who was sent to an asylum simply for 'being disorderly' and Jane Smith who found herself committed in 1821 for stealing two blankets.  The records also reveals how many patients tragically died in institutions after spending most of their lives locked up.  One patient, Elias Rosenthal, lived at Rubery Asylum in Birmingham for a total of 59 years until her death.

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