The Committal of an Insane Relative

Cara Dobbing is a second year PhD student at the Centre for Medical Humanities, University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the previously un-researched Victorian institution, the Cumberland and Westmorland Joint Lunatic Asylum, Carlisle – also called ‘Garlands’ after the estate it was constructed on. Her thesis will centre on the latter half of the nineteenth century, and specifically examine how the pauper patients of Garlands were circulated in and out of the asylum. Her blog details some of the stories she has unearthed during her research: You can also follow her on twitter: @caradobbing

The rapid expansion of the county lunatic asylum network in the latter half of the nineteenth century has attracted a vast array of attention from historians in recent decades. However, often overlooked by many institutional histories of the Victorian asylum is the role of a patient’s family in their admission, discharge and treatment whilst in such an establishment. In my latest chapter of my PhD I am attempting to redress this imbalance by recounting the stories of the pauper patients of the Garlands Asylum, Carlisle, to ascertain the role their families played. This blog post is going to examine one part of the family involvement by looking specifically at the admission process.

 In the first instance of an illness, be it mental or physical, the family have always been, and often remain, the primary caregivers for their relatives. For centuries prior to the introduction of the county lunatic asylum network in the Victorian era, the treatment of a mental condition was administered in the family home. As the asylum became increasingly regarded as an institution of care, families became increasingly willing to admit their relatives. Thus, as Adair, Melling and Forsythe assert, the lunacy legislation of the nineteenth-century signalled an intervention into family life, as it allowed for the lunatic population to be shifted from the private to the public sphere.[1]

 A reception order was a document required for admission to an asylum, as defined by the 1845 Lunacy Act.


In cases where patients were admitted from the family home, this document carried signatures from a medical practitioner, and from a relative, usually the male next of kin. Interestingly, the reception orders provided an equal amount of space for the patient’s family and the doctor to give a first-hand account of the ‘indications of insanity’ as displayed by the patient. This information was relayed to the medical officer by, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a female relative, as they were the primary caregivers and experienced first-hand the instances of insanity displayed by their relative.[2] The indications of insanity given by relatives provide us with a fascinating insight into what behaviours and symptoms constituted insanity in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Often these included violent and unruly behaviour; threatening to commit suicide, the destruction of property, and threatening to harm/kill close relatives. One instance of violent behaviour was detailed on the reception order of Ann Donachy, admitted to the Garlands Asylum on 27 April 1886, her husband and daughter told the medical officer;

…that she is very violent at times, striking her hands on the wall and gets up at night to destroy herself. Tries to burn her bed, to get at knives to cut her throat and goes upstairs to throw herself out of [the] window. Is constantly crying to be put out of [her] misery.[3]

Another example from the records of the Garlands Asylum was David McAdams, admitted 20 February 1889. His mother, Mary Ann, was listed as his next of kin, in the absence of his father and any older male siblings, and detailed the indications of David’s insanity. Her comments can be seen in the picture below.


We can ascertain that she had attempted to cope but admission to the Garlands Asylum signalled the final straw as she was no longer able to care for him domestically. She had resorted to shutting him in a back room in an attempt to combat his erratic gestures. Thus, the trigger for admitting an insane relative was borne out of a display of uncharacteristic behaviour. In the case of David, he was stated as being ‘a steadily-working, good-lad; a Sunday school teacher and well-spoken’, and in the space of a couple of months he began using bad language, became violent, and refused to eat.[4]

One final example from the Garlands Asylum was Elizabeth Parker, admitted 19 February 1893 for displaying violent tendencies towards members of her family. In the absence of relatives, the indication of her insanity was given by her lodging house keeper, Peter Nugent:

Elizabeth Parker spent last night in his house and at an early hour this morning she began singing hymns and talking religious nonsense. She could not be kept quiet. He says she has been in this state for a week at least. She attempted to throw her child in the river Caldew [in Carlisle] and does not seem to realise the act.[5]

 Here, the violent act inflicted upon her child was the trigger for Elizabeth’s committal to the asylum. The singing and incessant talking at night were not deemed serious enough to immediately seek the help of the local asylum doctors; rather, it was the display of cruelty towards her own offspring which was the true characteristic of a mental affliction.

These indications of insanity are a minute sample of thousands of others which exist for the patients admitted to the Garlands Asylum. However, they all represent a breakdown in the family’s ability to cope with mental illness, as the assistance of the asylum doctors was required. The stigma attached to admitting an insane family member was declining slightly in this era as the burgeoning psychiatric profession gained a greater degree of legitimacy as the county asylum network expanded.

This blog post has offered a small insight into my PhD research, which aims to tell as many ‘stories from below’ as possible in order to provide a voice to the paupers who became patients at the Garlands Asylum from the 1860s onwards. The research into the family and their role in the committal of an insane relative forms a small part of just one of my chapters which will offer a new area of asylum history.

[1] R. Adair, B. Forsythe and J. Melling, ‘Families, Communities and the Legal Regulation of Lunacy in Victorian England: Assessments of Crime, Violence and Welfare in Admissions to the Devon Asylum, 1845-1914’, in P. Bartlett and D. Wright (eds), Outside the Walls of the Asylum (London: Athlone Press, 1999), p. 165.

[2] D. Wright, Mental Disability in Victorian England : The Earlswood Asylum, 1847-1901 (Oxford, 2001), p. 48; See also D. Wright, ‘Familial Care of “Idiot” Children in Victorian England’, in P. Horden and R. Smith (eds), The Locus of Care, p. 182.

[3] Cumbria Archive Centre Carlisle (CACC henceforth), Reception Orders 1886, THOS 8/4/1/28.

[4] CACC, Reception Orders 1889, THOS 8/4/1/31.

[5] CACC, Reception Orders 1893, THOS 8/4/1/35.


One response to “The Committal of an Insane Relative

  1. Dear Cara, you may be interested in my own work. My PhD thesis examined the mundane work of the Cumberland and Westmorland police 1856-1900. My research, like yours, is a bottom up project. I was particularly interested in how the police handled vagrants and drunks, and to this end I trawled through many police records. Kirkby Stephen, Kirkby Lonsdale, Maryport and Grayrigg featured strongly, because the survival of records was good in those places. I found a few ‘wandering lunatics’, the police terminology that was used at the time. These unfortunates were picked up by police and discharged into the custody either of family or to Garlands. If you wish, I could extract the Kirkby Stephen ‘lunatics’ for you from my spreadsheet. You may be able to correlate them with records at Garlands.
    Let me know if I can be of any help.
    Yours, Guy Woolnough, Keele Uni

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