‘The insane were not only a source of public entertainment; they were also an object lesson where immorality could lead.’ 

Throughout history, terms of madness such as ‘lunatic’, ‘idiot’, and ‘feeble-minded’ have appeared on the records of both men and women. Yet some historians argue women were especially vulnerable to incarceration — particularly when placed in the asylum by husbands or fathers. Causes of madness often differed between men and women.

For centuries, female hysteria was a common medical diagnosis, with women forced to undergo treatment simply for having shown signs of shortness of breath, fluid retention or even just ‘a tendency to cause trouble.’ Others were hospitalised for showing ‘symptoms’, including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, heaviness in the abdomen or irritability.

One of the oldest such institutions was Bethlem, which began in 1247 as part of the Priory of the New Order of our Lady of Bethlehem in London. The word bedlam, meaning uproar and confusion, is derived from the Bethlem Royal Hospital’s name. The hospital became a modern psychiatric facility, but historically it represented the worst excesses of asylums in the era of lunacy reform. Affluent Londoners could see the unfortunate inmates, laugh at them, abuse them, or watch them tortured. Outings to see them were so commonplace as not to need explanation.

Before establishing lunatic asylums in the mid-19th century, people were dealt with locally under the poor law, vagrancy law or criminal law. Though planned as a refuge for the sick, mental asylums operated more like a correctional institution than a treatment facility. This perhaps stemmed from the fact that not just the ill lived in the site. As prisons became congested, criminals often carried out their sentence in asylums, while others used the institution as a dumping ground for unwanted dependents.

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The Victorian Era ushered in several significant changes regarding medicine and the treatment of the ill. Unfortunately, for many, asylums were prisons disguised as hospitals. It was a convenient way to remove the poor and incurable from society, and for those with money, private madhouses were often convenient dumping grounds for unwanted wives.

The keepers were little more than guards, and it was not uncommon for patients to be kept in chains or other restraints for most of the time. The extent to which they used restraints varied from one asylum to another, but they were accepted as a necessary part of mental healthcare. 

The Lunacy Act largely drove the growth in the number of asylums. This act meant that Counties were legally obliged to provide an asylum for people with mental deficiencies. Between the passing of the act in 1845 and 1890, over sixty asylums were built. They subsequently built a further forty. Eventually, asylum numbers reached a peak in the 1950s with over one hundred hospitals and approximately 150,000 patients in England and Wales.

In the past, the insane were told unclean spirits possessed them. To cure it was therefore necessary to dislodge the offending spirit. Such beliefs had at least two unfortunate consequences. The first was that no advance was made in understanding mental illness. The second was that many thousands of men, women and children, already burdened with madness, were confined in chains and subjected to routine torture. The idea was by making the environment sufficiently uncomfortable, the torturers might induce the possessing spirit to leave its human host.

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They endured dreadful torments. They were imprisoned, chained to a wall, flogged, starved, insulted, tortured, immersed in iced water and otherwise brutalised. It also seems safe to assume that sexual abuse would have been commonplace in view of twentieth century disclosures about monasteries, church schools, orphanages and state mental asylums.

The church often used mental asylums as prisons. Anyone the Church did not like, or did not approve of, could be imprisoned without trial in an asylum, and then tortured and abused at will. Victims ranged from critics of Church, unmarried mothers and the genuinely insane.


Paul Asling takes us on a captivating journey around London, to discover some dark tales that have shaped the city’s compelling and turbulent past.      

Priced at £1.99 –

London Crime Thriller Books by Paul:

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  1. I actually remember when I was a child , the insane went to asylums in London, England. That was something I couldn’t imagine then or the horrific now back then. I was born in 1949 Glendale, Wilshire District.


  2. How cruel people were back then, there seemed no empathy. Was it ignorance through lack of education or are we just cloaked in civility now but still capable of the same things deep down?


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