The Metropolitan Commission in Lunacy
A Middlesex University resource provided by Andrew Roberts
1828 timeline analysis of legislation may I introduce you? home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site
mental health and learning


Describes how London body for regulating private madhouses (licensed houses) was made relevant to London's pauper lunatics

3.1  Relevant Acts, Bills, committees etc

3.1.1  Name, 1828 and 1832 Madhouse Acts, scope of chapter

3.1.2  Committees, Bills and Hanwell 1827-1828

3.1.3  Previous committees and Bills (1813-1819)

3.2  1774 and 1828 Madhouse Acts compared

3.1 Relevant Acts, Bills, committees etc


Summary of Acts
Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy became the statutory name in 1832
(see law) but was used in practice by 1829/1830 when it appeared on the first Report and Accounts .

1828 and 1832 Madhouse Acts

The commission was established by the 1828 Madhouse Act, under which the Home Secretary appointed it. This Act (explained and amended by the 1829 Madhouse Amendment Act) was repealed and replaced by the 1832 Madhouses Act, under which the Lord Chancellor appointed the commission.

The 1832 Act was limited to three years and from thence until the end of the next session of parliament (title and s.54). It was amended by the 1833 Madhouse Amendment Act, and both were continued by short Continuation Acts in 1835, 1838 and 1841. The 1832 Act (as amended 1833) was again amended and continued by the 1842 Inquiry Act (See chapter 4) and all three were repealed by the 1845 Lunacy Act (See chapter 5)

Scope of chapter three

The chapter on the Metropolitan Commission is principally concerned with the commission's structure and functions before August 1842 when the Inquiry Act came into force and the commission acquired national and central government functions.

But I also deal (especially in 3S) with changes in London functions under the 1842 and 1845 Acts, and with some other changes from 1842 which were essentially developments of the 1828/1832 Madhouse Acts.

3.1.2 Committees, Bills and Hanwell 1827-1828

Parliamentary references: Bibliography for 1827-1828.

The 1827 Select Committee of the House of Commons Pauper Lunatics was moved for (and chaired) by Robert Gordon to inquire into the treatment of pauper lunatics in Middlesex. Middlesex contained the greater part of London and, being entirely within the Physician Commission's jurisdiction was the only English county whose JPs did not have power to license and inspect madhouses. As there was no county asylum a large number of paupers from Middlesex parishes were sent to private pauper houses, such as those in East London owned by Thomas Warburton

The Select Committee was moved for in June. The Middlesex County Inquiry, a committee of JPs appointed by Middlesex Quarter Sessions, had been studying the same subject since January. The County Inquiry was moved for a chaired by Colonel James Clitherow. Details of it and the subsequent building of the first Middlesex County Asylum will be found with Clitherow's biography.

Three MPs appointed to the Select Committee: Byng, a Middlesex MP; Pallmer, a Surrey MP and a Michael Angelo Taylor, were also members of the County Inquiry (Mx RO minute 18.1.1827). Others, including the Home Secretary, Sturges Bourne, were members of West London select vestries, such as (St George's, Hanover Square) , that sent lunatics to pauper houses in East London.

Two legislative issues were to be considered by the Select Committee of the House of Commons:

  1. Extending the 1774 Act to pauper lunatics

  2. Consolidating all Acts relative to lunatics and lunatic asylums and making further provision in these respects.

Gordon submitted to it an outline of a bill to these effects that he wished to introduce (6BIOH4).

The minutes of evidence published with the Select Committee report principally concerned the treatment of paupers in the White House one of two pauper houses in Bethnal Green owned by Thomas Warburton who had under his care half the lunatics within the bills of mortality including those from the parish (St George's, Hanover Square) where Gordon and the Home Secretary were vestrymen. (Hansard 19.2.1828 col.576. Bills of mortality refers to the area of London from which statistics of death were collected.)

In their report the Select Committee wrote:

If the White House is to be taken as a fair specimen of similar establishments, your committee cannot too strongly or too anxiously express their conviction that the greatest possible benefit will accrue to pauper patients by the erection of a County Lunatic Asylum.

The Hanwell committee

Middlesex Quarter Sessions elected a committee to superintend the erection of a County Asylum on 15.11.1827 (Mx RO minute). The asylum was opened at Hanwell, west of London, on 16.5.1831 with accommodation for three hundred pauper lunatics, thus enabling the removal of large numbers from London's pauper houses. (See Clitherow's biography for some of the history of Hanwell)

Bills and Acts

The Select Committee of the House of Commons submitted detailed proposals for legislation to replace the 1774 Madhouses Act and to consolidate the 1808 County Asylums Act (as amended 1811, 1815 and 1824), the 1819 Pauper Lunatics Act, the 1800 Criminal Lunatics Act (as amended 1816) and the provisions respecting lunatics in the 1774 Vagrancy Act (1827 SCHC p.77). These proposals were effected by two bills that Gordon, acting on the Select Committee's instructions, successfully sponsored in 1828. One became the 1828 Madhouses Act, replacing the 1774 Act; the other the 1828 County Asylums Act, replacing previous county asylums and pauper lunatics Acts and relevant aspects of the criminal lunatics and vagrancy acts. Both were referred in passage through the House of Lords to the 1828 SCHL Gordons Bill, although the minutes of evidence of this committee only concern the Madhouses Bill.

Gordon's Bills were seconded by Lord Ashley (6BIOH3), whose father, the Earl of Shaftesbury, was Chairman of House of Lords committees.

Gordon's Acts were complementary in that the Madhouses Act was intended to increase the effectiveness of public control over licensed houses (particulary pauper house) and the County Asylums Act was to facilitate public provision for pauper lunatics so that they could be removed from pauper houses. Each was self-sufficient as a piece of legislation, however. The only textual reference from one to the other being a provision in the County asylums Act for a yearly return from county asylums to the commission appointed under the Madhouses Act (3S.4.8.1)

3.1.3 Previous committees and Bills (1813-1819)

The bibliography for 1813-1819 gives detailed references.

Several bills to repeal and replace the 1774 Madhouse Act were brought in before 1828, but Gordon's was the first to become an Act.

The initiative for legislation may have come from the Royal College of Physicians. The earliest bill traced was brought in by George Rose, Clerk of Parliaments, in July 1813. It went through committee but did not reach third reading. Bills were brought in by Rose in 1814, 1816 and 1817 and by C.W.W. Wynn in 1819. Each passed the House of Commons, but the House of Lords took no proceedings with Roses's after first reading and rejected Wynn's at the second.

Although the Lords gave no reasons for failing to proceed with Rose's bills, a likely explanation in 1814 was the opposition from York Hospital to the inclusion of hospitals (See bibliography for 1814).

Rose responded by moving for a Select Committee to inquire into the state of madhouses in the kingdom (1815-1816 SCHC) and as chairman was instructed to bring in the 1816 bill. Its main provisions, he told the Commons, were that:

"Instead of the physicians of the neighbourhood, or those in and near the metropolis, together with a neighbouring magistrate, being the inspectors of such establishments, they should be twice a year examined, etc, by eight commissioners appointed by the secretary of state for the home department, throughout the kingdom. The commissioners to be assisted by two of the local magistrates in each district, armed with equal powers, and the members for counties to share this privilege. There was also provision in the bill relative to the erection of lunatic asylums in counties, and ordering the reception therein of pauper lunatics, who were allowed at present to range abroad, top their own and the public injury" (Hansard 28.5.1816 col. 859)

Rose died in January 1818. During a debate on a Scottish Bill in February Wynn told the House of Commons that if no one else intended to take up Rose's bill, he would. Wynn had sponsored the 1808 County Asylums Act, during proceedings on which the RCP had drawn his attention to the deficiencies in the 1774 Act. Rose had later been induced to bring in the 1813 Bill (1815 SCHC p. ### Evidence of ####). Wynn had served on the 1815-1816 Select Committee of the House of Commons and co-sponsored the 1817 Bill.


Wynn brought in his bill in March 1819. The House of Commons, he said,

"had done its duty, by repeatedly sending up a bill to the other House ... no reason was at any time publicly stated in that House for rejecting the bills ... and as none were urged, it was the duty of the House to persist in its purpose." (Hansard 10.3.1819 col 972)

When the bill's House of Lords sponsor, the Whig Marquis of Lansdowne (1), moved for a second reading, his speech and one in opposition from Lord Chancellor Eldon (2) were recorded in Hansard. Eldon argued that the bill would interfere with and retard the treatment of lunatics:

"It was of the utmost importance [with a view to care and cure] ... that the superintendence of physicians should not be interfered with. The bill gave a number of penalties, half of which were to go to the informer, and it was evident that the informer would be found amongst the attendants and servants ... who would thus be made the judges of the physicians, and it would be impossible for the latter, under such circumstances, to resort to many of those means which their experience taught them were most effectual for the cure of their unhappy patients: for their could not be a more false humanity than over humanity with regard to persons afflicted with insanity."

He admitted that there were great abuses, especially with regard to pauper lunatics and was prepared to agree to a short bill embodying the clauses relating to paupers, but opposed the bill as it stood. He suggested there should be a committee in the next session, by which means a measure might be framed free from the objections to which the present bill was liable. The bill was rejected by 14 votes to 35 (Hansard 24.6.1819 cols 1345-1346)

(1) Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice (b.1780, d.1863) became 3rd Marquis Lansdowne in 1809. As Lord Henry Petty he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1806-1807. He replaced Sturges Bourne as Home Secretary 16.7.1827, serving to January 1828 (under Canning and Goderich). Lansdowne was on the 1828 Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Madhouses Bill. The Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel had refused to serve in the ministries of Canning and Goderich. When Wellington became Prime Minister in January 1828, Peel replaced Lansdowne as Home Secretary.

(2) John Scott, Baron Eldon 1799, 1st Earl of Eldon 1821. b. Newcastle 1751. d. 1838. Tory Lord Chancellor March 1801-Feb.1806 and March 1806- April 1827 when he was succeeded by Lyndhurst. For forty years he opposed reform and religious liberty (CHAMBERS). He also served on the 1828 Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Madhouses Bill.


The 1819 Bill was the last Madhouse bill presented to the House of Commons before 1828. One of the main reasons for the presentation and success of the 1828 bill may have been the shift in the relevant political universe occasioned by Eldon's resigning when Canning was appointed Prime Minister in April 1827. Eldon was replaced by Sir John Singleton Copley (1772-1863) who became Lord Lyndhurst and remained Lord Chancellor, under Canning, Goderich and Wellington, until succeeded by the Whig, Lord Brougham in April 1830. He was also Lord Chancellor from 1841 to 1846 when the 1842 and 1845 Lunacy Acts were passed. Lyndhurst counted himself a friend of Gordon (1) who took him the bill before he brought it into the House of Commons and was able to tell the Commons that the highest law officer in the land had promised to give his assistance in removing all obstacles to its success (Hansard 19.2.1828 col. 583).

(1) Lyndhurst in 1845 referring back to 1828 (although the text says 1830) said that a friend of his, with whom he was on terms of intimacy ... Mr Robert Gordon, directed his attention to the subject; and after a good deal of consideration, embodied his views in a Bill (Hansard 29.7.1845 col 1186)

1774 and 1828 Madhouse Acts compared

The release of patients:

The powers of the Westminster Courts over the Physician Commission were central to my interpretation of its intended role. I argued that the 1774 Act had sought to facilitate the court's established function or releasing people improperly confined, by providing, through the commission, simple means to establish the facts.

The Metropolitan Commission was not an agency for the central courts. Under the 1828/1832 Madhouse Acts, the Westminster Courts did not have the access to the commission's Registers, or powers to direct visits and reports or summons and examine, that they had under the 1774 Act.

The 1828 Act empowered the Lord Chancellor (as custodian of Chancery Lunatics, not simply as Lord Chancellor as in 1774)), Lord Chief Justice of Kings Bench and Common Pleas or Home Secretary, to employ (not direct) any person to visit and report on an asylum. The section was textually modelled on the 1774 court orders section and my opinion is that King's Bench and Common Pleas (both omitted in 1832) were only included in imitation of the original.

Although the 1828 (or 1832) Madhouse Act did not interfere with the court's power to examine the sanity of a patient , it detracted considerably from its importance. Under it the Metropolitan Commission and the county Quarter Sessions could release patients. A person instituting proceedings in Westminster Hall incurred heavy fees, but by seeking a release via the commission or county quarter sessions, he only incurred a fee, and then only 7/-, if he required a search (see law).

Licensing and visiting

The Metropolitan, like the Physician Commission, licensed and visited London's madhouses; but this was on a formal similarity. Under the 1828 Madhouse Act, licensing did far more than ensure madhouses were known (as in 1774), and visiting was not the Westminster Courts' means of access to houses.

They were means for control of madhouses directly by the commission. Control not only, and not principally, of who was confined, but of the general treatment of patients.

Under this and subsequent Acts, licenses were only granted if the commission or Quarter Sessions saw fit.

Licensing authorities received plans of proposed houses before licensing and could refuse any they thought unsuitable. Those licensed were visited at least four times a year (in London) when, as well as seeing the house and patients, visitors inspected the journal of a regular medical attendant with weekly comments on the house, the number of patients considered curable, and the extent to which restraint was used. If they did not approve of what was found, the commission (or Quarter Sessions) could refuse, subject to confirmation by the Home Secretary to renew the licence when it expired, or at any time recommend the Home Secretary revoke the existing licence

Central and local regulation

Wehereas the 1774 Act sought to facilitate High Coyurt proceedings for the release on non-pauper patients, Gordon's Acts were principally concerned to enable JPs (*) to regulate more effectively the treatment of paupers.

The Metropolitan Commission was envisaged as the london equivallent of county Quarter Sessions and visitors. To this end, London JPs were integrated with the physicians. (See composition under the 1828 Act)

In this sense, the 1774 Act was a central government Act and the 1828 Act a local government Act, central government here referring to the judicial, not the executive, elements of government.

The provisions for registers illustrate the move from judicial to local magisterial regulation.

The change obviously relates to the acquisition of powers of release (see above), but it also relates to the concern to regulate treatment.

The Physician Commission developed uses of the Registers as apart of the process of inspection. In 1827, secretary Bright outlined the normal visiting procedure. He went on the visits with a book containing the names of patients. At each house, commissioners checked certificates and toured the house checking patients against the names in the book.

Bright criticised the 1774 Act for not allowing this to be done more efficiently. Because there were no notices of removal or death, nor of the admission of paupers, they depended on the keepers for a true and complete list, and could ever be sure they had seen every patient. (1827 SCHC.......)

The 1827 Select Committee heard that there were room in the White House where paupers the commissioners had no knowledge of were confined in the most atrocious conditions. The 1828 Act provided for notices of all patients, pauper and non-pauper, and for removal and death notices.

© Andrew Roberts 1981-

Citation suggestion


My referencing suggestion for this page is a bibliography entry:

Roberts, Andrew 1981- The Lunacy Commission <>

and references in your text to

(Roberts, A. 1981 section -)

Contents page The the web address above is the book's contents page, not this page. Your reader can use the sections index on the contents page to find the section of the book you have referenced.

To avoid confusing sections of Acts with sections of my book, I have listed the section numbers for legal summaries on the contents page and not in the legal summaries.

See ABC Referencing for general advice.

Study Link
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Picture introduction to this site
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

mental health
timeline Citation: see referencing suggestion

Click for:



chancery lunatics

county asylums

criminal lunatics


licensed houses


Justice of the Peace (JP)



mad houses



pauper lunatics


Quarter Sessions

single lunatics


Timeline 1832.

Timeline 1845 Report.

workhouse asylums