A Middlesex University resource provided by Andrew Roberts
1830s Mental Health History
Timeline analysis of legislation may I introduce you? home page to Andrew
web site
mental health and learning

Sykes, Ashley, and The London Statistical Society

Looks at the failures of asylum regulation suggested by the new science of statistics in the 1830s, and at other limitations on the effectiveness of the Metropolitan Lunacy Commission.


In the late 1830s there was a great interest in a new science: statistics.

Applied to the survival rates of paupers in London mad houses, the science appeared to reveal serious problems.

Colonel William Henry Sykes, a founder member of the London Statistical Society, became an Honorary Metropolitan Commissioner in September 1835.

In 1836 (?) the London Statistical Society Council decided to form "committees" with a view to "facilitating the co-operation of its members".

The Life Statistics Committee included several eminent actuaries and prepared "several comprehensive and efficient tabular Forms, for the collection of information on mortality, from Insurance Societies", and various institutions - including lunatic asylums.

In 1837 the Metropolitan Commission's annual report to the Lord Chancellor spoke of difficulties experienced securing returns from County authorities, needed to "secure a complete general registry in lunacy".

In June 1840 Sykes presented a paper on the statistics of the London licensed houses, based on the commission's records. This was published in the Society's Journal. Sykes found the commission's records inadequate to answer most substantial questions. But they showed at least one clear, significant "fact". It was one of, "the most marked and the most melancholy features of the statistics of the commission", that the pauper death rate was far higher than the non-paupers. (Sykes 1840 p.?)

Basing itself on the records that Sykes published, The Lancet wrote three (typically) strident editorial attacks on the commission, denouncing "the inhuman sacrifice of pauper's lives under the present system" and promising to:

    "agitate the subject until the condition of the lunatic ceases to be a disgrace to this country, for it is quite evident that the Metropolitan Commissioners cannot be trusted, as through ignorance or neglect, they have never remedied the evils they must have witnessed"
These Lancet editorials were published on 5.9.1840, 12.9.1840 and 19.9.1840.

The Statistical Society's 7th Annual Report, published in February 1841, announced that the collection of lunatic asylum statistics was among the objects its council intended to prosecute during the year. The treatment of lunatics was:
Dr William Farr (1807-1883), the Registrar General's compiler of statistical abstracts, was a prominent Statistical Society member. On 15.4.1841 he read to the society a copious "Report on the Mortality of Lunatics".

The same day (15.4.1841), Lord Ashley was proposed as a member of the Statistical Society and a year later he had joined Sykes on the society's Council. (Proceedings of the Statistical Society 1840/1841 and 1841/1842)

The Council of the Statistical Society, in the 8th Annual Report (published February 1842) regretted that their application to the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy:

    "for permission to obtain from their registers tabular statements of their statistical results, has not met with success. The objects of the Council are, however, likely to be carried out in the county asylums in a very satisfactory manner, as it is understood that a convention [*] of the medical officers of those establishments " will take place in the course of the present year, at which measures will be adopted for obtaining systematic returns from the several asylums." (Proceedings of the Statistical Society)

[*] The convention referred to was "The Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane", at whose first annual conference, at Nottingham in November 1841, a committee had been formed to draw up a standard Register for use in asylums. The Register was approved at its Lancaster meeting in June 1842 (Hunter and MacAlpine 1963 p.943).

3.11.3 An unnatural death rate

The Lancet and Farr argued that one could calculate a natural (*) death rate for lunatics, incident on the disease, and by deducting this from actual rates show any "excessive mortality" caused by conditions in asylums.

* Farr speaks of "the mortality of lunatics under favourable circumstances" (Farr 1841, p.23)

The natural rate was provided by the annual mortality of 7% at Gloucester County Asylum, one of the County Asylums:

    "at which the treatment is the most successful, the diet is generous and nutritious, and the patients live as much as possible in the open air." (Farr 1841, pp 23- 24)

Any deaths in excess of 7% a year, Farr said:
    "must be attributed to the diseases generated by the limited space in which ... lunatics are confined - to the collection of large numbers under the same roof - the impurity of the atmosphere - the want of exercise and warmth - the poor unvaried diet - and the deficiency of medical attendance."
On this basis Farr attempted to evaluate the few available statistics of mortality in different asylums, concluding that asylum conditions had "raised the mortality " above the standard":
  • 57% among non-paupers in London's licensed houses (although in some houses mortality did not exceed 7%)

  • 71% at Hanwell, where, he noted, diet and conditions had recently been improved on the suggestion of Conolly [himself a Statistical Society member] and mortality was expected to be reduced in proportion.

  • 200% among paupers in the Bethnal Green, Hoxton and Peckham houses.
In the male department of Hoxton House (not named, but identifiable) the death rate was notably higher than in other houses:
    "As high as the rate of mortality experienced by the British troops upon the western coast of africa, and by the population of London when the plague rendered its habitations desolate!" (Farr 1841 pp. 23-24 and 30)

3.11.4 The Commission's Evaluation Reconsidered. Hoxton and Peckham.

I know of no response from the commission to the conclusions of the London Statistical Society and The Lancet, but a closer look at what it said about London pauper houses shows it was less well satisfied than its more salient pronouncements suggest. Warburton's was praised (3.9) but 61% of paupers in London houses were in Hoxton House and Peckham House.

Hoxton House was:

    "situate in a densely crowded neighbourhood; the yards are dull and confined, and the internal accommodations are inconvenient, and it has no land whatever for employing its paupers." (1844 Report p.44)
It contained "nearly 400 patients, of both sexes", but "there are only yards - some of them indeed, not deficient in space, but surrounded by high walls, and (partly) by adjacent buildings - for the purpose of exercise. Being in the suburbs of London, there are no means, of course, except at very great expense, of obtaining any considerable quantity of additional ground." (1844 Report p.134)

"there are frequently eight or ten persons restrained, but in the present defective accommodations " more restraint is employed than would be necessary in a well constructed asylum." (1844 Report p.145)

Peckham House had great advantages over Bethnal Green and Hoxton in its site and grounds [see map] and the internal accommodation was generally good but it

    "has always been a source of trouble to us upon the subject of diet. It has, on several occasions, been specially visited on this account, and frequent remonstrations have been made."
Application had lately been made to licence it for more patients, but the commission had delayed in granting a licence until it was satisfied as to the diet of the pauper patients (1844 Report p.??). An appendix to the 1844 Report contained the diet sheets for Peckham, Hoxton and Bethnal Green. On alternate days dinner at Peckham was "meat, potatoes and bread" and "soup and bread".
    "The soup is made from the liquer in which the meat for the whole establishment, (private patients, paupers and servants) is boiled the previous day, together with all the bones, with the addition of barley, pease, and green vegetables."
(The seventh day was "Irish stew and bread"). The quantity of meat used was stated ambiguously.

Hoxton also had "soup" three days a week (though not stated to be made by the same method), but Bethnal Green had solid dinners (two described as "pudding") six days a week. Their diet sheets showed more effort at variety. Both served "vegetables" (as distinct from Peckham's "potatoes") and Hoxton's were "varied according to season". Hoxton also substituted "fresh mackerel and herrings" when in season, for the meat; and "suet, rice, or fruit\ " puddings" for the soup occasionally. At Bethnal Green all patients occupied in hard labour had meat daily. Both houses stated the quantity of meat used less ambiguously than Peckham.

Monotonous and liquid though Peckham's official diet was, it may not have been what the commission was worried about. The minutes of visiting commissioners for 1829/1830 (HO 44/51) show that Peckham's official diet did not reflect reality. In October 1829:

    "They observed the pea soup distributed to the paupers to be sour, of bad quality in other respects, nor do they conceive the bread which they saw given with it was in sufficient quantity. The Commissioners observing that Messrs Mott and Co. have a scale of diet prepared for the inspection of those who place patients in their house expect that scale to be fully complied with."
On 30.1.1830 the kitchen was
    "extremely dirty " wholly insufficient in size " the persons employed in it " slovenly and the utensils bad."
On 25.4.1830 they were glad to observe a kitchen and larder recently built, but objected that the "meat, cheese, butter and small beer seem to be of an inferior quality"

On 23.5.1830 they minuted a threat to discontinue the Licence, "as our remonstrances as to the provisions have been so little attended to", unless they had reason to believe before the next board that their suggestions had received attention.

The remaining minutes suggest the threat was effective. On 11.7.1830 they found the "house" in good order, and all provisions seem wholesome".

From 1830 until the early 1840s I believe Peckham did not cause such concern to the commission. But by 1844 Peckham and Hoxton were so bad that the commission thought it should explain why it allowed them to operate:

    "It may be asked if we have not been too lenient in renewing, from time to time, the licences for the Peckham and Hoxton Asylums. Your Lordship, however, must be aware, that in consequence of the deficient accommodation in public asylums, if licences were withdrawn from houses containing large numbers of paupers, there would be no alternative, but to send the patients to workhouses, or to board with other paupers, where they would not have the care which they now receive under regular visitation and supervision. (1844 Report pp. 44.55)"
Faced with large asylums full of paupers, the commission could only exercise limited sanctions. Legally it could withdraw a licence, in practice it could not. Regular conscientious visitation was not sufficient to control pauper houses as long as there was nowhere else to send the paupers.

In the 1844 Report of the Inquiry Commission and the speeches of Ashley on his 1845 Bills we will find this position spelt out in some detail, with the respective roles of the market, of inspection and regulation and of state provision discussed and prescribed.

3.12 Central records and national interests

A subsidiary aspect

Before 1842 collating national information was a very subsidiary aspect of the commission's work. Legally the clerk's responsibility, it had no discernable bearing on the commissioners statutory functions. They found no occasion to mention it in the 1829 or 1836 Reports and in 1837 appeared a little uncertain of their role or the Act's intention. The last paragraph read (my emphasis):-

"Within their own proper jurisdiction the Metropolitan Commissioners have unremittingly laboured to cause all of the provisions of the statute to be observed; but in cases beyond their jurisdiction (in which they are occasionally consulted) they have not found that readiness of co-operation on the part of some of the Clerks of the Peace which they had expected; and this is the more to be regretted, since one of the objects of the Legislature was, it is believed, to secure a complete general registry in lunacy, - an object which it must always be difficult to attain without the ready assistance of the provincial officers."

One of the signatures was Robert Gordon, the sponsor of the 1828 Act, so the uncertainty about its intention emphasises how marginal these provisions were.

Sykes, the third signatory, was anxious to use the returns for statistical purposes, and I suspect that his participation in the commission was what had precipitated the commissioners' interest.

The 1828 and 1832 Madhouse Acts required very few national returns and those it did were very irregularly made. I doubt if anybody was much troubled by this in early years, but as an increasingly national and self consciously "scientific" interest in lunacy developed in the late 1830s, statistical pioneers (like Sykes and the London Statistical Society) and lunacy reformers (such as Thomas Wakley) expected the commission's records to provide data for the newly engendered debates. Returns were so deficient they could only do so for London houses, but the fact that the commission was supposed to keep national records drew it into the debates and was one factor leading to its assumption of a national role in the 1840s.

3.12.2 The 1828 Bills Examination of the 1828 Madhouse and County Asylums Bills suggests the commission was not originally intended to have any concern for central records. As first drafted, the Bills sought to facilitate local regulation of asylums by the commission (London houses) and JPs (county houses and county asylums); and national regulation by the Home Secretary.

In the Madhouse Bill as it left the House of Commons, the clauses corresponding to sections 25 to 28 were very differently constructed, and all central returns were to be sent to the Home Secretary only - not the commissioners.

The House of Lords made complex amendments to this - Perhaps in order to retain the national register kept under the 1774 Madhouses Act, which was important for the court regulation of lunacy,

The result of the Lords amendments was that county minutes went to the commission and yearly returns to both the Home Secretary and the commission. (As in the 1828 Madhouses Act as linked above).

In the County Asylums Bill as printed 17.3.1828, the yearly return was also only to go to the Home Secretary, but alteration was made in a House of Commons committee (first appearing in the Bill printed 9.6.1828) so that a copy went to the London clerk, who prepared an alphabetical list of patients. (As in the 1828 Madhouses Act as linked above).

3.12.3 Central Government and the Commission's Files

It is not clear from the 1828 Acts why the commissioners kept national records. The clerk should have had records of patients in licensed houses, hospitals and county asylums, but it is not stated who could use them except via the search provisions, which, strictly speaking, only applied to licensed houses.

Under the 1828 Acts, the Home Office received its own returns. After 1832, however, central government would have had to rely on the Commission's files for anything approaching comprehensive information.

The 1832 Act specifically mentions that the London clerk should preserve county minutes for the Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor's inspection

Whereas, under the 1828 Acts, the Home Office should have received returns on licensed houses, hospitals and county asylums, after 1832 it was only to receive them from County Asylums (under the 1828 County Asylums Act). The Lord Chancellor (from 1832) was just to receive returns from hospitals. The Commission, however, was to have a national register of licensed houses, and receive hospital and county asylum returns, county minutes transcripts, and names of county visitors and deputy clerks.

3.12.4 Deficient Returns and County Relations

No printed report of the Commission before 1844 mentioned that the commission should receive hospital and county asylum returns. The 1844 Report noted the legal loopholes and revealed that some County Asylums made no return and only one hospital made one. (1844 Report pp 179-180)

References to returns respecting county houses were numerous after the first mention in 1837. In 1838 the commissions had "every reason to believe" that in the counties the Act's "salutary provisions... have been in a great degree neglected or violated" and that "considerable ignorance", about their duties, prevailed amongst proprietors, Clerks of the peace and Visiting JPs.

From a House of Commons return of County Houses that year, the commission inferred the existence in different parts of the country of unlicensed houses

"in which persons are confined... (perhaps even without medical certificates) in contempt and defiance of the law"

The commission said it had no means of knowing to what extent the practice prevailed, but it was one that might obviously lead to the most glaring and dangerous abuses, and so strongly called for a searching investigation and effectual remedy (1838 Report)

The next year it made clear the remedy was not in the commission's power, but would require Government action (1839 Report)

"In the meantime", the 1838 Report continued, the commissioners had spared and would spare no pains, "as far as their limited powers allow", to extend knowledge and enforce observance of the Act, "throughout those districts which are under their general jurisdiction only"

[That is those districts "beyond their jurisdiction" the year before!]

Their efforts had "already been attended with considerable success. Returns of admissions, with certificates and discharge" [sic] from county houses, "to the amount of several thousands", and a large number of reports from the Visiting JPs, "have been made to them in the course of the preceding year". (1838 Report).

Which suggests that the commission had quite recently commenced a campaign to enforce county returns and that before 1838 a large number of county minutes and many thousands of admission, removal and death notices had not been sent.

The returns, they continued,

"are all regularly filed and indexed; and with a view to facility of reference, the substance is also digested and entered in registers kept in alphabetical order"

Compare the law

But, they concluded, the more strictly the Act's regulations were observed, the more the number of reports and returns would accumulate and the commission would soon need more spacious apartments (1838 Report).

In 1840 they reported that the records were becoming "voluminous and very important", and in 1841 that the commissions' business had very much increased, partly because of more frequent communications with the provinces. (1840 and 1841 Reports)

contempt and defiance of the law?

Of course, people did at times run unlicensed houses. In 1837 the commission discovered that William Moseley had been doing so in London "for a considerable time". They successfully prosecuted, but after release from prison (3S.6) he again advertised for patients without a licence.

The 1838 Return showed only "about 80" county houses, the majority small. As several large counties, and all of Wales , made no return, the commission inferred houses existed but were not licensed (1838 Report)

The commission repeatedly failed to mention that
Wales was not included in the Act

The commission's inference seems to have been wrong. Parry Jones counted eighty three county houses in the 1838 return and ninety in an 1842 return (Parry Jones, 1972, p.-). There were ninety-eight in 1844 (1844 Report, p.2, corrected copies).

Comparing the 1844 Report with the 1842 Return, I found the net addition mostly due to small (two to thirteen lunatics) houses in counties with other houses listed in 1842.

Haydock Lodge and Britten Ferry, two larger houses listed in 1844 and not 1842, are known to have opened in 1843 and 1844. I see no reason to believe that the smaller houses were not also new, although I would agree that any unlicensed houses were likely to be small ones.

Only one English county (Buckinghamshire) made no return in 1842 but had a house listed in 1844. The house (Denham Park, near Uxbridge) appears to have been open in 1838 (Parry Jones, 1972, p. 86). It was so well known and well reputed that I find it inconceivable it operated in "contempt and defiance of the law", and suspect Buckinghamshire simply neglected to send a return.

The uneven distribution of houses was a reality, not a result of counties allowing unlicensed houses. Ten of the forty-one English administrative counties excluding Middlesex had no house listed in the 1844 report, and the first to open in Wales was Britten Ferry in 1843.

3.13 Hereford Lunatic Asylum

Conflict between the Middlesex JPs and vestries and the White House had focused political attention on London houses in 1827 (See 3.1.2 and the biographies of Gordon and Conway).

In 1839 conflict between Herefordshire JPs and the proprietors of Hereford Lunatic Asylum focused it on the County houses. The 1839 Select Committee of the House of Commons on Hereford Lunatic Asylum attracted attention not only to the problems of policing County houses, but also to the new methods of treating the insane.

Hereford Quarter Sessions petitioned Parliament for an inquiry into the affairs of the Asylum, which was one of two English Hospitals founded in the 18th century that had been privatised (the other being Newcastle Lunatic Asylum). The County JPs maintained an influence over the asylum by means of the licensing procedures.

In 1835 two brothers, John and W.L. Gilliland, took over the asylum and the Visitors:

"ascertained to their great satisfaction, and to the great credit of Dr. Gilliland, the resident physician, and Mr Gilliland the resident surgeon, that under their judicious treatment a system of unusual mildness has ben adopted towards the unfortunate inmates ... and no personal punishment, coercion or restraint ... has been practised." (Visitors minutes 13.9.1835 Quoted Parry-Jones, W.L. 1972 p.274)

Over the next few years, however, adverse reports were made by the visitors. On 29.10.1836 they found irregularities in the admission documents and books required by the 1832 Madhouses Act and they complained about a failure to hold religious services and about overcrowding. The complaints about the legal regulations were attended to, but adverse reports on other matters continued.

On 24.5.1838 the Visitors complained that discipline was being maintained by plunging patients into cold baths, some patients having been treated this way at least fifty times. On 30.6.1838 they reported an investigation into complaints of ill-treatment and neglect made by the wife of a patient who had died shortly after being discharged, his body showing numerous bruises and sores. The Visitors blamed this onto a serious shortage of attendants, which had also allowed fighting to occur amongst the patients.

The Visitors frequently condemned the structure of the asylum, mainly because it did not allow the adequate classification of patients.

In the autumn of 1838 the Visitors presented a special report to Quarter sessions in which they came to the unanimous conclusion that:

"The Hereford Lunatic Asylum was not in that state, either as relates to ventilation, to classification, to employment, to moral treatment, to recreation and religious consolation of convalescents, which they would wish to prevail." (Quoted Parry-Jones, W.L. 1972 p.275)
In October 1838, on the basis of this report, Quarter Sessions refused to renew the licence.

When John Barneby, the Chair (of what?) told John Gilliland that the renewal of his licence was refused, he was told that

"it was not of much consequence, because he had applied to the City Quarter Sessions."
The asylum being within Hereford City, the Recorder decided it was his jurisdiction, and granted a licence from October 1838.

A Select Committee of the House of Commons to investigate how Gilliland conducted his asylum was ordered on 7.3.1839 and reported on 27.6.1839.

I would divide the Select Committee membership (see list in chronological bibliography) into four groups. There are those with a local (county) interest in the issues relating to providing and regulating provision for lunatics (including those from Hereford, but other counties as well), those with a government interest, people involved in the Metropolitan (London) Commission, and people with a general or medical interest.

Consider the committee in the order in which their names were recorded in the Commons Journal on 7.3.1839:

"Mr Barneby"
John Barneby, who chaired the Committee, was the chairman of Hereford Quarter Sessions, the body that was in conflict with the proprietor of Hereford Lunatic Asylum. He was one of the MPs for Droitwich, in neighbouring Worcestershire. The other Droitwich MP, Pakington, was also a member of this committee.

"Lord Ashley"
Ashley had signed the (unpublished) reports of the Metropolitan Commission to the Lord Chancellor, and was, effectively, the commission's chair. He was a Tory.

"Mr Robert Gordon"
Gordon has as much claim as anyone to be the founder of the Metropolitan Commission. He was a Whig.

"Lord Granville Somerset"
Somerset was a key member of the team of Robert Peel, Tory opposition leader in the House of Commons. Somerset acted for Peel in lunacy issues.

"Lord Seymour"
Edward Apolphous Seymour, a young Whig, was a Junior Treasury Lord

"Mr Gally Knight"
Henry Gally Knight (1797-1860) was Tory MP for Nottingham North. A JP in Nottinghamshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire (his home).

"Mr Vernon Smith"
Robert Vernon Smith was a Whig member of the Metropolitan Commission

"Mr William Miles"
William Miles was Tory MP for Somerset East (at least, he was in 1841). He later represented the proprietors of provincial lunatic asylums in the House of Commons.

"Mr Hawes"
Benjamin Hawes (1797-1862) was the Liberal MP for Lambeth from 1832 to 1847. A soap manufacturer and active parliamentary campaigner for medical reform. With the support of Wakley and Warburton (fellow radicals who were also on this committee) he introduced an unsuccessful bill in 1841 to establish collective regulation and qualification for the medical profession. His constituency included Bethlem

"Mr Estcourt (Oxford University)"
Thomas Grimstone Bucknall Estcourt (1775-1853), previously MP for Devizes, Wiltshire, had been since 1826 one of the MPs for Oxford University (the other was Inglis). He was a barrister who had been Recorder of Devizes and was (until 1837) chairman of Wiltshire General Quarter Sessions. In 1827 (Hansard 14.6.1827 col. 1265) "Mr Estcourt wished the hon. gentleman" [Robert Gordon] would move for a general bill; which having been introduced, might be circulated through the country during the recess; the result of which step would be the production of much more information than could be obtained by any parliamentary inquiry during the present session"

"Mr Bolton Clive"
Edward Bolton Clive was the Whig MP for the Borough of Hereford. It was the JPs of the borough who had licensed the asylum when the County JPs were averse to re-licensing. Edward Bolton Clive had been a Metropolitan Commissioner since 1836 and remained on the commission until the national inquiry (1842).

"Mr Pakington"
John Somerset Pakington (Russell before 1830, Lord Hampton from 1874), (1799-1880) was Tory MP for Droitwich, in Worcestershire (at least, he was in 1841). In 1852 he was a member of Derby's "Whose who? government" of unknowns. It was said of him, and several others, that they were men "whose antecedents scarcely gave them warrant for any higher claim in public life than the position of chairman of quarter sessions" (McCarthy, J. 1897 vol.1, p.330). I could not, however, find him listed as a Droitwich or Worcestershire JP in 1836. In 1842, representations were made to him by the proprietor of an asylum in Droitwich.

"Mr Ward"
Henry George Ward (probable identification) (1797-1860) was Liberal MP for Sheffield Borough from 1837 to 1849, previously for St Albans. Before and after his parliamentary career, he was a diplomat. One author says he was a cousin of the Marquis of Normanby (Minister for War and the Colonies, soon to swap post with Lord John Russell at the Home Office), but I have not been able to confirm this.

"Mr Gaskell"
James Milnes Gaskell Tory MP for Wenlock in Shropshire. Shropshire. His home was near Wakefield in Yorkshire and he had married the daughter, and was supported by, Charles Watkin Williams Wynn. His son was one of the early historians of Wakefield Lunatic Asylum

"Mr Warburton"
Henry Warburton (1784-1858) does not seem to have any relationship to the Warburtons of Bethnal Green. He was the son of John Warburton of Eltham, Kent, a timber merchant. Whig/Liberal MP for Bridport, Dorset fro 1826 to 1841; and then for Kendal, Westmoreland (1843-1847); He was Whig

On 22.4.1839, Mr William Miles and Mr Warburton were discharged from further attendance and two other MPs added to the committee:

"Sir Edward Knatchbull"
Edward Knatchbull (1781-1849), 8th baronet, had been Tory MP for East Kent from the death of his father in 1819, with the exception of the Parliament of 1831. His family had owned Mersham-Le-Hatch, Ashford in Kent since 1486. In the 1820s he had inherited Overton Hall in Derbyshire from the widow of Sir Joseph Banks, and had sold it on to Dr John Bright of the Metropolitan Commission. One of Knatchbull's predecessors, Sir Edward Knatchbull (1672-1730), the 4th baronet, was MP for Kent from 1721. He gave his name to Knatchbull's Act and left an important Parliamentary Diary. I could not find Sir Edward Knatchbull listed as a Kent JP in 1836.

"Mr Wakley"
Thomas Wakley, a Liberal MP for Finsbury, was the editor of The Lancet

Provincial appointments to the Metropolitan Commission

In September 1839 John Barneby, the Chair of the Select Committee and James Milnes Gaskell, one of its members, were appointed to the Metropolitan Commission. (see charts). They did not replace anyone, but were filling what were, in effect, empty places for unpaid commissioners. It seems reasonable to ask why two county MPs should be brought onto a London licensing authority, and I would conclude that it was because the London commission was being seen as having a limited national role, not only as a statistical collector and analyser, but also as a place where good practice in licensing might be established and promoted.

Barneby and Milnes Gaskell were both appointed to serve on the Inquiry Commission in 1842. They, with Sykes the statistician, only ceased to be commissioners when the commission became a national body in 1845.

It would be wrong to think of the affair of the Hereford Lunatic Asylum as a significant national scandal. Hansard, for example, records no discussion of it. It was, however, significant in the history of the creation of a national Lunacy Commission. By drawing together Members of Parliament involved in the licensing in London and the counties, by highlighting problems of licensing, and the relationship between treatment regimes and licensing, and by giving militant medics something to focus on, it provide a starting point from which the Quarterly licensing authority in London would stumble and be pushed into a national role.

3.14 The Hole and Corner Metropolitan Commission

Throughout the 1830s the affairs of the Metropolitan Commission were not a matter of parliamentary or public interest. Someone who sought to find out about it in 1839 using Parliament Papers could have consulted the 1829 Report (with tabulations of houses and patients annexed) and the Commission's Accounts to 3.7.1833 (and no later). The last account would tell the enquirer that the Commission's first Clerk had died in 1832 and that after his death the affairs of the commission are in a bit of a mess. In Hansard the enquirer would find nothing of interest since the debate on the Act establishing the Commission in 1828.

The Metropolitan Commission did not publicize opinions on lunacy until 1844, when it produced a massive report on the condition of the insane throughout the country. (4.9). In the early 1840s it was public interest in lunacy that discovered the commission, not the commission that stimulated public interest in lunacy. Even in the late 1830s and early 1840s the commission's efforts at publicity were limited to the attempt to make county administrations more aware of their responsibilities under the 1832 Madhouses Act.

For some who cared for lunacy reform, the reticence and secrecy of the Metropolitan Commission was its major crime. The Lancet wrote about

"the hole and corner Metropolitan Commission, which has published but one Report, and has never contributed a single useful fact to the statistics of insanity" (Lancet 4.4.1840 p. 57).
And later:
"The state of the Metropolitan Lunatic asylums has been frequently referred to in this Journal; and the criminal negligence of the Metropolitan Commission in withholding from the public all information" (Lancet 5.9.1840 p. 867)
"They expend £3,000 a year ... It would be interesting to know what they do for the money ... The paid Commissioners should draw up an Annual report, and should only receive their salaries when the Report is delivered in." (Lancet 6.6.1840 p.369)
The Lancet's attacks seem to have had an effect. On 21.9.1841 Ashley told the House of Commons that:
"the commissioners had made periodical reports to the Lord Chancellor, and it was not long ago that it was determined by the commission that he (Lord Ashley) should be called upon to lay those reports from the year 1835 upon the table of that House, that the country might see the progress that had been made, and pass an opinion upon the merits of the commission." (Hansard 21.9.1841 col. 697)
On Ashley's motion the reports were ordered to be printed on 6.10.1841. there were six of them, occupying only 11 pages in all. (bibliography)

© Andrew Roberts 1981-

Citation suggestion


My referencing suggestion for this page is a bibliography entry:

Roberts, Andrew 1981- The Lunacy Commission <http://studymore.org.uk/01.htm>

and references in your text to

(Roberts, A. 1981 section -)

Contents page 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:

1828 Bills and Central records


Ashley amongst the statisticians

Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane


Bethnal Green

Central records

Central records and Government Bills

chancery lunatics

John Conolly

contempt and defiance of the law?

Control Group

county asylums

criminal lunatics

deadly asylums

Deficient Returns and County Relations

William Farr

February 1841

Robert Gordon


Hereford Lunatic Asylum

The Hole and Corner Metropolitan Commission


June 1840


general registry in lunacy

Gloucester County Asylum

Lancet allegations

licensed houses

London licensed houses

London Statistical Society

lunatic asylum statistics


mad houses

Metropolitan Commissioners cannot be trusted

Metropolitan Commission refuses statisticians access to its records

National records

natural death rate


pauper lunatics

paupers dying faster than other lunatics


Provincial appointments to the Metropolitan Commission

Reconsidering the Commission's evaluation

records inadequate

single lunatics


William Henry Sykes

Timeline 1832.

Timeline 1844 Report.

unnatural death rate

West African comparison

workhouse asylums