Researchers familiar with the decennial census returns will be aware that, over and above the normal confidentiality which was applied to the information recorded, in the case of asylums it was additionally the practice to render the inmates anonymous by recording only their initials.
A small, but significant, number of persons who are apparently missing from the census returns may have been recorded in this anonymous fashion. The asylum admission books, therefore, provide a valuable key to this otherwise unhelpful information.
The value of the asylum records, however, extends considerably beyond filling gaps in the census returns since the information recorded about each patient can extend considerably beyond that required by the census enumerator.
Each patient admitted was allocated a sequential patient registration number. These consist of two parallel series, each starting with 'one' for male and female admissions respectively. These numbers, which appear in the index, provide the means by which an individual patient can be positively identified in other records.
Many patients might be discharged and then subsequently re-admitted days, months or years later. Each admission was numbered and recorded separately and is indexed as such, although in some cases a cross-reference to a previous admission might be noted.
A patient's record covers each patient's stay in the asylum from admission to discharge. This might span anything from a few days to many years. The record contains basic information collected at the time of their admission, such as age, occupation, marital status, religious affiliation and number of children, as well as an outline of how they came to be admitted. This may be supplemented, in the case of the later admissions, by a photograph of the patient.
The remainder of the record consists of the history of any treatments administered and the patient's ongoing physical and mental condition. This appears to have typically been updated monthly.
The record continues until the patient's eventual death or discharge. In many cases, there may be a note recording the circumstances of discharge which might include their return to the care of family or transfer to another asylum.
In the event of the patient's death while in the care of the asylum, further information may be recorded in death registers and this could include the names of next of kin and details of the place of burial.
The records of a person's stay in the asylum represent a remarkable source of personal information and in some cases include a photograph of the patient. Bear in mind, however, that their state of mind might mean that some of the information they provided when admitted might be less than accurate and verification should, if possible, be sought from other sources.
The source material is divided between two archives. The relevant archive is indicated against each index entry as follows:
GMCRO Greater Manchester County Record Office, 56 Marshall Street, New Cross, Manchester M4 5FU
PREST Lancashire Record Office, Bow Lane, Preston PR1 2RE
The archives will require both the archive reference number and patient number to locate an individual within the records.
As Warwick Davis discovered, sadly it’s not uncommon to find an ancestor who was admitted to a mental health institution. Learn how to research their illness with this handy record roundup, written by Michelle Higgs
Warwick Davis discovered that his great grandfather was admitted to Croydon Mental Hospital
The shock of a family bereavement, extreme financial worries and stress caused by overwork: just a few of the reasons why our ancestors were admitted to lunatic asylums.
They were as vulnerable to mental illness as we are today, but were treated and accommodated in very different ways.
Learn about the best resources for tracing their lives with our handy record roundup:
Most asylum records are held at local archives. You can find out which one you’ll need to visit by checking the Hospitals Records Database; this will tell you whether any records survive for the asylum you’re interested in.
Collections usually include a variety of documents such as admission and discharge registers; patients’ casebooks and case files; staff records; visiting committee minute books; photographs; annual reports and other ephemera.
Annual reports relating to an individual asylum often describe the types of treatment offered and whether there was any overcrowding at the time your ancestor was an inmate.
Look out for histories of the asylum that may have been compiled by a local history group.
The National Archives
The National Archives (TNA) at Kew holds records for criminal lunatics who were confined at Broadmoor and Bethlem.
This includes HO 8 Quarterly Returns of Prisoners (1862-1875); HO 20 Prisons Correspondence and Papers (1820-1843); HO 144 Supplementary Papers (1869-1941); and HO 145 Criminal Lunacy Warrant and Entry Books (1882-1921).
Also held at TNA are the Admission Registers for public and pauper asylums kept by the Lunacy Commission in series MH 94 (1846-1960). They record the name and sex of the patient; the name of the hospital, asylum, or licensed house; and the date of admission and discharge or death of each patient.
These registers are useful if no other records exist for the asylum that you’re interested in.
More and more asylum records are appearing online. In 2014 the Wellcome Library began an ambitious project to digitise some of its own mental health collections and those of partnership archives.
Institutions whose records are now freely available online include Ticehurst House Hospital, East Sussex; The Retreat, York; and Gartnavel Royal Hospital (Glasgow Lunatic Asylum).
Search the collections here.
The grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, 1811. Bethlem records dating from 1638-1932 can be found on Findmypast (Credit: Getty Images)
Ancestry has digitised some of TNA's Criminal Lunatic Asylum Registers, 1820-1843, as well as the Criminal Lunacy Warrant and Entry Books, 1882-1898.
Also on the Ancestry website are TNA's Lunacy Patients Admission Registers 1846-1912, plus records from St Lawrence’s Asylum, Bodmin, Cornwall (1840-1900) and Brookwood and Holloway Mental Hospitals, Surrey (1867-1900).
Although the original records can be consulted at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, admission registers and casebooks from Bethlem Hospital spanning 1683-1932 can also be accessed via Findmypast.
This fascinating collection takes in a wide range of topics including the records of a would-be assassin of King George III, a man who had overtaxed his brain by writing a dictionary and a woman with an insatiable appetite for shopping.
The site also offers view digitised admission records from South Yorkshire Asylum (1872-1910) and Prestwich Asylum (1851-1901).
Since 2016, Scottish Indexes has been compiling a free online index to mental health records held in series MC2 (Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of Mental Institutions) and MC7 (General Register of Lunatics) at the National Records of Scotland.
Fully searchable, the dataset can reveal basic details of patients admitted to Scottish asylums between 1807 and 1864, with entries from additional years due to be published in the near future.
For a small fee, users can also request a scanned version of the page on which an entry appears, revealing further information about the patient.
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