In 1808, the Lunacy Act, also known as Wynn’s Act, was passed, enabling counties to establish their own lunatic asylums, with their own money. Although private hospitals, and those such as St Luke’s, had existed for decades, this act heralded a sea-change in how the mentally ill poor were dealt with by society, from being largely looked after within their own community to being institutionalised.
One rural county was particularly keen to set up an asylum. In April 1812, Bedfordshire became the second county – behind Nottinghamshire – to open a county asylum.
This was primarily due to one local magistrate and politician – Samuel Whitbread, of the famous brewing family.
Whitbread undoubtedly had a strong charitable streak, dealing with the many local people who visited him in his capacity as JP in a highly individual way. He was seen as a friend of the poor, looking carefully into each person’s background and case before making decisions.
He may also have wanted to have a lasting memorial to him in his community. Prone to depression – which led to him committing suicide in 1815 – he was no doubt aware of the fragility of life, and perhaps wanted something concrete as a legacy to his life and work. In this light, he was keen to get an asylum built in his county and for people to associate it with him.
This, perhaps, explains the two cases that he recorded in his notebook of out-of-sessions work in September 1811.
The first case involved Elizabeth Barber of Biggleswade. She approached Whitbread on 13 September, asking when the new county asylum might be ready for patients. Her husband was currently housed in the ward for the insane at St Luke’s Hospital in London, which had been the first such ward in the country when it opened in 1751.
However, her husband wasn’t allowed to stay there ad infinitum; he was due to be discharged in January 1812, and Elizabeth was unwilling for him to return home for her to look after. Whitbread was unable to give her the information she was obviously hoping for; all he could do was suggest that she arrange for a private madhouse to take her husband.
Just over a week later, on 22 September, Mr Little, a gentleman again from Biggleswade, came to visit Whitbread. He had a more urgent case he needed advice about; a local woman, Susanna Simpson, had become insane three months earlier. Obviously, the local asylum was not ready, so could she gain admittance to St Luke’s? Whitbread said he would enquire, although he does not record whether Mr Little’s request was successful.
What these cases show is that when local residents had an issue they needed resolving, they went to the magistrate who they thought would be most sympathetic to their cause. Whitbread’s support for a new asylum was widely known, and so those needing friends and relatives taken care of approached him in the hope that he would be sympathetic.
But Whitbread’s sympathies were tempered with his own ambitions, which resulted in the asylum being built as a showpiece even when Bedfordshire was not overwhelmed by lunatics.
Roy Porter has noted that local overseers had to be “bullied” into putting people into the asylum, when they had previously been looked after by friends and family, and that in 1806, Bedfordshire magistrates had told a Select Committee that there were no lunatics in the county at all!
Yet this is to underestimate the use that people did get from the asylum when it opened. It ended up being overcrowded, with people from neighbouring counties – without their own asylum – being admitted. It closed in 1860 – to be replaced by an even larger asylum.
Cases taken from Samuel Whitbread’s notebooks, edited by Alan F Cirket (Bedford Local History Society, 1971).