Skip to main content

The Evidence Given Before the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Lunacy Law, 1877

  • T. S. C.

Most of our readers are aware that on the 12th February, 1877, on the motion of Mr. Lewis L. Dillwyn, M.P. for Swansea, a Select Committee was appointed by the House of Commons, “To enquire into the operation of the Lunacy Law, so far as regards the security afforded by it against violations of personal liberty.” That Committee consisted of Mr. Stephen Cave, chairman, Dr. Lush, Mr. Woodd, Mr. Ramsay, Mr. Leighton, Mr. Tremayne, Mr. Herschell, Mr. Goldney, Mr. Joseph Cowen, Mr. Kavanagh, Mr. Butt, Mr. Birley, Mr. Hopwood, Sir Trevor Lawrence and Mr. Dillwyn. It was generally understood at the time, and came out more clearly in the course of the enquiry, that the chief reason for the appointment of this Committee was the fact that strong statements as to the inefficiency of the present Lunacy Acts for the protection of the personal liberty of sane people had been confidently made and most industriously circulated among the public and Members of Parliament by a few persons and a small society, who said they could produce facts in support of their statements. It was generally understood at the time, and came out also during the enquiry, that most of those persons had had personal experience of the deprivation of personal liberty authorised by these laws. It certainly could not be truthfully said that there was any kind of public excitement on the subject of lunacy, or any public demand for an enquiry, nor had any lunacy cause célèbre occurred recently to draw attention to the subject. To most persons engaged in administering the Lunacy Laws, the appointment of the Committee came as a surprise, and most of them, at least in the provinces, did not look on it in any kind of serious light. We fear they thought of it chiefly as a sop thrown to satisfy a few noisy importunate lunatics who were at large, so that few of them offered their evidence, or made any preparation to lay the results of their experience before the public. To this is due the fact that the non-official persons who gave their evidence before the Committee seemed to have been taken quite at hap-hazard, and that there was no proper representation of the different classes of persons who administer the Lunacy Laws, or have to do with lunatics throughout the country. Far too many of certain kinds of people were examined by the Committee, and far too few of others. This is self-evident when, in looking over the list of witnesses, one finds that 17 out of the 59 witnesses were Government officials; that out of the 26 members of the medical profession examined, all but three were specialists, and 14 were London men. The medical profession in general, apart from the specialty of psychiatric medicine, were as nearly as possible unrepresented, for only one of the three of their body was examined on anything but special points connected with individuals. And this in an enquiry as to how the Lunacy Laws affect the liberty of the subject, when 180,000 people have been certified insane and their liberty taken from them by the general body of the profession, under the authority of the Lunacy Act of 1845 ! of that great body of medical officers of unions who certify nearly all the pauper lunatics, not one was brought before the Committee. Out of that most intelligent, public-spirited and large minded body of country gentlemen who compose the Committees of Visitors of the County Asylums, and who have had the whole labour of carrying out the Lunacy Acts in the English Counties, only one was examined on any general question. Not a single Visitor of a provincial licensed house was called to be examined as to how their work was done. Not a single independent representative of the legal profession, which has practically so much to do in carrying out the Lunacy Acts and managing the property of the insane, was asked to give his evidence. The whole body of Poor Law Guardians, who levy the lunacy rates, and represent the public as regards their expenditure, were conspicuous by their entire absence. One might have thought that a few really recovered lunatics could have been got to give a true and impartial account of their treatment while insane. As for Ireland, not a doctor but Inspector Nugent, not an official of any Asylum, public or private, not a governor of an Asylum, not even a half-cured Irish lunatic, appeared to tell how the insane of that country are treated. Scotland was represented by its two Medical Commissioners, and one asylum physician from the provinces. Surely one or two of the Sheriffs, those all important officials by whose signatures every lunatic in Scotland is deprived of his liberty, might have been got to speak for themselves as to whether they acted “ministerially” or “judicially;” and whether they read the doctors' certificates through or not, before they signed their orders.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal of Psychiatry
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2514-9946
  • URL: /core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 3 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 14 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 19th February 2018 - 25th May 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

The Evidence Given Before the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Lunacy Law, 1877

  • T. S. C.
Submit a response


No eLetters have been published for this article.


Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *