Genealogy record roundup: Asylums and mental health institutions
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).
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.
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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