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The Mad-House Keepers of East London

Elaine Murphy looks at the two families who dominated the private provision of care for the insane in London in the early 19th century.

In the early nineteenth century a large number of privately owned, profit-making institutions for the mentally ill east and north of the City of London created a thriving market economy in patients and staff. In East London, private mad-houses were strikingly successful enterprises (commercially if not in terms of the care they offered their inmates), providing well over a thousand places by the time their scandalous conditions were exposed in the Parliamentary Select Committees of 1815-16 and 1827.

From the Middle Ages until 1948, the care of people with mental disorder who were without personal financial resources, like that of any other group of people dependent on the public purse, relied on the system of welfare administration for those unable to provide for themselves – the Poor Law. Various Acts of Parliament from 1714 established rules governing the disposal and care of mentally disordered people. The rules were refined throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the pattern of institutional provision changed. Nevertheless the responsible public authority for all impotent, dependent groups of people remained throughout the local Poor Law authority, initially the parish vestry Trustees of the Poor, then, after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Boards of Guardians. Institutional care was provided and paid for from the public purse or was purchased by the parish at public expense from institutions  run by private proprietors.

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