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Profits of Madness

Sarah Wise admires an assessment of lunacy in 19th-century London.

Bethnal Green Asylum, photographed in the 1870s but little changed from its appearance in the 1840s.If you had the great misfortune to become mentally ill and required institutionalisation in the 19th century you could – depending on the depth of your pocket – find yourself in the workhouse lunatic ward, in a county asylum, a charitable hospital or an expensive private ‘retreat’. But, as Elaine Murphy revealed in the pages of History Today in September 2001, for over a century the pauper insane of London and the south-east of England had a different option: to be sent to one of the private asylums of Bethnal Green and Hoxton, with the bill for their ‘care’ paid by the local parish. Before the passing of the 1845 Lunatic Asylums and Pauper Lunatics Act, which compelled counties and boroughs to construct specialist institutions for their lunatic poor, private licensed houses – such as Thomas Warburton’s Red House and White House, and Jonathan Miles’ Hoxton House – were the preferred choices of metropolitan and Home Counties parishes. Here, the parishes would board those paupers deemed to be in need of institutionalisation but for whom there was no room at the workhouse. Miles’ house was made great use of by the Royal Navy for lunatic seafarers, while by the late 1820s Warburton was warehousing close to 900 pauper patients.

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