County Asylums Act

The County Asylums Act of 1808 established the foundations of a national institutional network of insane asylums. It authorized the founding of publicly funded, county asylums to accommodate more mentally ill people. These asylums particularly helped paupers, whose other choices were remaining in their potentially hostile communities or living in workhouses. This Act stemmed from a string of legislation in the 18th century attempting to curb abuses in asylums, some of which were founded in the 14th century with unchanging views on treatment. Bethlem hospital was the most important example of this medieval approach to mental illness. In Bethlem, patients were on display to the public. People came to visit as one in the 21st century goes to visit a zoo: for entertainment and to gawk. This came to be the 18th and 19th century standard of what not to do in caring for the mentally ill.  However, at institutions like St. Luke’s (founded in 1751 to accommodate more people than could Bethlem), the desire to give patients privacy led to a lack of visitation by outside officials, leading to rampant abuse. From 1750-1850, provision for the insane through private, volunteer-based, and publicly-funded asylums attempted to improve the abusive conditions through establishing networks and more centralized systems of quality control through visitation. However, enforcement was inconsistent due to its local nature until the passing of the County Asylums Act. This Act and the national network it created were turning points in the push for asylum reform.


Smith, Leonard. ‘“The Keeper Himself Must be Kept’: Visitation and the Lunatic Asylum in England 1750-1850,” Clio Medica, Vol. 86 (2010): 199-222.

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