Talking to Barbara Taylor about her new madness memoir this week, it’s clear that Britain does not have a glorious history when it comes to dealing with mad people. But The Spectator has always stood up for them, arguing in 1844, for example, that ‘the custody of lunatics ought to be like that of children – of sick children; and the guardians, who stand to those adult in body but infantile in mind in the place of parents, should be at all times open to their applications, ready to aid, comfort, and sooth.’ The magazine has often made a point of reporting on the horrors that have gone on behind closed doors.

In the 19th century, it was frighteningly easy to get carted off to a loony bin. A visiting Frenchman had a terrible time of it in 1828. A local man, seeing him looking lost and ill, offered to take him to a doctor and instead led him to an asylum, where he was shackled in various uncomfortable positions. After getting loose, he said, ‘an under-keeper rushed in on me, threw me headlong on the ground, struck me in the face with his fist, and brought me back to my former place, to tie me tighter than before’. A Billingsgate fishmonger John Watkyns got into a similar difficulty 20 years later – he was ‘conveyed to a lunatic asylum, on the sole ground that he was in the habit of getting intoxicated after quarrelling with his wife’. It was only by determined perseverance that his friend, another fishmonger, was able to find out where he was.

Nearly a hundred years later, asylums were still a convenient means to get people out of the way. In 1956, the MP Donald Mcl Johnson gave a party for lunatics and journalists to persuade the press of the need to reform lunacy laws. The Spectator diarist was convinced:

‘I must say that, talking to his ‘cases’, it was clear that the law as it stands is not only outmoded, but a positive incitement to ill-intentioned persons to put their enemies out of the way. All that is required is a doctor’s signature and you or I can be incarcerated, without benefit of habeas corpus, until such time as the hospital authorities agree that we are sane.’

In fact, this very problem had been raised in the magazine in 1885, when a young woman spent six weeks in a mental hospital on very shaky evidence (‘Jesuit on the brain’ was cited in court).

‘All the more is the desirability evident of taking the responsibility off these unfortunate medical men, and at the same time taking away the motive for certifying lunacy where lunacy is very questionable, by getting rid of the private lunatic asylums, and making both the decision that lunacy exists, and the care of the lunatic, a public trust.’

The old asylums weren’t all places of imprisonment. In 1861, this magazine was shocked when an MP checked himself out of a private asylum, took a cab to the House of Commons, voted on a bill, got back into a cab and checked himself back in. The editorial line seems reasonable:

‘The House ought to adopt a standing order, that no Member shall enter the House so long as he is a certificated patient in a lunatic asylum.’

Tags: From the archive, Health, mental health, Spectator