Tag Archives: lunacy

A lunatic in the family

Hogarth’s image of the Rake’s Progress in which he has finally descended into madness in Bedlam


The treatment in the eighteenth century of those born mentally handicapped and those suffering from mental illness was often absolutely horrific.

The history of Bedlam (a corruption of Bethlem, the Bethlehem Hospital) shows that valiant attempts were sometimes made, but frequently failed, and the attitudes that saw the fashionable treating the inmates as a fit subject for sight-seeing demonstrates a lack of empathy we now find deeply shocking.

For the well-to-do, the alternative to putting a family member in a public institution was private nursing, somewhere quiet and well away from the family (the option taken by the British Royal family in relation to the epileptic Prince John in the early 20th century), or a private asylum. In general such relatives were quietly put aside and forgotten.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a number of private asylums were established on the edge of London in places such as Fulham and Kensington. I first came across this in relation to the fate of a brother of my 3 times great grandmother. The Parmenter family seem to have been particularly unlucky in their sons since a letter written in the 1790s refers to their eldest son Isaac being incapable of work, in some way handicapped, and his brother John being exceptionally small for his age and likewise unsuited to physical work – both died in their twenties. Their brother Robert Lee Parmenter (born in 1792) found work as a bank clerk in the family business, but by the mid 1820s the Lee family cousins were already making provision for care that would last for the rest of his life. When he arrived at the Kensington House Asylum is unclear, but it is to be hoped he was not there during the 1830s.

In 1838-41 it was the subject of an exposé by Richard Paternoster who had been forcibly detained there in 1838. Conditions were nothing like the idylic ones described in its prospectus.

‘He described an overcrowded, badly ordered institution in which the inmates were at the mercy of their often brutal keepers, some of them ex-convicts. “Occuption there was none, amusement none, music none, books none, newspapers none, baths none! cleanliness none, medical treatment none, friends none, food scanty and bad.” Paternoster detailed several examples of violence against patients, one of whom was beaten up for throwing a small bone over the wall into Sir John Scott Lillie’s garden.[1]

After the institution came under Cornishman Dr Francis Philp, from 1840 onwards, conditions improved significantly. Interestingly, from a genealogical point of view, although the inmates are easily found in the 1841 census, they are later listed only by their initials. Dr Philp was mis-transcribed as Philip and was away from home in the 1851 census, so the only solution to finding the inmates was to page through the census books to find Kensington House by its geographical location. You can find a fuller account of Kensington House here.

Many of the male patients seem to have been professional men – occupations listed in the 1841 census include farmer, planter, colonel, merchant, surgeon, several French people and a number of clerks. The relatively large number of French patients may have been due to the presence in the area of emigrés from the French revolution and the earlier use of Kensington House by the Jesuits. It is to be hoped that Robert Lee Parmenter did not arrive at the Asylum before 1840, but he was certainly there in 1841 and he died there of bronchitis in 1866.

Another sad and intriguing case is that of the second son of Frances Dalzell, who married George Duff in 1757 in Charles Street, London. Frances was a daughter of Susanna Augier whose family I have previously discussed. It appears that Frances met George in Bath, and although she was nearly seven years older than he was it was a love match. Her father was already dead and she and her brother had jointly inherited the Lucky Hill estate in Jamaica, and would also inherit from their grandfather General Robert Dalzell who outlived all his children and died in his ninety-sixth year.

Frances and George had a son called William Robert baptised in 1758, James in 1760, twins George and Jane Dorothea in 1765 and Frances who was probably born a year later. William Robert seems to have died young, both daughters died in their twenties and George, who went into the army, was for a time disowned by his father because of his wild lifestyle.

Two online references to James refer to him being ‘a lunatic from birth’, and one says that he was cared for in Beaufort House in Fulham under the name of James Thompson. Ironically it seems that he outlived his entire family, dying at the age of seventy-two. I have not as yet been able to verify these on-line references, but if correct they suggest that the care given in Beaufort House was good. It seems to have been a small institution, for a mid-nineteenth century report which listed Kensington House as having 44 inmates (2 under restraint) listed only five for Beaufort House, which also had two under restraint.

Without further information it is impossible to know what was the matter with James. The description of him as ‘a lunatic from birth’ suggests either that he was mentally handicapped, or perhaps that he had Down’s syndrome, although it would be unusual for someone with Downs to live into their seventies. He may have been autistic or have suffered from epilepsy, or perhaps he had a degree of cerebral palsy sufficient to make him socially unacceptable, but not to shorten his life.

Frances Dalzell died in 1778 and in her Will, written two years earlier, she makes no mention of her son William. She left £100 to James and £200 to each of her daughters with the residue of the Jamaican estates left to George. She left her shares in the Sun Fire Office in similar proportions with one each to James, Jane Dorothea and Frances and twelve to George. That she did not leave a substantial share to James, the eldest, reinforces the suggestion that he was incapable of minding his own affairs.

George Duff senior died in 1818 and George junior, described at the time as his only son, died in 1828. James was probably still living at the time.

NOTE I have recently added the following update to my previous article on the Augier clan.

POSTSCRIPT : 2nd August 2012 I have been looking again at the children of Susanna Augier and I think a confusion has arisen over her children with Peter Caillard. I now think that her children with Peter Caillard were Mary, Peter and Susanna and that there is only one child called Frances – the daughter of Gibson Dalzell.

[1] British History online.