Lunatic Asylums.

Original title page

Humour is to be found in the oddest of places. Such a source turned out to be a pamphlet published in 1791, entitled Rules for the Government of the Lunatic Hospital and Asylum in Manchester.

One of the things which makes it funny today is its blunt use of words like “lunatic” and “asylum”, words which we tend to avoid today as being somehow offensive in their directness. Our forefathers had no such reservations: if you were a lunatic, they said so, and there was no beating about the bush. Political correctness had not then been invented, and so the humour comes not from the harsh methods of treatment of the mentally ill in the eighteenth century, but from imagining someone saying what follows on a televised chat-show, and not batting an eyelid….

Let’s start with the procedures for admission. Firstly, it was necessary for a visiting “physician, surgeon, or apothecary” to certify that his patient was “in a state of lunacy, and a proper object to be admitted into a Lunatic Hospital.” Secondly, a petition had to be signed by two of the patient’s relatives or friends, or failing that, by the Church-warden or the Overseers of the Poor. It had to state that, in the opinion of the petitioners, the person was “unhappily disordered in his senses”, and had to close thus: “We beg that he may be admitted a Patient of your Lunatic Hospital, upon terms agreeable to the rules of the Institution.”

Next, visitors. They needed a special pass before they were allowed in, and there was a pretty stern warning at the end of it, which read thus:

“N.B. If any person, bringing this ticket, shall deliver a knife, or anything, whereby the Patient may hurt themselves, or others, or bring them any ale, beer, wine, spirit, or any strong liquors, the Patient above-named will be expelled.”

As to the Rules of the Institution, some of these are decidedly odd to our modern eyes. Thus Rule 22 was that straightjackets could be hired from the Matron (subject to the approval, in writing, of one trustee) for a deposit of 10 shillings and 6 pence, refundable if it came back clean within three months. Rule 31 stipulated, “That the feet of every Patient in straw, or in chains, be carefully examined, gently rubbed, night and morning, and covered with flannel during the winter season…” Finally, Rule 46: “That if any Patient shall make his escape from this Hospital or Asylum, through the neglect, or inattention, of the Keeper, Matron, or any of their Servants, the whole expence of retaking such Patients shall be paid by the Keeper or Matron and deducted out of their salary.”

But what about food? What could you have expected to be on the menu back in 1791?

Sunday breakfast was a real treat – a pint of Milk or Drink Pottage. Monday was the same. Tuesday the same again. Wednesday – well, yes – the same again. As for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they were…the same.

What about dinner? This was more adventurous. On Sunday you got eight ounces of boiled mutton, beef or veal, with broth, pudding and roots. On Monday you could delight to twelve ounces of Rice, or Flour Pudding with Roots. Tuesday, well, that was the same as Sunday, and Wednesday was the same as Monday, but on Thursday you could have the same as on Sunday, and on Friday and Saturday the same as on Monday, so things weren’t too monotonous.

Unfortunately supper was the same on every day of the week: a pint of Milk Pottage (just to remind you of what you’d had for breakfast), though this time with an ounce of butter. Sometimes, though, the one ounce of butter would be replaced with three ounces of cheese.

Visitor's ticket for lunatic asylum