Lunacy Act 1845

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The Lunacy/Lunatics Act 1845 (8 & 9 Vict., c. 100) and the County Asylums Act 1845 formed mental health law in England and Wales from 1845 to 1890. The Lunacy Act's most important provision was a change in the status of mentally ill people to patients.


Prior to the Lunacy Act lunacy legislation in England was enshrined in the County Asylums Act of 1808, which established institutions for poor and for criminally-insane mentally ill people. The institutions were called asylums and they gave refuge where mental illness could receive proper treatment. The first asylum owing to the County Asylums Act opened at Northampton in 1811. By 1827 however only nine county asylums had opened and many patients were still in gaol as prisoners and criminals. As a consequence of this slow progress the Lunacy Act 1845 created the Lunacy Commission to focus on lunacy legislation.[1] The Act was championed by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury.

Shaftesbury was the head of the Commission from its founding in 1845 until his death in 1885.[2] The Lunacy Commission was made up of eleven Metropolitan Commissioners. The Commission was monumental as it was not only a full-time commission, but it was also salaried for six of its members. The six members of the commission that were full-time and salaried were made up of three members of the legal system and three members of the medical community. The other five members of the commission were all honorary members that simply had to attend board meetings. The duty of the Commission was to establish and carry out the provisions of the Act. [3]


The Act established the Commissioners in Lunacy to inspect plans for asylums on behalf of the Home Secretary (s.3). The Act required asylums, other than Bethlem Hospital, to be registered with the Commission, to have written regulations and to have a resident physician (s.42). Under the Act, patients lost their right of access to the courts to challenge their detention. Detention could only be reviewed by the commissioners or county visitors.

The Commission had many roles in carrying out the act. It established a network of public county institutions. It monitored the conditions in the asylums and the treatment of the patients. It made a point of reaching out to patients in workhouses and prisons and getting them to the proper institutions where they could be treated. It also focused on "single lunatics" who were not connected with any prisons or workhouse but needed psychiatric care. It monitored the treatment and mental condition of patients whom the Commission could not remove from prisons and workhouses.[4]

1845 County Asylums Act

The Lunacy Act of 1845 was passed through Parliament simultaneously with the 1845 County Asylums Act. The two acts were dependent on each other. The Lunacy Act established the Lunacy Commission and the County Asylums Act set forth most of the provisions as to what was to be monitored within the asylums and helped establish the public network of the county asylums. Like the Lunacy Act, there had been several drafts of this act passed before 1845 and several afterward as well. The most notable of these were the 1808, and the 1853 County Asylum Acts. The Lunacy Act itself was amended several times after its conception. There was a new version written in both 1846 and 1847. Both of these versions were actually repealed by the 1853 County Asylums Act. [4]

The importance of these two acts together is that they consolidated Lunacy Law in England. However, no legislation has ever combined the entirety of Lunacy Law. Both of these acts were the basis for Lunacy Law in England until 1890 when both of them were repealed by the Lunacy Act of 1890.[5]

Children and the Lunacy Act of 1845

When the Lunacy Act was passed in 1845, there were many questions raised about what to do with the children that were not in good mental health. Insane children were more common than most people know. The confusion on what to do with them was because the Act gave no age limits on who was to be admitted into the asylums. [6]

Part of the inspections that took place and were conducted by the Lunacy Commission involved inspecting workhouses for patients that could be removed from the workhouses and placed in institutions. The Commission would often find mentally unhealthy children and push for them to be removed from the workhouses. However, many of the institutions were hesitant to take in the children seeing as they believed they served a threat in the way their institution was to be run. Because of this, many children were admitted, under the guise that they were in desperate need of help and served a serious danger to themselves and others.[7]

The asylums of the day, while typically filled with poor lunatics or criminally insane persons, were meant to be asylums in the true sense of the word. They were to be a place were those who were paupers or mentally could go and find solace and safety and get away from the harsh work conditions of the workhouses. Many of these children were only looking for just that, somewhere to go and find safety. Therefore, admitting them under such false pretenses, that they are a serious danger to themselves and others was causing them to receive improper treatment. [8]


  1. Unsworth, Clive."Law and Lunacy in Psychiatry's 'Golden Age'", Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. Vol. 13, No. 4. (Winter, 1993), pp. 482.
  2. Unsworth, 1993, pp. 482.
  3. Wright, David: "Mental Health Timeline", 1999
  4. 4.0 4.1 Wright, 1999
  5. The Lunacy Commission
  6. Adair, Forsythe, and Melling: "'A Proper Lunatic for Two Years': Pauper Lunatic Children in Victorian and Edwardian England. Child Admissions to the Devon County Asylum, 1845–1914", Journal of Social History, Vol. 31, No. 2. (Winter, 1997), pp. 371
  7. Adair, Forsythe, and Melling, 1997, pp.373
  8. Adair, Forsythe, and Melling, 1997

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