Outside the County Asylum: The cases of Charles Luxmore and Edward Lancey


This third post about life outside the asylum ventures over the border into Devon, highlighting two cases which prompted legal processes concerning the domestic confinement and inadequate care of those considered ‘lunatics’. These legal processes demonstrate the turn towards the belief that, in the minds of the authorities at least, the best place for the ‘pauper insane’ was the County Asylum, reinforced by the Acts of 1845. And for Charles Luxmore and Edward Lancey this belief would certainly seem to have been an accurate one.

Charles Luxmore had become a blacksmith in his youth, despite being a child of ‘weak intellect’. However, in 1838, after he displayed increasing episodes of ‘mania’, his father confined him – a situation he was to endure for the next 13 years.

He was restrained with a chain and leg iron within a wooden ‘cell’ measuring 7ft x 4ft, at the family home at Germansweek, near to the Cornwall/Devon border. When his parents became infirm and unable to manage Charles, they asked John Yeo, their son-in-law, to take over. Yeo and his wife moved to Orchard [probably Orchard Barton], in nearby Lewtrenchard, taking Charles and the wooden structure with them.

A local resident reported to the Poor Law Officer their concerns that a ‘lunatic’ was being confined in poor conditions, and Charles was discovered. He was found chained to a beam, naked and filthy. Unable to walk without assistance, he was taken by covered cart to the Devon County Asylum at Exminster, which had opened in July 1845 – 7 years into Charles’s confinement.

This was a complicated case, as it was not immediately apparent how the law had been broken. It was finally decided Yeo should be prosecuted for volunteering to take care of a lunatic but failing to do so. The case was heard in July 1851. Yeo was sentenced to 6 months in prison – although in a common gaol rather than a punitive house of correction – with the clear message that people should report to the authorities if they were unable to humanely care for a family member within the home. The new asylums were the places to manage and treat insanity.

Nevertheless, many families resisted placing their relatives within the County Asylums.

Devon County Pauper Asylum, Exeter

Devon County Asylum at Exminster

Image: The Time Chamber

The second Devon case involved Anthony Huxtable, charged with ‘abusing, ill-treating, and wilfully neglecting Edward Lancey, a lunatic’ at Bratton Fleming, near Barnstaple.

Edward, Huxtable’s brother-in-law, had been discovered after a ‘holloaing noise’ was heard coming from the house by James Richards, the relieving officer of Barnstaple Union. Edward was found in a darkened room, measuring 8ft x 6ft, and less than 6ft high, which could not be opened from the inside. The window was boarded, and, despite it being only 6ft from the family sitting room and opposite the kitchen door, the room emitted a ‘great stench’, attributed to it having no ‘convenience’.

James Richards described how he saw ‘something like a bundle moving about on the bed’. Taking a closer look he realised ‘it was a human being’. Edward was on a bed covered in straw, with just a piece of unidentifiable cloth as bedding, and wearing only a shirt.

‘I could not see much of the lunatic in the bed’, continued Richards, ‘but from what I did see, I remarked that his legs were drawn up, and his nose was almost between his knees’. Lancey would not – or could not – give Richards rational responses, only talking to himself, and appeared ‘wholly without intellect’. Richards requested ‘some clothes for the lunatic’, but Huxtable stated he did not have any. When Richards threatened to take ‘the lunatic’ to the magistrates at Barnstaple naked, Huxtable found some clothes, although from his ‘bent, fixed position’ Richards supposed it would be impossible to clothe Lancey in trousers. Indeed, he observed, ‘when he was carried out of the house into the omnibus, he retained the same position in which he had been lying’.


Edward Lancey, a few days after his admission into Devon County Asylum, by G. Pycroft, published in The Asylum Journal of Mental Science Vol. II (1856)

Edward’s terrible condition and rescue was widely reported in the newspapers, as was Huxtable’s subsequent trial. It transpired Huxtable was a widower who ‘did not wish to part with the lunatic, as his (lunatic’s) mother and sister wished to keep him’. Huxtable was in receipt of £21 a year to keep Lancey: £7 from his wife’s estate, and £7 each from that of her two sisters, also deceased. Edward had been with him for 7 years, and Huxtable described him as ‘perfectly quiet and harmless’. Previously Lancey had lived with his mother – the intimation being she may also have been ‘insane’ – and Huxtable testified that Edward was:

‘in the same crippled, helpless condition when he came to him; that he was exceedingly filthy in his personal habits; and that it was impossible to prevent him’.

Huxtable also claimed that Edward ‘destroyed his clothes as fast as they were given to him’.

Speaking at the trial on Huxtable’s behalf was the rector of the adjoining parish, Reverend Carwithen. He testified that Huxtable was industrious, hardworking, and of excellent character. Carwithen had visited the property and heard Lancey ‘raving’: he had also smelt the ‘intolerable’ and ‘offensive’ stench. Huxtable had assured Carwithen he tried to keep his brother-in-law clean, but any ‘convenience’ placed in the room had been destroyed.

Mr. Torr, the surgeon called to the property at the request of Richards, reported he had found him to be pale and emaciated, with his ‘knees up to his face’, unable to use his legs to walk. However, he also observed Lancey had been on clean oat straw with no bedsores or marks of violence. Huxtable informed Torr he had not put him in an asylum as none would take him due to his ‘dirty habits’ – an assertion refuted by Torr who told him ‘there were places provided for them’.

Edward was removed to the Devon County Asylum, where John Bucknill, the superintendent, examined him. Bucknill reported that whilst he had seen ‘persons kept in farm houses’ they were ‘not in the filthy condition as was this lunatic’. He took the opportunity to emphasise the benefits of the asylum, attributing many aspects of Lancey’s condition as due to, or exacerbated by, his previous confinement, and highlighting how his condition had improved with proper food, care, and a larger, well-ventilated room.

Bucknill deposition

In a judgement shocking to modern sensibilities, Huxtable was acquitted, as he had not imprisoned Edward, ‘the lunatic being himself, by very nature, a prisoner’, whilst the charge of wilful neglect was dismissed as it was ‘more accountable to ignorance and the incapabilities of the farmer’s house’. The evidence was thought to show Huxtable had done all he could for Lancey under the circumstances – and to usefully demonstrate the undeniable benefits of the County Asylum.

Bucknill published an account of Edward Lancey’s case, to underline precisely that, drawing attention to another recently admitted patient called Joseph Adams. Joseph had been discovered in an attic room where he had been confined by his mother and brother for 18 years. In that time he had never been out of the room nor had clothes on – although Bucknill notes he was well fed and not crippled.

Nevertheless, despite the promotion of the benefits of the County Asylums, mistrust, combined with financial and geographical factors, meant the workhouse continued to be used to house the pauper insane throughout the 19th century.

References and further reading:

Sarah Wise, Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctor in Victorian England (2012)

Elaine Murphy, ‘Workhouse care of the insane, 1845 – 90’ in Pamela Dale and Joseph Melling (eds) Mental Illness and Learning Disability Since 1850: Finding a place for mental disorder in the United Kingdom (2006) pp. 24 – 45

Leonard D. Smith, ‘The County Asylum in the Mixed Economy of Care, 1808 – 1845’ in Joseph Melling and Bill Forsythe (eds) Insanity, Institutions and Society, 1800 – 1914: A social history of madness in comparative perspective (1999) pp. 33 – 47

Further Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy, to the Lord Chancellor (1847)

‘Cruel Treatment of a Lunatic’, Medical Times & Gazette Saturday, January 13 1855, p. 559

‘Cruel Conduct Towards a Lunatic’, The Standard Tuesday May 29 1855

‘Alleged Ill-Treatment of a Lunatic’, Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser Thursday July 261855

‘Seven Years in a Lunatic’s Life’, Lloyds Weekly Newspaper Sunday, June 3 1855

John Charles Bucknill (ed) The Asylum Journal of Mental Science Vol. I (1855)

John Charles Bucknill (ed) The Asylum Journal of Mental Science Vol. II (1856)

The Time Chamber: http://www.thetimechamber.co.uk/beta/sites/asylums/asylum-history/asylum-architecture

Devon County Mental Hospital: Social Attitudes and Mental Illness in Devon 1845 – 1986: http://dcmh.exeter.ac.uk/


Outside the County Asylum: Workhouses, Poorhouses and Madhouses

The first patient was admitted into Cornwall County Asylum on the 25th October 1820. This was the seventh such establishment to open following the County Asylums Act of 1808, which required each county to found an asylum to care for people with mental illness, and the first in the West Country. Despite this Act, only nine public asylums had opened by 1827, leading to enforcement through the interdependent Lunacy Act and County Asylum Act of 1845. These laws were designed primarily to address the issue of the ‘pauper insane’.

Whilst we may find the concept of the 19th century asylum unsettling, it is perhaps necessary to place these institutions in the context of the existing conditions and treatment of the ‘insane’ – particularly the poor – in the late 18th and early 19th century.Those ushering in a new era of asylum treatment viewed themselves as progressive, moving away from the dreadful conditions prevalent within private madhouses, workhouses or family homes. Inevitably, many who were mentally ill joined the prison population.

Above: James Norris (incorrectly named as William Norris), an American sailor, whose case in 1814 was instrumental in reform. Norris was found to have been in Bethlem Royal Hospital, mechanically restrained, in extremely poor health, and confined in isolation for over ten years. The beginning of his confinement, in 1804, was at a time of severe overcrowding in Bethlem due the increased admission of military patients caused by the war between Britain and France. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

For those who could afford it, or were financed by their parish, there were private ‘madhouses’. As profit-making businesses, conditions varied, with many using cheaper mechanical restraints rather than strong clothing or alternatives to restraining, and administering corporal punishment rather than care.  These methods were also apparent within the older charitable asylums with medieval foundations – the most renowned being London’s Bethlem. There were no such institutions in Cornwall: private patients were sent to ‘madhouses’ outside of the Duchy, including Dorset and London.

During 1791, concerns about corruption, poor conditions and harsh treatment within York Asylum, which had opened in 1777, led to the Quakers establishing ‘The Retreat’, instigated by the Tuke family. York Retreat, opened in 1796, advocated and promoted humane methods of ‘moral management’, and contributed to a significant shift in the treatment of mental illness.

Above: The Retreat, York. In D. Hack Tuke, Reform in the Treatment of the Insane: Early History of the Retreat, York; its objects and influence (1892).

The pauper insane tended to be housed within workhouses and poorhouses, often chained, and in terrible surroundings. For example, the reforming philanthropist James Neild wrote to The Gentleman’s Magazine on November 5th 1803 describing a visit to Bodmin, where he had witnessed the ‘savage and inhuman treatment’ of a ‘poor lunatic’ in the workhouse there:

‘On visiting the workhouse at Bodmin, in Cornwall, which I found in a very dirty state, I was shown down stairs into a room where a poor lunatic was confined. He lay stretched on a little short and dirty straw at the further end, with a few rags, but no shirt upon him. He held a book in one hand at arm’s length, on which his eyes were intently fixed. His shaggy hair, long beard, dirty and livid face, gave him the appearance of a monster rather than a man. He took no notice, either on opening the door, or during the time I was in his room, till I came close up to him; he then took his eyes off his book, and looked at me with a more forceible appeal to humanity than I had ever felt.’

He continued:

Neild states he ‘endeavoured to investigate the matter, but the mistress kept such an incessant clack that I could not put in a word edgewise’. He subsequently contacted the mayor, also the parish rector, who organised, along with the magistrates and a physician, ‘that the poor object’ be ‘taken from his wretched place of confinement, put into a clean room, and properly taken care of’. The physician was ‘the humane and philanthropic Dr Hall’, who also worked ‘without fee or reward’ at Bodmin prison, and it would appear the man was placed in an individual cell there.

Hall assured Nield:

‘he would pay particular attention to the man; that he was only temporarily deranged, and was frequently sane for a long time, and would then do a most astonishing deal of work for those he loved.’

Above: Bodmin Union Workhouse buildings today, St Dominic’s Close. This building (built 1838-42) superseded that which Nield witnessed. © Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall 2013. All rights reserved.

Bodmin Union Workhouse. © Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall. All rights reserved.

Similarly, John Pawley was kept in Lostwithiel poorhouse from 1809 until his death in 1815, chained, with a bed of straw and reeds. It would seem Pawley was kept in a separate room – the windows of which needed frequent repair – however, this was not always the case. In 1807, a report by Henry Alexander found that of the nine workhouses in the west country which had insane inmates, only three had separate accommodation for them, one of which was Redruth.

At Liskeard he discovered two women confined in filthy, damp, dungeon-like conditions, chained to the floor, with only a little dirty straw for bedding. One of these women, a former maidservant of around 30 years of age, stated she had been confined for wandering. Seven years earlier her betrothed had left Liskeard for Plymouth and neglected to contact her: travelling to Plymouth she found him about to marry another woman, causing her ‘derangement’. Alexander deemed her to be quite harmless. The other woman showed him injuries on her arms from the children in the workhouse throwing stones at her.

At Falmouth and Teignmouth workhouses he found two ‘idiots’ amongst the other inmates, observing:

‘There was something extremely disgusting and hardly human in their appearance. They had each of them only a very thin gown on. Both of them were men but they were perfectly indecent.’

These conditions could result in further tragedy and suffering. On the 20th August 1819, the year before Cornwall County Asylum admitted its first patient, The West Briton reported on a case heard at the Cornwall Assizes. Phillippa May, ‘a pauper belonging to Padstow’, was charged with the murder of 73 year old Mary Jeffry, also a pauper. Phillippa May had been ‘insane for two years before, and was confined with a chain at the poor-house at Padstow’, chained to a beam. Mary Jeffry slept in the same room. During the night of the 19th of May Phillippa had attempted to escape and strangled Mary, the noise alerting the sleeping keeper of the poorhouse.

Phillippa May was found not guilty, however, by reason of insanity at the time of the attack.

References and Further Reading

Charles T. Andrews, The Dark Awakening (1978)

M. A. Crowther, The Workhouse System 1834 – 1929 (1981)

W. B. Webstock, Old Dorset (1967)

Barbara Fawcett and Kate Karban, Contemporary Mental Health: Theory, Policy and Practice (2005)

Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Madhouses in England (1815)

 D. Hack Tuke, Reform in the Treatment of the Insane: Early History of the Retreat, York; its objects and influence (1892)

James Nield, State of the Prisons in England, Scotland and Wales (1812)

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 74, Part 2, 1804: 608-611

Anne Digby, Madness, morality and medicine: A study of the York Retreat 1796 – 1914 (1985)

Sarah Rutherford, The Landscapes of Public Lunatic Asylums in England, 1808 – 1914 (2003)

Barry Edginton, ‘Moral architecture: the influence of the York Retreat on asylum design’, Health and Place 3 (2) 1997, 91–99.