Lunacy in Eden in the 1700's and 1800's

Jackie Huck

The Speaker at Orton & Tebay Local History Society’s June meeting was Peter Lewis who has made a special study of ‘Lunacy in the Eden in the 1700 & 1800’s. He explained that the word ‘lunacy’ came from Aristototle’s belief that the phases of the moon affected the brain.

Peter outlined the development of both attitudes and treatment towards those regarded as either idiots (people born with learning difficulties) and lunatics (those with mental illness) over the centuries. In the early centuries those with such problems were either hidden away and looked after by family, or were cared for in various religious houses. With the dissolution of the monastery’s there was no refuge remaining.

Though the last resort of many, when the Workhouse movement was established there was now somewhere for people with mental problems to go. Sadly as the workhouse was meant to have a harsh regime to deter the poor from going there, it also meant that the mentally ill were treated no better.

Peter had tried to humanize the history, by following three local men who, suffering from ‘lunacy’ were admitted to various local institutions during the 19th century. John H in 1816 from Tebay, Matthew D in 1840 and James B 1888 both of Orton.

The Kirkby Stephen Workhouse was a vast establishment, and from old maps was shown to be twice the size of the Parish church. In such places the mentally ill were often restrained by manacles and strait jackets. Dunstan Lodge near Gateshead was a ’private madhouse’ catering for those who could pay, but also taking in those sent and paid for by parishes. The greatest step forward, though they eventually fell into disrepute, was establishment of County Asylum’s, like Garlands in Carlisle.

Trepanning Equipment for cutting holes in the skull

It was only when King George third’s madness became public knowledge, the awareness and tolerance to those with mental illness improved, though treatments were still barbaric for many years. These included ‘trepanning’ cutting holes in the skull to let out the demons, blood letting, confinement, laxatives and emetics. Only slowly were medicines like opium grains, laudanum and chloral introduced. Also the benefit of gardening, farming and outdoor activities were introduced with the Victorian Asylum system.

The audience found Peter’s talk both illuminating and frightening, and were thankful not to be living with any mental problems in past centuries. He was thanked by Len Clark for his talk.