The Evolution of the Treatment of the Mentally Ill: How Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum Changed the Face of Treatment

Written by Joscelin Woodend. Edited by Anushka Minshull.

The treatment of the mentally ill throughout history is an issue that regrettably must be taken with a pinch of salt. The move away from degrading punishment as an act of treatment was a slow and gradual process, occurring during the 1800s and 1900s due to a development in the understanding of mental health. Prior to the 1800s, imprisoning the mentally ill in places such as Lancaster Castle was the only form of treatment available. However, with the eventual creation of asylums, an opportunity to understand the causes of mental health was created. This is not to say that it occurred instantaneously. The improvement of the treatment of the mentally ill took time, and places like Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum contributed towards the growing understanding of mental health.


Development was long overdue with regards to the treatment of the mentally ill. Between 1500 and 1800, there was little understanding of the causes of mental health, with many people believing that demonic possessions and witchcraft caused people to become mentally ill. Sufferers of mental illnesses were often thrown into prisons or madhouses, left chained, uncared for and forgotten about. There was a clear lack of understanding with regards to treatment. In the background of an ever-changing world during the enlightenment, an eagerness to improve treatment developed amongst doctors who worked with the mentally ill. In 1812, a committee came together in Lancaster and discussed the creation of a new institution for the mentally ill: the asylum.


Designed and built by the architect Thomas Standen in 1816, the Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum was created during the moral treatment movement of the 18th Century and was the first Asylum to be built in the county of Lancashire. The mentally ill inmates, who were classed as ‘lunatics’, were transferred from Lancaster Castle to the Asylum in the outskirts of Lancaster. Despite an attempt to move away from previous mistreatment, inadequate treatment still occurred in the first few years of the Asylum’s existence. Poor records were kept for the first 30 years, with only minor details being noted down such as the patient’s name and labelled illness. During the renovation of the original section of the asylums into housing in the early twenty-first century, there were reports of shackles and padded rooms being found in the cellars of the remains. It is clear that chaining was still seen as a form of treatment of the mentally ill for years after the creation of Asylums. The move away from the punishment of the ill was gradual and developed over time, most crucially with the help of a man named Edward De Vitre.

Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum


Edward De Vitre played a major role in the improvement of treatment during the Victorian Era. He was invited as a visiting physician to Lancaster Asylum in 1840 and remarked on the cruel treatment of the mentally ill. After De Vitre published his work Observations upon the Necessity of an Extended Legislative Protection to Persons of Sound Mind, changes began to take place with regards to treatment. He wanted to find better treatments for patients, leading to him insisting on a disuse of restraints in the asylum. Even though an understanding of mental health was not gained straight away, De Vitre allowed a step to be taken in the right direction towards correctly treating the mentally ill.


After De Vitre’s death in 1878, another section of the asylum was built in 1883, expanding the Asylum even further. This section, known as ‘The Annexe’, can still be seen today and is one of, if not the most, prominent piece of architecture in the Lancaster district. The expansion of the asylum allowed over 800 more patients to be admitted, increasing the size of the facility. The use of the asylum began to grow alongside the gradual growth of psychology. The term ‘patients’ was increasingly used in preference to ‘inmates’ and asylums were renamed hospitals, with Lancaster becoming The Moor Hospital under the NHS, therefore showing a greater sense of understanding towards the mentally ill. Further treatments were discovered, such as electro convulsive therapy (ECT). The use of ECT is well documented within Alan Bennett’s memoirs, in which he refers to the treatment being used on his mother during the 1960’s at the Moor Hospital. Even though the treatments that developed are now seen as unethical, a gradual growth in understanding still took place, allowing us to have the medical knowledge that we have today.


The Lancaster County Lunatic Asylum played a crucial role in the development of the treatment of the mentally ill not just in Lancaster, but throughout Lancashire. For hundreds of years there was a lack of understanding with regards to mental health, even far into the 1900’s. However, the change that occurred between treatments in the Early Modern era and those used in the Victorian and Modern era developed greatly. Despite its contribution to development, it is still difficult to ignore the negative feelings and memories attached to the Moor Hospital. It carries a stigma of mistreatment, like many other asylums, that is hard to remove.