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Advertising Private Lunatic Asylums in Eighteenth-Century England

Jane Hand

In Clerkenwell-Close, where the figure of mad people are over the gate; liveth one, who by the blessing of God, cures all lunatick distracted or mad people, he seldom exceeds 3 months in the cure of the maddest person that comes in his house, several have been cur’d in a fortnight, and some in less time; he has cur’d several from Bedlam and other mad-houses in and about this city, and has conveniency for people of what quality soever. No cure-no money. (Advertisement from Post Boy, No. 741, 1700.)

As the trade in lunacy expanded during the eighteenth century, so too did the ways in which private lunatic asylums were marketed. As a commercial venture, they sought to appeal across social classes, genders and geographical areas. A large proportion of patients emanated from the lower-professional and commercial middle class or the gentry classes. In an era marked by stepped up consumption of a whole range of medical goods and services, advertisements in newspapers, journals, medical directories and books, (in addition to the publication of handbills, leaflets and brochures), promoted private asylums locally and nationally. Within this advertising tradition, the principle of the ‘money back guarantee’ (‘no cure, no pay’) was especially prevalent. Utilised as an effective tool for securing business, numerous private asylums used this principle to emphasise their confidence in their efficacy and ability to cure rapidly, whilst also raising the public profile of individual institutions.

In similar ways, advertisements oftentimes made ambiguous references to curative treatments and benevolent therapies. An emphasis on ‘humanity’ was a recurring advertising trope, reflecting attempts to overcome the negative public perceptions of the private madhouse system. In an advertisement for Sculcoates Refuge, Hull -‘every attempt consistent with humanity, will be made to restore the patient. No coercion, no restraint, but what is absolutely necessary to protect the attendant, and to prevent self-destruction, will ever be employed’-, and the overall method of treatment was compared with those techniques practised at the York Retreat.

Concurrently, these advertisements emphasised the architectural and geographical advantages of the asylum. To a large extent, the commercial success of these asylums was assured only through gaining a reputation for the provision of a high standard of care and facilities. Repeatedly, such advertisements stressed the many parallels between the asylum and the familiar character of a gentlemanly residence.



Ticehurst Private Lunatic Asylum, Sussex, c. 1827.

For example, Ticehurst Private Asylum in Sussex, prided itself on providing high-end care with fees initially of one guinea a week. Those patients paying higher fees benefitted from a range of facilities. Daniel Lintall was provided with fishing tackle and gun-cleaning services and kept both a horse and dog whilst a patient at Ticehurst. An emphasis on patients’ ability to continue to enjoy typical middle- and upper-class leisure activities is a recurring theme in much of the contemporary advertising material. These advertisements clearly attempted to emphasise their suitability for those patients from the upper social classes. Advertisements stressed that their asylums offered the atmosphere of a private dwelling whilst highlighting the importance of their therapeutic approaches, so necessary for a cure. Publicity became central to ensuring patient numbers at such asylums was maintained. It is perhaps unsurprising that over the course of the century advertisements in medical directories increased as the private lunatic asylum trade grew exponentially, and, despite the establishment of the public asylum system in the nineteenth century, private asylums still claimed an important role for themselves in treating insanity.

Further Reading:

• William Ll. Parry-Jones, The Trade in Lunacy: A Study of Private Madhouses in England in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972).

• Charlotte MacKenzie, Psychiatry for the Rich: A History of Ticehurst Private Asylum, 1792-1917 (London: Routledge, 1992).

• Leonard Smith, ‘A Gentleman’s Mad-doctor in Georgian England: Edward Long Fox and Brislington House’, History of Psychiatry, 19:163 (2008), pp. 163-184.