Lunacy and Lancaster Castle

‘Lunacy and Lancaster Castle’ by Adam Newton MA MSc

For most of its history, lunatics made up a very small fraction of Lancaster Castle’s prison population. They rarely numbered more than half-a-dozen individuals at a time and, consequently, as a class of prisoner they have received little attention.

Why were the mentally ill brought into the Castle? What legislation confined such individuals to the County Gaol? What were conditions like for those detained?

‘Lunacy’ and ‘Lunatic’ are somewhat out-dated terms originating from the theory that insanity could be linked to ‘lunar’ activity. These terms were in professional use during the period on which this pamphlet focuses – the 18th and 19th Centuries.

How successive societies have considered and treated the mentally ill makes sombre reading. During the Middle Ages, sufferers of mental illness were often viewed as being possessed by evil spirits. ‘Treatment’ was regularly geared towards ousting the demonic spirit by chaining, flogging and torturing those afflicted.

Until the late 17th and early 18th Century, there had not been a strong movement to incarcerate the mentally ill. Sufferers existed as best they could within communities, sometimes cared for by family or friends. Institutions that did exist were scarce and infamous for their brutality, such as ‘Bethlem’ in London, more commonly known as ‘Bedlam’. Moreover lunatics were judged to be morally inferior and until the 1770s the public were encouraged to view the inmates of Bedlam as entertainment.

In the early 18th Century, the idea that the insane ought to be segregated from ‘sane society’ gathered momentum. The number of private ‘madhouses’ increased. The care offered frequently took the form of cruel punishment. There was little incentive to cure or release and most of these institutions were run primarily for profit, with relatives paying the madhouse to keep patients.

Why were lunatics detained at Lancaster Castle?

It is possible that the Castle has been used as a secure place to detain lunatics for several centuries. By 1482, common law allowed for the detention of violent persons and lunatics in the local bridewell. In 1541 the mayor and aldermen of Norwich threatened to imprison Ralph Chamberlain if he did not leave the city for “being vexed with a dyvyll and being lunytick”. It is not difficult to imagine the occasional lunatic being held at the Castle during this period.

The earliest records that have been accessed (which commit people to Lancaster Castle specifically as ‘lunatics’) date from the mid-18th Century. At this time those suffering from mental illness were overwhelmingly regarded as being responsible for their own actions, if an affliction led an individual into poverty then they would be dealt with under the Poor Laws. Should a lunatic commit a criminal offence then they would be treated as a common criminal. Furthermore, if mental illness meant one could not obtain work and became homeless there were strong laws against vagrancy that could be applied. Most of the lunatics held in the Castle in the 18th Century were committed under the vagrancy laws. The Vagrancy Act of 1744 had given two Justices of the Peace the power to have “lunatics…safely locked in some secure place…(and if necessary) to be chained…for and during such time as the lunacy or madness shall continue”.

Where could be more secure in the locality of Lancaster than Lancaster Castle? It is notable that diagnoses could be made on individuals without the involvement of anyone from the medical profession. The type of disorders that such unfortunates may have been suffering is difficult to determine. The study of mental health was very much in its infancy and different kinds of disorders had not really been categorised. All we can ascertain is that the majority of those confined were described as being “dangerous”.

One man who suffered at the hands of the vagrancy laws was a mariner called Henry Casson in 1784. In his committal to the Castle he was described as “a lunatick (sic) furiously mad and dangerous”. He was to be “safely keep secured and locked up during such time as Lunacy or Madness shall continue…if extremely dangerous and furious then if necessary to chain the said Henry Casson”.

“Not Guilty by reason of insanity”

From 1800 onwards a slightly different category of lunatic was brought into the Castle. An Act had been passed which established in law a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity” on condition that the accused was still confined in strict custody at the County Gaol.

One of the earliest such cases was that of Richard Coleman who in 1802 was charged with highway robbery. At the outset of his trial the jury considered him to be too insane to be tried, so he was found not guilty but would have to remain in custody. Coleman would spend a further 14 years in Lancaster Castle, the longest of any known lunatic and far longer than most other prisoners. However had a guilty verdict been passed he may well have been hanged.

After 1800, most of the lunatics fell into this category of not guilty due to insanity. The most common charge against them was murder. They are often referred to as criminal lunatics.


Although there was no strong effort to segregate prisoners until the 1770s, there is some evidence that lunatic prisoners were segregated here before this time. Their treatment provided the Castle staff with difficulties. The Governor of the gaol between 1783 and 1833, John Higgin Jnr, seems to have been quite aware that the Castle was an unsuitable place to keep such people and he did exhibit concern for their welfare. He even sent his own son to visit an asylum at Manchester to study the best ways of caring for lunatics.

As with many difficult prisoners a degree of coercion was necessary. Speaking during the Royal Commission of 1812, which had partly been prompted by the death of a lunatic prisoner, Higgin admitted to “a degree of coercion, according to their state of mind. In the case of Patrick Davis and Henry Horner (lunatics), they are in handcuffs, and I have been obliged to chain them to their seats; and in the night, to their beds”.

Higgin also stated although that he always instructed his turnkeys (prison officers) to “treat the lunatics with great humanity; and when beating was necessary, never to strike them but with the small end of a handwhip on the legs and thighs” other prisoners found the presence of lunatics in the gaol unsettling. A debtor named Unthank described the screams of the lunatics as “really excruciating to the feelings to hear”.

The experiences of those who were held as lunatics is difficult to surmise. The nature of their condition means that they were unlikely or incapable of having written down their experiences. All we know is that conditions in Lancaster Castle in the 18th and 19th Centuries were fairly typical of prisons of the period, and by our standards fairly grim.

Those held as vagrants were in most cases released after some time, usually into the care of friends or family. Lunatics who had been charged with crimes remained in custody.

During most of the 18th Century, lunatics were held in the basement of the Keep in what was referred to as the ‘madhouse’. By the early 19th Century, they were accommodated in the Kings’ Evidence Tower. This was one of the new towers; it contained cells, nine feet by six feet with a communal day room attached. There was also a separate refractory cell for lunatics who were especially troublesome and for whom “extraordinary restraint” was necessary. Although conditions must have been dismal it is highly likely that they were superior to those found in private madhouses of the period.

It has been speculated that lunatics may at one time have been held in the cells that are viewed during a Castle tour. It is plausible; certainly conditions would not have been dramatically different.

The new asylum

In the early 19th Century, pressure from various quarters was growing to build county asylums that would provide suitable accommodation for those suffering from mental disorder. By 1816 a county asylum – The Moor Hospital – had been constructed on the outskirts of Lancaster. In the same year those lunatics who were residing in the Castle were transferred to the asylum, becoming some of its first patients. There was no guarantee of preferable conditions for those who were relocated, but it was arguably more appropriate than the County Gaol.

However this was not the end of lunatics being brought to the Castle. Hansbrow, the governor of the gaol in 1846, complained of a prisoner brought from Preston who was “perfectly insane”.

Life of Richard Coleman, a ‘lunatic’

1769 Born Richard (William) Coleman in Ireland.

Worked as a Mariner

1802 Arrested on the charge of Highway Robbery, considered to be insane by a jury, is found not guilty, but must remain in custody at Lancaster Castle.

1808 Becomes the only male lunatic in the Castle who is not segregated from the other prisoners due to his “inoffensive state”. But he is put in the fourth ward which is generally reserved for the “worst class of convicts”. At first he is very “sulky and furious” but in time becomes “perfectly manageable” according to John Higgin, the governor of the gaol.

1816 Richard is transferred to the newly-opened Lancaster Moor Hospital. He is described on entry as a “criminal vagrant” suffering from “mania and obsession”. He is allocated number six and is housed in the First West Gallery.

1818 According to Lancaster Moor Hospital records under a heading of “Discharged and Why” Richard Coleman is described as “Cured and Escaped”!!!

After sixteen years of incarceration Coleman finally had some freedom. There is no record of him returning to the Castle or the asylum. His escape was the first recorded at Lancaster Moor Hospital.

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