Long life in Georgian asylums

John Rendall was 104 when he was buried at Box, Wiltshire, on 21 January 1821. This great age is even more striking because he had been confined to an asylum for more than 60 years. Peter Carpenter asks if there were other exceptionally long lived residents of early asylums.

There are few surviving records of patients in Georgian asylums for mentally ill patients. There are registers for Bethlem and St Luke’s available online, but provincial “madhouses” of the time were relatively rare, and little documentation survives. The main early entries regarding patients are in other records, such as parish churchwardens’ accounts and relate to admitted paupers.

“Box Mad House” shown in Andrews & Drury’s map of 1773 (courtesy Wilts History Centre).

Kingsdown House Lunatic Asylum at Box, Wiltshire, six miles to the east of Bath, has claim to be the longest running private asylum in the country.[i] It was operating by 1687[ii] and was closed in 1946 by its proprietor Gerald McBryan, in between his own psychiatric admissions and attempts to rule Sarawak and Brunei.[iii]

As part of my study of Kingsdown House, I explored a surviving folder of correspondence between its proprietor and the churchwardens of Trowbridge[iv] a substantial market town about 9 miles from Box. This together with the Trowbridge accounts[v] and newspaper records throw light on the case of John Rundell/ Rundle/Randal.[vi]

In November 1758, the churchwardens’ accounts note payment for: “Horsehire & Turnpikes Dr Jefferys at Kingsdown relating to John Rundall junr of Studley 1/9d”.[vii]  James Jeffery, a surgeon, is the first well documented operator of the asylum.

And the next month:

“Expence of sending John Rundle weaver to ye Madhouse under the Care of Dr Jefferys at Kingsdown. Viz: 26th Dec [1758]: Two guards all night and part of ye next day with expenses  6/10d

27th: 2 guards and hire of two Horses to Kingsdown 8/6d [viii]

Jeffery then charges 7/- a week reducing to 5/- over 6 months. He does not charge for the period 18 -22 August 1760.  The reason is revealed in the account entry: “Expence on account of John Rundle discharged from ye madhouse upon trial, but attempting to drown himself sent again under a guard.”  9/1d

In 1763 Jefferys writes: “altho’ Rendall is not so bad as in time past yet he still persists in surprising odd Whyms & Fancys which undoubtedly might end in some bad consequence was he not under proper care.”

In 1775 the churchwardens negotiated a much reduced fee as John, who though still disordered in his senses, was able to work around the asylum.  His delusions probably lasted most of his life, as he would have otherwise returned to the cheaper Trowbridge poorhouse. Overseers of the poor were not famed for their financial benevolence.

Rendall’s death clearly made the newspapers take notice: [Died] 7 Feb at Dr Langworthy’s Asylum, Kingsdown house, Box, … John Randall, aged 104 years, upwards of 69 of which he had been a patient at that institution, enjoying good health, and working regularly in the garden until a few weeks prior to his death. He was an early riser, and was confined to his bed but a few days, in possession of his retentive powers to the last.[ix]

If the age is correct, then John Rundle was born about 1717 and admitted at the age of 40.

The only other long lived asylum inmate I know of is an 1806 reference to: “The poor inoffensive idiot whom the passenger may have seen for nearly half a century past sitting at the door of the Magdalen Hospital in Holloway [Bath], died last week, aged 92. He has been for some years the only patient supported in that institution”[x]

In fact, the hospital’s later evidence in a charity inquiry states he was aged 95 and had been 75 years in the house but gives no other information.[xi]  Are these the only long lived inmates known before the 1830s? I welcome evidence of others.

Two of John Rundell’s letters . A letter with a similar list of clothing refers to Mr James  Jefferies suggesting it is from the early period of his illness.

Peter Carpenter is a retired psychiatrist in intellectual disability who has researched the history of mental health institutions in Bristol. 


[i] See http://www.boxpeopleandplaces.co.uk/inside-box-mad-house.html for a short description. See also Leonard Smith: Private madhouses in England, 1640-1815. Palgrave MacMillan. 2020

[ii] Minute Book of the Men’s Meeting of the Society of Friends in Bristol 1667-1686. Bristol Record Society vol XXVI.

[iii] See for example accounts of him in Philip Eade: Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2007

[iv] Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Ref.No. 206/93

[v] Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre Ref No: 206/ 60-73

[vi] Rundle’s letters are briefly described in William Ll. Parry-Jones The Trade in Lunacy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1972 p168-9

[vii] Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre 206/64 Trowbridge churchwarden accounts 5 Nov – 3 Dec 1758.

[viii] Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre 206/64 accounts 3-31 Dec 1758

[ix] Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser 21 Feb 1821: deaths.

[x] Bath Journal Monday 28 July 1806 page 3e.

[xi] Sixth report of the Commissioners of Inquiry concerning certain Charities in England and Wales (British Parliamentary Paper 1822 (12) IX 1) page 737.

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