By Robin Holtom

In 1831 John Thomas Perceval, son of the assassinated Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was incarcerated in Ticehurst Asylum. He later wrote an account of his experiences. At that time Ticehurst took only the wealthiest lunatics and though Perceval had his own sitting room and a piano brought down from London, he was not free, as the following exchange with Mr Newington (the proprietor)shows.

Ticehurst Asylum

After Perceval tried to run away, Newington told him:“You ran away. I thought you would never run away.”
Perceval replied, “You know it was no sudden impulse that made me run away, but that I have given warning that I would attempt it long ago.”
“It was an act of folly and madness.”
“No sir. It was an act that required forethought, dexterity, courage, resolution and enterprise.”

Eventually Newington decided to manacle Perceval.
“When the manacle was on my arm he conceived that I could slip my hand through it. I did not answer him for I thought him too absurd to be reasoned with, but asked: “Are you afraid the iron will melt in the night?”
“Many patients have requested to have the manacles put on.”
“I hope they like it. Such people are made for these places.”

Perceval also had conversations about religion with Mr Newington in which the doctor had told him that if Isaiah had been his patient he would have had to lock him up too. This would have been a kind of blasphemy to Perceval whose condition was a result of a religious crisis. He had heard that a revival of charismatic religion and the ‘gifts of the spirit’ promised in the New Testament was apparently taking place in a village in Scotland. Perceval’s experiences with this revivalist group played a large part in precipitating his breakdown. Despite having severe doubts, he began to speak in tongues himself and thought he was a ‘Prophet of the Lord.’ It was a bewildering situation for a rather introspective, priggish and cautious young man to be suddenly plunged into a world where spontaneous speaking and action were more highly valued than reason and orthodox religious beliefs. The inner conflict it aroused contributed to his three year confinement.

Poster for a lecture

Radical politics
After he left Ticehurst Asylum in 1832 Perceval become a radical political agitator writing pamphlets and speaking in Hastings and elsewhere in Sussex against the oppressive Poor Laws. He was particularly concerned at the way the law separated families. It was a period of widespread civil unrest: migrations from the country to towns were on such a large scale that for the first time most people lived in towns rather than the country. A letter exists from one of Perceval’s doctors to the Home Secretary of the time. It warned the government that Perceval had changed from the deeply conservative politics of his family to become a radical firebrand. The doctor felt this justified his continued confinement. His later lectures on the need for reform of asylums were attended by police spies. Psychiatry and politics have a long and awkward history.

As son of a very conservative Prime Minister, Perceval’s new politics were completely at odds with his family’s views. His elder brother, who was a Tory MP,  had recently persuaded Parliament to pass a law to impose a day of fasting on the population. This he felt was necessary as there were widespread riots for bread. How this gesture would prevent famine was not explained, but nevertheless the law was passed – austerity legislation in the 1830s perhaps. As the senior male member of the family this brother was responsible for certifying John Perceval as lunatic though from a twenty first century viewpoint one may wonder who was the maddest.

The beginnings of mental health advocacy
Once free, Perceval directed his energies to agitating for reform of the asylum system, especially of the abusive practice common in private asylums. He campaigned resolutely on the side of victims of abuse by the Mad Doctors – as psychiatrists were then known. He wrote letters to papers and politicians and visited patients in asylums. With a group of friends and ex-patients he formed the ‘Alleged Lunatics Friends’ Society’ which was the first Mental Health Advocacy organisation in Britain. In 1859 he was invited to address the Parliamentary Select Committee on Lunacy. He described himself then as the “Attorney General for Her Majesty’s Lunatics.”

He complained as follows: “The asylum visitors act as judge and jury. They have all the odious features of the inquisition, except that they do not themselves administer bodily torture. They examine into cases without the presence of the party concerned in person or by attorney; they do this without notice given to him. They collect evidence against him behind his back. They do not inform him of what is alleged against him. In short, they are a secret tribunal and the system is so fearful, so un-English that the government cannot too soon amend or abolish it.”

His main problem with the system was this. “I wish to break through the constant routine reference to the medical man and elevate the view which the legislature should take of this subject in order that they may consider more the spiritual and moral part of this subject.” We still need his voice today.

• Copies of Perceval’s Quest are available from [email protected]

Perceval’s account of his experiences available online


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