‘Of unsound mind’? MPs, mental health and the 1886 Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act

Today, during Mental Health Awareness Week, we hear from Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the Commons 1832-1868 Section and the Victorian Commons blog. She explains the legislation that bound MPs suffering with prolonged periods of mental illness from 1886 until legislative reform in 2013…

In 1886 Parliament passed the first piece of legislation dealing directly with the mental health of its members, the Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act, which received Royal Assent on 10 May. This measure, which passed with very little debate, laid out the procedure to be followed in cases where an MP was ‘received, or committed into, or detained in any asylum, house, or other place as a lunatic’. After being informed that an MP was in this position, the Speaker would send two commissioners of lunacy (or the equivalent Irish or Scottish officials) to visit and examine the MP. They would report to the Speaker on whether the MP was ‘of unsound mind’. If this was the case, a second examination would be made six months later. If the MP was still deemed to be of unsound mind, his seat would be declared vacant, and a new writ would be issued for a by-election.

Sir Charles Cameron (c) NPG

The rationale for passing this measure did not, however, stem primarily from concern for the health of the MP involved. Instead it was the fact that his absence from the Commons meant that his constituency was ‘deprived of its constitutional rights’. The Act was brought in by a Liberal backbencher, Charles Cameron, MP for the Glasgow (College) division. He was a qualified doctor, although he had also served for ten years as a newspaper editor. He was prompted to introduce his bill by the ‘unfortunate condition’ of one of his Glasgow colleagues in the previous Parliament, Robert Middleton.

Between the Second and Third Reform Acts, Glasgow was a triple member seat. At the 1880 general election three Liberals were elected: Cameron, Middleton and George Anderson. After only a few months as an MP, Middleton’s health ‘gave way’ and he was absent from Westminster from 1881 onwards, leaving Glasgow to be represented by only two of its three MPs until the dissolution in 1885. The exact details of Middleton’s condition were not made public, but an obituary in 1891 recorded that he had ‘lived in strict retirement’ after giving up his parliamentary duties.

The issue of MPs who were ‘of unsound mind’ was not a new one for Parliament to confront. At the first election after the 1832 Reform Act, the Hon. George Barrington (1794-1835), son-in-law of the prime minister, Earl Grey, was returned as MP for the new borough of Sunderland. On the hustings in December 1832 he was reported to have shown ‘a wildness and peculiarity’ in his behaviour, which was blamed at the time on physical ill health. However, it subsequently transpired that he was suffering from ‘a state of mental affliction’ which had resulted in him being placed under ‘constant personal restraint’ (i.e. in a straitjacket) since the election.

In March 1833 a letter signed by 158 electors was sent to Grey voicing sympathy with Barrington’s situation, but also expressing concern about Sunderland’s ‘unexpected deprivation of one of our representatives’. Grey’s response criticised their impatience and lack of consideration towards Barrington. Despite this, he advised his relative to resign his seat in order to prevent him being ‘harassed and annoyed’ by the personal attacks being made on him. Barrington duly took the Chiltern Hundreds later that month, enabling his replacement at a by-election, and died in June 1835 aged just 40.

While Sunderland quickly had a new MP in place, other constituencies experienced longer periods without representation. John Bell (1809-1851) was first elected as Liberal MP for Thirsk in 1841, when he did not face an opponent. He was again spared a contest at the 1847 general election. Even before then, his friends had seen signs of his failing mental health. His attendance at Westminster appears to have ceased in May 1848, the last occasion on which his name appeared in the division lists. In July 1849, after hearing evidence of Bell’s violent outbursts and his delusions – which included the belief that he was a bird – a commission of lunacy declared him to be ‘of unsound mind’. Despite this, he remained as Thirsk’s MP until his death in March 1851.

Charles Leach MP (1847-1919)

Having passed the 1886 Act, the Commons used it only once, in the case of Charles Leach (1847-1919), Liberal MP for Colne Valley, who was committed to a private lunatic asylum in December 1915. Leach, ‘the son of very poor parents’ from Halifax, had worked in a factory as a young boy, and later became a shoe and bootmaker. He subsequently entered the Nonconformist ministry, and during the First World War he was appointed as a chaplain to the armed forces, visiting the wounded in London’s military hospitals. This, together with his parliamentary duties, placed him under great strain. He was examined twice as specified in the 1886 Act and found to be ‘of unsound mind’. In August 1916 a new writ was issued for a by-election to replace him.

The principles of the 1886 Act remained enshrined in legislation until 2013, with only the details of the procedure of notification and medical examination having changed. Under section 141 of the 1983 Mental Health Act, MPs who had been detained while suffering from mental illness for six months would vacate their seats, just as in the 1886 measure. These provisions, referred to by Dame Anne Begg in September 2012 as ‘a throwback to a time when mental illness was hidden away and not dealt with’, were repealed by the 2013 Mental Health (Discrimination Act), which also included clauses relating to jurors and company directors. For the MPs debating this measure in 2012, some of whom shared their own experiences of mental illness, this reform was seen as an important step in removing the stigma associated with mental health conditions.


Further reading:

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