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We Are Not Amused I

A year ago we reviewed Paul Murphy’s Shooting Vic on this blog. Now we publish the first in a year-long series of posts written by guest blogger Dr Nick Hervey, Chair of the charitable trust that governs the Archives & Museum, about a range of people who got too close for Her Majesty’s comfort between 1837 and 1852.

Historians of nineteenth century psychiatry are familiar with the names of the would-be regicides James Hadfield, Margaret Nicholson, and Edward Oxford, but these characters only constituted the tip of a much larger iceberg of disturbed individuals who came into contact with the Royal Family. Whilst exploring the Public Record Office archives some years ago, I came across a Police file entitled, 'File of Insane Persons and others who have come under the cognizance of the Police Force for offences against H.M. Queen Victoria since her accession and His Royal Highness Prince Albert from 1837 - April 1852'.1 This fascinating document contains the details of some 65 persons, all of whom were considered to constitute a threat to the monarch.

The file includes some famous names: notably Edward Oxford, John Francis and John Bean, all of whom made potentially life threatening assaults on the Queen. Curiously it omits two other serious incidents which occurred between the above dates. On 19 May 1850 William Hamilton of Adare fired at Victoria whilst she was driving down Constitution Hill. Although the gun was only loaded with blanks, the Queen, who was still recovering from a recent confinement, suffered a great shock. Eight days later, Robert Pate, a dandy who had made himself conspicuous in the Park, started forward from the crowd as Victoria left Cambridge House and struck out violently at her face with his cane. Fortunately the brim of her bonnet took the force of the blow, but the Queen was left with a severely bruised forehead.2

These more violent episodes have to be set against a background of many others in which the Queen's life was potentially at risk. For example another 7 or 8 persons appear to have been found inside Buckingham Palace, Windsor and St James: one, Eliza Hunt, from Wandsworth, being apprehended in 1852 armed with a knife.3 Many others were stopped at the gates, including Patrick Lynden who assaulted the Police, Countess Amelia of Resterlitz who attacked a sentinel with a drawn sword and John Edward Freak who tried to force his way in past the sentries. Several persons tried to waylay the Queen whilst she was taking a carriage ride in the Royal Parks, among whom were Captain Goode who used obscene language to her, Laurence Cochlin whose letter struck Victoria in the face as he threw it into her carriage and Sarah Newell who also threw a letter into her phaeton. By far the greatest number of those apprehended, though, were merely found wandering in the vicinity of royal residences or parks in a disturbed state of mind.4

Although interesting in its own right, this file, and exploration of the subsequent disposal of those it mentions, has a much greater value. It gives us some understanding of the reasons why these individuals approached the monarch, and how the legal process was affected by their passage through the courts, particularly where the concept of responsibility was involved. More importantly it enhances our understanding of Victorian social policing, the development of security around the Royal Family and public dignitaries, and the evolution of lunacy legislation. In successive posts, I will illustrate some of these wider themes using the individual cases mentioned. Unlike many of the criminal proceedings mentioned by Roger Smith in Trial by Medicine, the majority of these cases were civil in nature and thus dealt with either by the magistrates’ courts, or by committal proceedings heard in camera at the Home Office before the chief magistrate Mr Hall.5 Often the full force of the judicial process was by-passed, and for many of the lunatics concerned there was little legal representation. Rather, medical opinions as to their dangerousness were crucial, and for most, entry to a workhouse was followed by a period in asylum care. However, a significant number were also discharged directly back into the community by workhouse medical officers, generally to the custody of relatives or friends.

To be continued…