When Montagu Lomax published his book, The Experiences of an Asylum Doctor in 1921, public outrage resulted in questions being asked in the House Of Commons. Whilst the contents of the book were indeed shocking, the publication of a slim volume on lunacy reform by a retired GP would not normally have had such an impressive effect. My supposition is that the book’s publication was carefully orchestrated, and supported by establishment figures who espoused lunacy reform. Lomax is known to have had contact with prominent psychiatrists – Dr Helen Boyle and Dr George Robertson (1), as well as Dr Fletcher Beach through Lomax’s son, Armine. However, Lomax also needed support from the press. He found that in Truth, which provided him with a nationwide platform and a portal to the regional and other national newspapers. This article assesses the role Truth played in the ‘Lomax affair’.
Truth was was established in 1876 by Henry Labouchere (1831-1912). A former diplomat, and Radical politician, Labouchere used journalism to popularise a liberal viewpoint. He was strongly opposed to all forms of social privilege, and was a proponent of abolition of the house of Lords. He set up Truth as a society paper but its crusading style, with exposure of fraud and shams made it hugely popular with the general public. Labouchere himself contributed few articles to the paper, which was predominantly driven by his editor, Horace Voules until Voules’ death in 1909. The editorship then passed to Robert Augustus Bennett, who had been the assistant editor at Truth since 1889. R.A. Bennet continued Truth’s campaign against corruption and mismanagement throughout his editorship until he retired in 1928.
R.A. Bennett was an Oxford law graduate who was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1881 (2). He combined law with journalism from an early stage in his career, working for the Times in the law courts between 1884 and 1888. It was invaluable experience since Truth was sued many times for libel, but the majority of these cases failed owing to Bennett’s careful journalism. Bennett was said to be a man of great erudition and a talented writer (2).
Truth began a campaign for lunacy reform in the early part of the 20th century through its editorials and accounts of asylum patients’ experiences. A series of articles published in Truth in 1912 by Rachel Grant-Smith described her appalling suffering as a grieving widow, initially admitted to an asylum with depression but who had then been detained against her will for twelve years. Truth was strongly supportive of Dr L.A. Weatherly’s 1918 book “Plea for the Insane”, commenting that it ‘suggested reforms which have frequently been advocated in Truth’ (3). The magazine was not averse to blowing its own trumpet. A 1920 article entitled ‘The Latest Lunacy Scandal’ began with the following comment: “The administration of the Lunacy Laws by the Board of Control has been the subject of many indictments in the columns of Truth’ (4). However, it is clear that Truth was consistent in its message that the 1890 Lunacy Laws and the British asylums were not fit for purpose. Truth also exposed the treatment of shell-shocked soldiers in military hospitals during the Great War, and claimed that the story was ‘noticed in nearly every newspaper in the country’ (5). With such a track record, it was natural that Lomax should choose Truth to represent his case, and the alliance between Lomax and R. A. Bennett proved to be a powerful catalyst for lunacy reform.
On 3rd August 1921, Truth published an article which set the context for Lomax’s book, and reviewed its content and importance to the public (5). In ‘The Truth About Public Asylums – Dr Lomax’s Revelations’, Scrutator commented that Lomax had confirmed everything Truth had been writing about for the preceding twenty years. In common with most early 20th century journalism, Scrutator was written anonymously, but it is known that R.A.Bennett commonly contributed articles to this section (2). Scrutator noted that the 1918 scandal over the treatment of shell-shocked soldiers had blown over and had been whitewashed by the Government. Yet ‘the treatment against which the soldiers and their relatives revolted was merely that to which pauper lunatics are systematically exposed in the ordinary course of asylum routine’ (5). Scrutator believed that Lomax’s book served to remind the public that nothing had changed for the pauper lunatic in the interim. The article noted that the book contained few new revelations. However, earlier witness accounts had been written by previously certified lunatics who had little credibility. Lomax’s book was based on his own experiences as an impartial observer. ‘It is the plain unvarnished narrative of a scientific investigator, a sober contribution to the study and treatment of mental disease’. Scrutator noted that Lomax had written the book from a sense of public duty, and the book was a ‘document of incontestable value’ (5).
The following week, a second Scrutator article began to personalise Lomax’s book for the general public. It pointed out that lunatics were confined in wards where no attempt was made to classify mental disorders. A gentle, well-educated depressive could therefore find themselves living in close quarters with psychotic patients – ‘ignorant, filthy and degraded, in every condition of insanity’(6). Scrutator then speculated on the next step forward for lunacy reform – ‘Is this lamentable exposure of a great national scandal to furnish a few startling headlines in the daily press and then be consigned to oblivion?’. Scrutator called for the new minister of health, Sir Alfred Mond, to set up an independent commission to review the whole of the lunacy system .
Truth kept up the pressure on the government by publishing articles and correspondence on lunacy reform at regular intervals. Many were syndicated in shortened form to the national and regional newspapers. Rachel Grant-Smith’s 1912 articles from Truth were republished in book form as ‘The Experiences Of An Asylum Patient’ with a long forward by Montagu Lomax.
Things got nasty and very personal for Lomax, as his credentials were called into question. Many attempts were made to destroy Lomax’s credibility. Truth defended Lomax at every turn. Scrutator pointed out that a psychiatric qualification was not necessary to form an opinion on the attitude of nurses towards patients, the cleanliness of a room, the quality of asylum food, and the presence of facilities for amusement (7).
The complex political manoeuvring that followed over the course of the next three years has been well described by Towers (8). An unsatisfactory internal investigation by the Board of Control was followed by an independent inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Cyril Cobb. Lomax initially agreed to give evidence before the 1922 Cobb Committee. He was asked to provide a precis of his findings, but he refused to do so, saying that his findings were clearly laid out in the book, but he was prepared to be examined on the facts , and if necessary defend his statements (9). He also expressed some concerns over the limited scope of the inquiry, and pointed out that he and the National Council for Lunacy Reform had amassed many more witness statements since his book had been published. He thought these statements deserved to be heard, and he recognised that this was not possible within the terms of the inquiry. Then, at the end of January 1922, he wrote to say that he had been advised not to appear before the inquiry. Scrutator writing of the Cobb inquiry in Truth commented ‘I advised Dr Lomax at the time of its appointment to ignore it’ (7). So here for sure was the pen of R.A.Bennett, the lawyer journalist who understood the workings of Whitehall.
The Cobb Committee inquiry published its report in the summer of 1922. Truth invited Lomax to comment on the report, and Lomax’s assessment was ‘official whitewash’ (10). Lomax said that his book was not only an indictment of the asylum administration, but also of the lunacy legislation. He noted that changes in asylum administration could only be enacted through changes in in lunacy laws, and for this a Royal Commission was necessary (10). Scrutator published its own detailed criticism of the Cobb report the following week, and again emphasised the need for a Royal Commission where testimony from a wide range of witnesses could be given under oath (7). Truth continued to carry correspondence from the public pleading for lunacy reform. One such letter from Edward Smith, the secretary for the National Council for Lunacy Reform, noted that there were still one hundred thousand mental cases in confinement in the United Kingdom (11). Smith went on to say that the public should acquaint itself with the terrible conditions in the asylums by reading Lomax’s book and then to ‘do everything possible to end the prolonged torture of a vast army of our fellow men and women equal in number to the population of a great city’ (11).
In 1923, the government tried to introduce a Mental Treatment Bill. Truth was scathing, describing its proposals as tinkering around the edges of lunacy reform. The author commented that a thorough overhauling of the whole system was required and that a Royal Commission was long overdue (12). Eventually, the government agreed that a Royal Commission on Lunacy Reform was indeed desirable and it was appointed on July 25th 1924, two years after the Cobb Committee report. Truth devoted itself to raising funds to pay for witnesses’ expenses incurred in giving evidence. An appeal was published from Montagu Lomax asking that the public send whatever financial help they could afford to the National Society for Lunacy Reform (13). Similar appeals appeared in many of the national and regional newspapers around the same time demonstrating that crowd-funding is not a new concept.
So Lomax was exceptionally well supported by Truth. He allied himself to a newspaper which had a wide circulation, a strong reputation for moral crusading and had run a campaign for lunacy reform dating back more than twenty years. Truth’s editor, A.R.Bennett was an experienced lawyer as well as a journalist, and who was able to advise Lomax on the best strategies to maximize his impact with Whitehall mandarins. Lomax’s book published shortly after Truth’s exposure of the plight of shell shocked soldiers within the asylums, provided the tipping point for lunacy reform. Truth raised public awareness and kept the ball rolling, maintaining interest in lunacy reform throughout the complexities of the Cobb inquiry and consistently pushing for a Royal Commission. Once the news broke that a Royal Commission on Lunacy Reform was to be convened, Truth wrote: ‘The result is a triumph for all who have laboured during recent years in the cause of lunacy reform. Truth may legitimately boast of having contributed to it’ (14). The same article noted of Lomax ‘No effort has been spared to refute and discredit him but he has continued to labour devotedly to the cause…..and to no one will more credit be due for the appointment of the Royal Commission ‘.
1. Harding TW. “Not worth powder and shot”. A reappraisal of Montagu Lomax’s contribution to mental health reform. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 1990;156(2):180-7.
2. The Late Mr R.A. Bennett. Truth. 26/8/1929. p358
3. Tipsters. Truth. 1918 14/08/1918. p206
4. Scrutator. The Latest Lunacy Scandal. Truth. 13/10/1920:629
5. Scrutator. The Truth About Public Asylums. Dr Lomax’s Revelations. Truth. 3/8/1921:197.
6. Scrutator. Dr Lomax’s Revelations . What Is To Follow? Truth. 10/8/1921:235.
7. Scrutator. Asylum Whitewash. Truth. 16/8/1922:274-6.
8. Towers BA. The management and politics of a public expose: the Prestwich Inquiry 1922. J Soc Policy. 1984;13(1):41-61.
9. MH58/222 PRO. Letter from Lomax to Percy Barter, Ministry of Health. 1922.
10. Lomax M. The Asylum Inquiry. Truth. 9/8/1922:235 – 6.
11. Smith EG. Lunacy Reform. Truth. 7/9/1921:401.
12. The Mental Treatment Bill. Truth. Truth. 9/5/1923:839.
13. Lomax M. An Urgent Appeal. Truth. 16/7/1924:108.
14. Scrutator. A Move Towards Lunacy Reform. Truth. 16/4/1924:728.