Mental illness on trial: Henry Meux’s commission of lunacy and the 1857 general election

This month our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, discusses the 1858 ‘commission of lunacy’ on the Hertfordshire MP, Henry Meux (pronounced “Mews”). Much of the trial centred around events in Hertfordshire during the 1857 general election, where Meux was elected despite suffering from increasing symptoms of general paresis.

In June 1858 the Conservative MP for Hertfordshire, Sir Henry Meux (1817-1883), was the subject of a sensational nine-day ‘commission of lunacy’ – or ‘lunacy trial’, as contemporaries also described it. With the witness box filled daily with lords, ladies and MPs, and every detail of a noted public figure’s private life under discussion, the London-based jury trial received widespread coverage from the national and provincial press.

A clipping from a report on the first day’s proceedings, Morning Herald, 9 June 1858, BNA

Despite his status as an MP, at the time of the trial all parties agreed that Meux was ‘incapable of taking care of himself’. He was bedbound and suffering from what contemporary doctors termed ‘general paralysis’. Today the condition is termed general paresis, or general paralysis of the insane (GPI), and is now known to be caused by untreated, late-stage syphilis. Meux lived for a further 25 years following the trial in a minimally conscious state. As one of Britain’s wealthiest men he was able to receive home care at his London and Hertfordshire residences until his death.

The trial was not convened to judge the present condition of Meux’s mental health, but to ascertain his ‘state of mind’ a year earlier. On 3 July 1857 he had amended his will to leave his entire estate to his wife, Lady Louisa Caroline Meux (1836-1894). They had married in January 1856, and Meux’s sisters were unhappy that Lady Meux now stood to inherit her husband’s extensive estates, as well as his share in the famous Horse Shoe Brewery. The stakes were large. In today’s money, Meux was worth in excess of £100 million.

‘Sir Henry Meux, 2nd bt.’, after Francis Grant, c. 1840-1850. One trial witness suggested ‘Sir Henry lived freely, entering keenly into sport of every kind, and enjoying the pleasures of the table’, CC BM

Evidence provided to the trial suggested that Meux had started to display the initial symptoms of general paresis as early as January 1855. By Christmas 1856 several doctors had diagnosed some form of ‘disease of the brain’, and his business partner, the MP for Berwick Dudley Marjoribanks, observed a ‘great nervousness and extreme lowness of his spirits’. Over the following eighteen months he experienced a deterioration in his speech, physical mobility and mental health. He suffered increasingly from delusions of grandeur, an inability to concentrate and periods of depression.

On 31 March 1857, four months before he amended his will, Meux was elected for a third time for the three-member constituency of Hertfordshire. The timing of the election meant that Meux’s health during the month-long campaign, and the first few weeks of the 1857 Parliament, took centre stage at the trial.

Meux was still mobile and able to communicate during early 1857, but prior to the election several of his parliamentary colleagues had deemed that ‘his state of health was such as utterly to incapacitate him from undergoing the labour’ of an MP. Accordingly, his two fellow Conservative MPs for Hertfordshire urged him to retire. For Hertfordshire’s Conservative party the proposal also had the added benefit of avoiding a potentially expensive contest with a resurgent local Liberal interest.

When the scheme was presented to Meux he initially agreed to retire. But within days he changed his mind and decided to stand ‘independently’ of his ‘former colleagues’ as a ‘Liberal Conservative’. Following reports of the simmering dispute, the Irish peer, Viscount Ranelagh, briefly sought an alternative seat for Meux at Middlesex. This was until he met him in person. Ranelagh advised the trial that by the middle of March 1857, it was clear that Meux ‘was no longer master of his own judgment’ and that ‘after I had seen him I would not have dreamt of proposing him as a member of parliament’.

Elections were a lucrative business, and with the official Conservative party no longer organising his campaign, a new team of agents eagerly took advantage of Meux. An Essex-based agent, Richard Lambert, tracked Meux down in London and convinced him that he was the right man for the job. Lambert spoke on Meux’s behalf when meeting constituents and on the hustings. He also convinced Meux that in seeking a pact with local Liberals and trying to force his retirement, the official Conservative committee had orchestrated a ‘Jesuitical and deep-laid plot to injure the Conservative interest’ in the county.

Unsurprisingly Lambert advised the trial that he ‘did not notice any weakness of his [Meux’s] mind’. Constituents were also happy to take advantage of Meux’s large purse-strings, and according to one trial witness he was reported to have been ‘very well used by the [Hertfordshire] electors’.

An election squib urging electors to support Meux in the face of a ‘confederacy of a few gentlemen’, Herts Guardian, 28 Mar. 1857, BNA

According to most witnesses, and contemporary newspaper reports, Meux’s week-long canvass led to a severe deterioration in his health. One friend in the local party remarked that Meux ‘seemed to hardly know me’, was ‘very incoherent’ and spoke ‘all in broken sentences’. One former agent suggested that all discussions with electors were ‘supplied by the gentlemen who were with him’, and another witness indicated that:

when the electors came up and proffered their support he [Meux] merely shook hands with them, and said, “I thank you.” He was much excited in his manner. He broke off in conversation; there was no continuity in it.

At the nomination, there was clear concern for Meux’s wellbeing. The Conservative Morning Post reported at the time that he ‘appeared to be very ill’ and ‘merely addressed a few words’ to the assembled crowd. More detail was provided by a trial witness who suggested that

a very great change had taken place in him. I observed his countenance, which was haggard, weary and distressed. There was a look about the eye indicating feebleness of intellect. I bowed to him as he passed me on the steps of the [nomination] hustings, but he took no notice. His bodily state was more feeble – he looked more like a man out of the grave.

Despite his inability to address the crowd, Meux was elected unopposed as one of Hertfordshire’s three MPs. Four candidates came forward at the nomination, but one Conservative eventually stood down to avoid a contest. If the trial evidence had stopped with the 1857 election, it is likely the jury would have declared Meux unfit to amend his will later that July. However, over the next few weeks his health appeared to improve. Crucially, two MPs suggested that Meux had been spotted on the parliamentary estate as late as July 1857.

Colonel Gilpin, MP for Bedford, stated that while he had noted ‘some little difficulty in his utterance’ and was ‘most struck with his walk’, he had seen Meux ‘three times in the House of Commons’ since the [1857] election. Likewise, Henry Danby Seymour, MP for Poole, stated that he ‘distinctly remember[ed] seeing him [Meux] in the House [of Commons] after the dissolution’ in March 1857, and that as late as July 1857, ‘the idea that he was breaking down intellectually never entered my head’. The Conservative government were evidently less confident, securing a pair for Meux for the entire parliamentary session. His only formal recorded activity after the 1857 election was the presentation of a petition on 13 July 1857, ten days after he amended his will.

Meux attended to business at the Horse Shoe Brewery in August 1857, ‘Messrs. Meux’s Brewery, 1830’, CC BM

As well as his rare appearances at Westminster, Meux attended to his business interests in August 1857, engaged in several hunting parties in Scotland during the summer recess, was present at militia drills in Hertfordshire in December and hosted a ‘large and distinguished circle of visitors’ at his Theobalds Park estate that Christmas. Meux was clearly in very poor health by this point, however, as fearful guests demanded that his gun be unloaded.

Meux’s apparent improvement following the 1857 election, and his continued activity that summer and autumn meant that while the jury were ‘unanimous about the present insanity of Sir Henry Meux’, they ‘were unable to fix the date when such insanity began’. As there was no requirement until legislation was passed in 1886 for MPs found to be ‘of unsound mind’ to vacate their seats, Meux remained an MP until the 1859 election, when he formally retired. As it turned out, the amendments to his will were never enacted. His only son, Henry Bruce Meux (1856-1900), came of age prior to his father’s death in 1883, when he inherited his baronetcy and estate.

A contemporary obituary for Meux revealing the extent to which family members profited from him between 1858 and 1883, Truth, 11 Jan. 1883, BNA

A draft version of our full biography of Meux for the 1832-68 project is available on request.

Further reading:

A. Milne-Smith, Out of his Mind: Masculinity and Mental Illness in Victorian Britain (2022)

R. Ashton, One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 (2017)

R. G. Wilson, ‘Meux family’, Oxf. DNB [www.oxforddnb.com].

K. Rix, ‘‘Of unsound mind’? MPs, mental health and the 1886 Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act’, History of Parliament Blog

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