What the 1901 census taught me about mental illness

7 Apr

Yesterday I posted about the discovery of my 2x great grandfather George Thomas GASSON at the East Sussex County Asylum in the 1901 census. The 1901 census was really my first insight into mental illness and asylums, and several things struck me as I looked at the census page.

There wasn’t a lot of information about each individual, only their initials, marital status, age, sex, occupation and condition. From these few facts it was clear to see that mental illness didn’t discriminate.

There was a mix of ages, ranging from a girl aged seven, up to a 60 year old woman, the majority however were in their forties. You have to wonder what became of that seven year old girl, was she cured? Did she spend her entire life in an asylum?

Many of the individuals on the page were married, so my thoughts turned to the family left behind, would they struggle without a mother or father, wife or husband? Were they safer without them? Did they miss them? Did they visit them in the asylum?

Then there were the occupations: a sailor, two clerks, a grocer’s assistant, and several labourers and domestic servants. Clearly some of these individuals had been well enough to hold down jobs before, and most probably were doing some sort of work in the asylum now.

What really struck me was that each of those sets of initials represented not only an individual, but almost certainly a family suffering in one way or another, a family like my own ancestors, whose life had to carry on without a loved one, for better or worse.

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