Tag Archives: asylum

Madness Monday: How I discovered my ancestor was a lunatic

6 Apr

My 2x great grandfather George Thomas GASSON seemed to have disappeared from the 1901 census, I could find his wife and most of his children living in Cuckfield, Sussex, but he wasn’t there.

His wife was not listed as a widow, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t. I searched the GRO indexes for a death entry, and the only real match for George Thomas GASSON was in the Hailsham Registration District in 1922. Some distance from Cuckfield parish and Cuckfield Registration District where I would have expected to find him. I assumed that when he died he was probably living with a son or daughter who had married and moved away, and eventually I would get around to finding out where and with whom it was.

I didn’t give the fact he was missing from the 1901 census much consideration, I guessed he was probably working away from home (he was a general labourer) or even that he was serving in the army overseas, but that seemed unlikely. I tried a few different name spellings, switching first and middle names, and all the usual tricks we use to try and find who we are looking for in the census. I still couldn’t find him, but I let it go, I felt he would turn up eventually, it wasn’t necessarily a problem or obstacle to my research.

Several years passed and I was working on my TROWER line, and searching the WW1 Pension and Service Records on Ancestry.co.uk, I seem to remember I didn’t have much luck with the TROWERs so I switched to the GASSONs. Here I found the records for one of George Thomas’ sons William James GASSON, who died during the First World War (but that’s another story, one which I will eventually write up).

Amongst William James’ records was a form entitled “MILITARY HISTORY SHEET” which included details of his next of kin, I am not sure of the date of this army form (or it’s correct title), but it was after his death in October 1915. Listed under the next of kin was his father, mother and brothers, I was surprised to find that the addresses for his mother and father were different. When I looked closely his father’s address was given as Hellingly Asylum.

Hellingly, Sussex was (and I think still is) in Hailsham Registration District, suddenly the death entry for George Thomas made sense, he must have died whilst at the asylum. It briefly crossed my mind that he might have been a member of staff working there, but I thought that unlikely.

I remembered that I couldn’t find him in the 1901 census, and checked Hellingly for an asylum, but it wasn’t there. I soon found out that it wasn’t opened until 1903, and before then the East Sussex County Asylum was at Haywards Heath, Sussex. Actually it turned out to be part of Wivelsfield parish, and it soon became obvious why I couldn’t find George Thomas in the 1901 census. All the patients had been recorded by their initials only!

I went through the pages of the census searching for a GTG or GG, but couldn’t find him. Eventually I found a TGG, of the right age, marital status and occupation, no place of birth was given for any of the patients so I couldn’t be sure it was my great great grandfather, but something inside me told me it was him (further research has proved that he was there at the time of the census).

Then I stopped and considered what I had found, my ancestor was a lunatic, it said so in the final column of the census page as clear as day, he was a lunatic. I suppose it was a mixture of excitement and sadness that hit me, something really interesting to get my teeth into, but such sadness at what may have happened to him, he was only 46 years old in 1901 and twenty or so years later it appeared he was still in an asylum and died there.

Why had I never heard about this? Why had no-one ever told me about him? Had he been kept a secret? I still don’t know to what extent his condition was known, did all his children know? Or his grandchildren? Did they visit him?

I knew then that I needed to find out more about his condition and let his story be told. I knew it wouldn’t necessarily be easy to do in terms of getting access to his records if they still existed or in terms of what I might find out, but I felt I still had to do it, if I didn’t then no-one else would and his story would be forgotten again.

[to be continued]

I have much more to write on the subject of George Thomas GASSON, one day I will get around to telling the whole story, with illustrations and proper source citations, but until such time I will continue to share extracts of my research and his life on this blog. If you want to know more at any time then send me an email.

Sussex Family History Group conference

28 Mar

Today (28th March 2009) I had the pleasure of attending the Sussex Family History Group 2009 conference at Haywards Heath, West Sussex. It was held at the Clair Hall in Haywards Heath, a small multi-purpose venue which I am familiar with because of the monthly postcard fair held there.

It was well attended, I would estimate around 250-300 people, which is probably about as much as the hall could cope with. There were three guest speakers (Michael Gandy, Annabelle Hughes and Ian Gledhill) and a handful of stalls selling various books and CDs.

Michael Gandy‘s talk was entitled “Country Poor, Town Poor” and rather than dwell on the differences between the two, the talk challenged some of our widely held views on the poor and discussed how very little has actually changed over the past couple of centuries.

Annabelle Hughes is an expert on many (if not all) aspects of Sussex buildings and their records, and we were lead through an example of her research into one Sussex farm, from the Domesday book to the present day. Her talk mentioned many sources for property records, that would be of interest to the family historian, which pre-date parish registers and are easily available (in printed form, not on the internet) to researchers.

Ian Gledhill gave an illustrated talk entitled “Oh, We Do Like to be Beside the Seaside”, which took us from the earliest days when bathing started to become popular up to the present day. The talk covered the major resorts on the Sussex coast and a few beyond, with details of the development of piers and theatres etc. that our ancestors may once have enjoyed.

At lunchtime whilst the majority of attendees enjoyed their lunch, I left Clair Hall and boarded a bus for the Princess Royal Hospital on the other side of Haywards Heath and walked a short way down the road to pay a visit to what had once been the East Sussex County Asylum, and home to my 2x great grandfather George Thomas GASSON for five years (before he was moved to the new asylum at Hellingly).

The building is quite impressive, and mostly converted to flats and appartments now, I did get some photographs but conditions weren’t ideal, there is still building work going on (at least it appears to be), I will have to return when I have more time and better weather conditions.

I walked back to Clair Hall for the afternoon session through the town, which is not particularly interesting, a few old buildings remain, but the town centre is quite modern (although perhaps a little dated now).

It was a good day, the talks were varied and well presented, the conference was well organised, and I managed to pick up a couple of bargain books from the Sussex Record Society stall (they were having a clearance sale). The fact that I got to do a bit of walking was an added bonus!


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