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, 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.

4 Responses to “Madness Monday: How I discovered my ancestor was a lunatic”

  1. Amethyst April 7, 2009 at 12:17 am #

    That is a very sad story. I feel sorry for the old man, to be left in an asylum and forgotten by his family.😦

  2. Alex April 7, 2009 at 5:46 am #

    Can’t wait to read the rest of his story – I too have an ancestor who spent time in an asylum (Stone in Buckinghamshire in the 1860s, with “mental derangement for 31 years” according to her death certificate) and I’m sure being in that situation was infinitely worse than we can imagine today.

  3. amyrebba April 10, 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    I enjoyed reading your post. I can’t wait to hear more about your story. I have only discovered this once in all my research, but it was of someone elses family that I was helping, so I won’t post the story for her sake. I also have an Aunt who is still living in a home, so I’m reluctant to post her story either. But I’m glad that you realize the importance of finding and preserving his story no matter how sad it may be. It’s a part of who he was. Good luck at being able to obtain records though. I had no luck at getting records from the home of the man I was researching for a friend.

  4. wanderinggenealogist April 15, 2009 at 10:33 pm #

    Thanks for all your kind comments, I have posted the latest installment of the story of George Thomas GASSON and my research at

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