My Lunatic Ancestor

This is a series of Madness Monday posts that describe my research into my 2x great grandfather George Thomas GASSON and his time spent in the Sussex County Asylum (Haywards Heath, Sussex) and the East Sussex County Asylum (Hellingly, Sussex).

It was very challenging work on so many levels, but ultimately very rewarding to uncover a story that had been lost (or hidden) over the intervening generations. It may seem politically incorrect now to refer to him as a lunatic, but this was how he was referred to in the 1901 census, when I found him in the asylum.

9 Responses to “My Lunatic Ancestor”

  1. chennistone November 18, 2009 at 3:59 am #

    Hi John,

    I have so enjoyed reading your series on your lunatic ancestor andrespecially, as I have recently searched records on one of my own.

    I think your blog is deserving of the Kreativ Blogger Award. Stop by and pick up your award and follow instructions, Congratulations, Karen

  2. John Gasson November 20, 2009 at 9:42 pm #

    Hi Karen,
    Thanks very much for the award, now I am going to have to think about who to pass in on to, and seven things about me, I am going to have to think long and hard about those.

  3. John Gasson November 20, 2009 at 9:53 pm #

    I forgot to ask, how did the lunatic research go? Was it easy to get access to the records you wanted?

  4. chennistone November 21, 2009 at 12:55 am #


    That was such a difficult thing to do… there are so many fantastic blogs, so I tried to choose those that I have enjoyed that related to my ancestors in some way.

    The research went well… very helpful at the Lancashire Office. No problem at all as the record time was well over 100 years. Also having a fairly rare surname helped to locate her relatively quickly.


  5. Rebecca Allen September 13, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    I have really enjoyed reading all of this! I am currently trying to figure out how to go about searching for my great uncle who i know was put into Hellingly at a young age. I have so little detail of him, i do not even know his date of birth, but i hope i find out even a small amount of what you have!


  6. Gill Chesney-Green October 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    What fascinating reading all of this is! In my family I found out that ‘lunacy’ seems to move through some of the generations in my mother’s side of the family. Originally the Tebb family were from Yorkshire and then, my own forbear, William Tebb (born 1813 in Raskelf) moved to Lancashire to make shoes. He died young of meningitis in 1849, Bury, aged just 35. His older brother, John Tebb stayed in Yorkshire, married a Margaret Robinson and had 6 children… the eldest of whom was George Tebb (b. 1831). George never married, was a tailor and was in and out of the North Riding Lunatic Asylum 3 times due to his melancholia. I shall let Alison Backhouse, a relative of mine, take up the tale:
    “His first admission was on 31 March 1857. Three days earlier he had tried to strangle himself and he had often threatened to cut his throat, been violent and broken the windows. No wonder the family could not cope. Up until Christmas 1856 he had been working as a tailor for Robert Charlton in Hartlepool but soon after, he moved back to Raskelf and a surgeon from Helperby (Mr Roulston) attended him at home for 2 months. Shortlyafter his detention, his father John and one of his sisters visited him on 25 April, but that is the only recorded visit he ever had. George became less melancholic in the Asylum. By the middle of July 1857, he was much better and often travelled to York market to sell fruit from the Asylum garden. He also enjoyed working in the hay field. By the end of August he was declared fit for discharge, and on 12 September he returned home.

    George was tolerably well for the next 4 years but 1862 was a bad year for him. In 1861, he had been working as a tailor for Mr Goffin in Sculcoates (a district of Hull) and then for Mr Martin in Silver Street in Hull, but by the beginning of April 1862 he was back in Raskelf and miserable again. He had become violent, frequently striking his mother and threatening to kill her. Margaret must have been very alarmed, being threatened by a grown man. He was admitted to the Asylum for the second time on 23 May 1862. He had walked into the middle of a pond a few days previously and had also thrown a book through a window. Mr Roulston of Helperby had again attended him, for the previous 6 weeks. Yet by the end of September 1862, he was judged well enough to be granted absence from the Asylum on trial, but was returned there less than 2 weeks later – I wonder what had happened. He spent a further year under treatment and was discharged as recovered on 30 November 1863.

    For the next 20 years, George lived in Raskelf, in the care of his family. In July 1881 his mother died, hopefully nothing to do with George’s actions.

    On 25 October 1884, he was re-admitted to the Asylum in feeble health and suffering from melancholia and never left it again. He believed he had committed a great sin in his youth and this had caused his body and mind to become wasted. George’s sister Ann had married Robert Brown in 1879 and Robert now spoke up. He said George had been behaving in a peculiar manner at home – was George living with Robert and Ann? They certainly lived in the same village – and was irritable and threatened Ann with violence. He caused disturbances in the village. The local doctor had examined George in 1883 but had been unable to certify him. The doctor also said that George’s sister was ‘eccentric decidedly’ and this had been the case for over 6 weeks, but we have no evidence if this referred to Ann or Margaret or Sarah – although Ann would seem most likely. Was George driving her round the bend?

    In 1893, George had his photograph taken in the Asylum. It is strange to think that this is the earliest photo I have seen of a relative.

    George was reported on every 3 months or so. Nearly all the entries recorded him as being in good health and eating well, yet he persisted in thinking his health was poor and sometimes he was prone to hallucinations.

    Towards the end of 1899, a double aortic murmur was detected. George was still suffering from chronic melancholia but found relief on 8 January 1900 when he died. He was buried in a public grave in York Cemetery.

    Alison Backhouse
    19 July 2009 ”

    So this is documented… but what of others in my family? Well, my 3 G Grandfather, William, had a son called George born in 1841 in Bootle, Lancs who died in Whiston Workhouse, after having had a stint as a soldier in the 18th Hussars and who then took up tailoring. He died on 6 Nov 1880 of mania and apoplexy.

    His son, George, was a band leader in the Salvation Army in St Helens and wasn’t ‘cursed’ apparently with mental troubles. However, his son, also a George, born in 1896 in St Helens was troubled with mental breakdowns throughout his life but died in 1969 of a cerebral haemorrhage and hypertension, and his daughter, my mother, was stricken with shizophrenia and was sectioned two or three times in her life.

    Luckily, I seem to be free of any problems in this area but there are others in the family of whom I know who have struggles with mental and emotional difficulties.

    It is, as ever, a tricky subject and one that not many families will openly acknowledge. But I do find it fascinating that just as histories of say, breast cancer, can be passed on through the genes so too, might mental illness. I realise that sometimes behaviour can be ‘learned’ but equally, there is probably a propensity for mental health problems pre-existing, I would have thought.

  7. Teresa December 24, 2011 at 6:09 am #

    Hi John
    I notice on your list of ancestors the name Boxall. My 5x great grandmother was Jane Boxall she married Henry Pitman in 1761, they lived in Midhurst in Sussex. I wonder if Jane is related to your Boxall’s. Teresa

  8. Sue October 23, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    I came across your blog just now when I was searching for some information about a print by the artist Thomas Lawrence (for some reason your postcard about Vera came up amongst the works of art when I was googling) and then I spotted the “My Lunatic Ancestor” post and just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading it. I too have a 2x great grandfather who spent some time in an asylum. I was unaware of it until someone on rootschat said that they had spotted him as a patient on the census. Unlike George Thomas Gasson he did not die in an asylum, he is in there on one census but back with his family on the next census. One of these days I mean to go and try to find some records about him. Congratulations on being featured in WDYTYA magazine.


  1. Some lunacy in June 2012 edition of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine « The Wandering Genealogist - May 18, 2012

    […] My Lunatic Ancestor […]

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