Tag Archives: asylum

Madness Monday: Using non-asylum sources for asylum research

18 May

Although I was still waiting for permission to view the next set of asylum records for George Thomas GASSON, there were other records I could look at without any restrictions.

Of course the 1911 census wasn’t available then (and I still haven’t looked in there for him yet), but I could still access death and burial records. I suppose one could view his death as a release from the asylum back into civil and ecclesiastical hands.

Firstly there was his death certificate, this confirmed he had died in the asylum on the 9th May 1922 and gave his cause of death as exhaustion of dysentery (10 days) and senile dementia (several years). This was rather confusing, I had found no reference of dementia in his previous notes, is this what he was actually suffering from all along? had this developed over the years? or did they just not know what to call it?

Next came burial records. I guessed that he would have been buried at Hellingly, Sussex because I had not found a burial record back at Bolney or the surrounding parishes. Sure enough when I checked the burial records for Hellingly (at the East Sussex Record Office) there he was, being buried at the burial ground at Hellingly on the 13th May 1922 in grave number 1082B.

The register of graves for the burial ground threw up one confusing issue, it listed another person in that grave as well, she was Ada Elizabeth RICHARDSON who was buried on the 7th May 1964. This confusion was soon cleared up by the present parish clerk, as the grave had not been purchased by the family it would have been re-used at a later date.

This however brought up another issue, the grave hadn’t been purchased, but how many (if any) of the family actually knew he was buried there? did any of them attend the funeral? and who paid the interment fees of 7s 6d?

With the help of a plan of the burial ground at the East Sussex Record Office and Google Maps I have been able to identify the spot where George Thomas is buried with reasonable accuracy. It doesn’t appear to be marked (which was confirmed by the parish clerk) but I shall still go and pay a visit one day soon.

I know that I am probably one of only a handful of his descendants that knows the whereabouts of his last resting place, but what is sadder still is that I might be the only family member past or present that has visited his grave.

[to be continued]

Madness Monday: learning about lunacy whilst waiting to move on

11 May

So far I had uncovered just about everything I could about George Thomas GASSON whilst he was at the Sussex County Asylum, Haywards Heath, Sussex. Now it was time to turn my attention to Hellingly Asylum, where George Thomas had been transferred in October 1903.

I knew this wasn’t going to be straight forward. From my early enquiries at the East Sussex Record Office I knew that I would need to obtain written permission to view these later records as they were still closed. So I prepared a letter and put it in the post.

From that stage forward I tried to forget about, I didn’t think anything would happen quickly and I wondered if it would even find the right person, and even if it did they might not agree to allow me access. I tried not to think about and got on with my research.

I still had plenty to do, notes to write up, other sources to check and also I wanted to find out more background information about both of the asylums and the treatment of mental illness in general at that time.

Fortunately the Internet Archive came to my rescue, with a copy of A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine edited by D. Hack Tuke, M.D., LL.D., published in 1892 in two volumes. In it I was able to find a definition of the term mania, “Insanity characterised in its full development by mental exhaltation and bodily excitement. The term is also sometimes used for acute mania. Popularly it is used for the delusions of the insane.”

It also gave me a introduction into The Lunacy Act, 1890 (under the heading LAW OF LUNACY, 1890 and 1891). This was the legislation under which George Thomas was being treated, with examples of some of the different types forms that were being used at the time, some of which I had already looked at. It went some way to helping me understand what was going on when George Thomas was being admitted to the asylum.

In general however, I have found very little information about asylums and the treatment of mental illness, other than some publications about specific asylums. There is also a real lack of information about researching lunatics for family historians, it has been a real uphill struggle trying to understand what was going on, and where to go next.

Perhaps one day I will put together a guide for family historians based on my own experiences, but until then if you have any questions let me know and I will try and help.

Madness Monday: a lunatic at the wedding?

4 May

Whilst carrying out my research into George Thomas GASSON and the Sussex County Asylum I purchased a book about the Haywards Heath asylum, entitled Sweet Bells Jangled Out of Tune: A History of the Sussex Lunatic Asylum (St Francis Hospital) Haywards Heath by James Gardner.

The book tells the history of the asylum from it’s foundation through to the present day (or recent past now). It provided much useful background information on the asylum and the treatment of mental illness, as well as many plans of the asylum and other illustrations.

One particular section concerning the transfer of patients from Haywards Heath to the newly built East Sussex County Asylum at Hellingly stopped me in my tracks, it described the photos taken of the patients when they were transferred:

The photos reveal the patients dressed in their best clothes, with a look, for the most part, of bewilderment on their faces. Three had their hands tied behind their backs and in several instances staff hands could be seen holding the patients’ head straight for the camera. Almost every male had a beard as razors had been banned at the asylum for some time.

This (apart from the part about being restrained) brought to mind a photo I had scanned quite recently. It is a group photo of what was presumably a wedding, with no indicationas to the date, place or who the people were. It came from my late half-great aunt so there was quite likely a GASSON connection.

Possible GASSON wedding group

Possible GASSON wedding group

When I first saw this photo it struck me that the man in the back row didn’t fit in, in fact he stood out like a sore thumb. He had a bowler hat, whereas the other two men had flat caps. He had a thick beard whilst the other two had either a neatly trimmed moustache or was clean shaven. More than that it wasn’t so much a beard, more the lack of a decent shave for several months, if not years.

The man in the beard and bowler hat

The man in the beard and bowler hat

For want of a better word, it looked like this man had been stuck in a timewarp for many years or locked away from the rest of the world. Was it just wishful thinking on my part or was this man George Thomas GASSON, my lunatic 2x great grandfather? Had he actually been let out of the asylum to attend the wedding of one of his children? Was that sort of thing allowed?

I had no known photographs of George Thomas to compare this with, and much of his face was hidden beneath a beard and a bowler hat. So it would be hard to tell anyway. The woman seated in front of him does look like it could be his wife Mary Ann, but I have nothing else to go on with any of the others, or even where the photo was taken.

If this is George Thomas then it makes my initial assumptions that he had been more or less abandoned by his family were completely wrong. This would mean that they knew where he was and cared enough to collect him and bring him home for a family wedding.

One day I will get in touch with a photo expert who can perhaps give me an approximate date for the photo from the clothes the rest of the group were wearing, until then I will cling to my gut instinct that this is my 2x great grandfather.

[to be continued]

Madness Monday: notes from an asylum case book

27 Apr

It wasn’t easy transcribing the notes for George Thomas GASSON (my 2x great grandfather) from the case book for the Sussex County Asylum (ESRO HC33/1). As one would expect the notes were all hand written, but in a variety of different hands, just when I had got used to one style of handwriting it changed to another.

Each entry carried on from the next, with hardly a pause for punctuation and a set of initials for the person responsible for the entry (most of those initials we unreadable). Initially the notes or observations were made daily, but the interval between them widened as the months and years passed.

The notes are generally quite vague and I was disappointed to find that there was no mention of any form of treatment or whether he ever received any visitors. Of course the absence of these doesn’t prove that either of them didn’t happen, but it would have been nice to know if any of his family had been to see him or whether he was forgotten.

It is not going to be possible to include all of the notes here, there are too many and most of them are not particularly interesting (if anyone wants to see them all then please get in touch). So here is a sample of some of the notes, I have taken some liberties with the punctuation and date formatting just to make them more readable.

25 Jan 1898 : Has been quiet since admission, had a good night and has taken his food. Bowels not acting …. Passed urine yesterday afternoon but not since until after breakfast this morning.

27 Jan 1898 : Going on very quietly and is rather depressed. Still fancies that people followed him about before he came here.

08 Mar 1898 : Remains in a quiet and suspicious state. Employs himself.

20 May 1898 : Is more unsettled and excited. Uses bad language.

04 Nov 1898 : Is in much the same deluded state and frequently tries to escape.

13 Mar 1899 : Remains in a deluded and restless state. Employs himself.

11 Dec 1899 : Remains in a deluded state and hears and answers invisibles.

12 Jun 1900 : Remains in a deluded state. Hears voices threatening him.

23 Aug 1901 : In a very lost and incoherent state. Chatters to invisibles.

04 Mar 1902 : Morose and depressed. Abusive at times.

08 Dec 1902 : Uses bad language and has fits of temper.

06 Mar 1903 : Is abusive. Has a delusion about a man in the woods. Delicate.

28 Jul 1903 : Cut below left eye from J. Lusted.

29 Oct 1903 : Spiteful and deluded …. Transfered today to Hellingly.

After copying out a page of tightly packed handwriting I had to take a break and went outside into the fresh air to clear my head and consider what I had just transcribed. There were very few hard facts, but at least I knew when he had been transferred to the asylum at Hellingly, that would allow me to continue my research to the next stage.

The impression I got from reading these notes was of a very confused and deluded man, not particularly dangerous it seemed, probably more to be pitied than feared. Just another sad case with little hope of anything other than spending the rest of his life in an asylum.

[to be continued]

Madness Monday: George Thomas GASSON, at last some answers

20 Apr

Following on from my previous visit to the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO), which I described last week, I scheduled another visit to the ESRO to view the next set of documents several weeks later.

Things were moving slowly, one piece of information, in this case the admission number, was unlocking more information, and slowly I was beginning to build up a picture of how my 2x great grandfather had ended up in the Sussex County Asylum at Haywards Heath, Sussex.

The first document I looked at that morning presented a number of challenges, not least it’s size. It was the case book (ESRO HC33/1) for patients admitted between February 1896 and February 1899, and it must have been at least six inches thick, although not particularly tall or wide.

The next challenge was what it actualy contained, a description of George Thomas GASSON’s condition when he was admitted, and the changes in his condition whilst in the asylum. At first much of this information was just a repeat of what I had already seen, his name, age, residence etc. but then I came to the section Facts indicating Insanity related in Medical Certificate.

This was what I really wanted to find out, why did they think he was insane? The moment of truth had arrived for me, as well as for George Thomas. There were two statements:

a) He tells me that he hears voices & at times sees figures who hold conversation with his, also sees different little animals running about is nervous

b) George Gasson of Chaites Grove, Bolney. son. says that he is always swearing at night and suffers from various delusions. all the people in the house are terrified on account of his conduct.

The first part seemed almost comical, hearing voices and seeing things, it sounded more like he had a drink problem than a mental illness, but then second part really knocked me back. When I thought of his family in the house and what they must have gone through. I could only imagine how frightening it must have been for them.

When I thought back to the 1901 census return where George Thomas had been absent (and three years after he had been admitted), it struck me that it would have been a house full of children. In 1901 the eldest was 17 years old, and in total there were seven children, right down to the youngest son Harold, who was only three. No wonder they were frightened, it didn’t bear thinking about.

So, not only was there a house full of children when George Thomas was admitted to the asylum on the 24th January 1898, but George Thomas’ wife Mary Ann was pregnant with their son Harold (he was born 23 days later).

My own mind was in turmoil, although there was no mention that he had been violent or aggressive, there must have been such relief among the family when George Thomas was admitted to the asylum. I had gone from feeling sorry for poor old George Thomas and what he was suffering and how his family must have missed him, to feeling a sense of relief for them, that he could do them no harm and they could live a normal life, albeit a without a father at home.

[to be continued]

Madness Monday: My first steps in researching George Thomas GASSON and the Sussex County Asylum

13 Apr

Having discovered that my 2x great grandfather George Thomas GASSON was a lunatic my first step was to prove that he was in the asylum at Haywards Heath in the 1901 census and try to find out how long he had been there and why he was there.

A surprisingly large number of records from both Haywards Heath and Hellingly Asylums had been preserved, and were deposited at the East Sussex Record Office (ESRO). Searching on Access to Archives I was able to identify the admission registers and their indexes I needed to order (those for Haywards Heath, then known as the Sussex County Asylum) and booked a seat at the ESRO.

One of the biggest challenges when starting out was understanding the admission procedures, and to some extent I am still looking for some clear guidance on all the different stages of the process.

The first record I checked at the ESRO was the index to admission papers (ESRO HC32/21) covering January 1890 to December 1898. Being an index it was very easy to find the entry I was looking for:

Name. Gasson George T.
No. in Register. 8167
Date of Admission. Jan 24 1898
Date of Discharge.
Union to which Chargeable. Cuckfield
Division of the County.

So there it was, without a shadow of a doubt that was my 2x great grandfather, it simply had to be him, the fact that it was Cuckfield Union that had to pay for him pretty much confirmed it. It also confirmed that he was admitted as a pauper rather than a private patient. Most importantly I had the all important admission number, which would hopefully allow me to find more detail.

With the admission number I was able to narrow down which admission register I needed, from the several I had requested, it was ESRO HC32/8 the Register of admission of paupers, numbers: 7,244-8,267. This was arranged in numerical order, so very easy to find the page I was looking for.

The page contained more detailed information about George Thomas GASSON’s admission, whilst it didn’t contain much (if any) genealogical information that I didn’t already know, it did confirm once again that I was looking at the right man.

I won’t give all the details here, and much of it was blank, but it gave his personal details as George Thomas Gasson, male, aged 44, married and his occupation was a general labourer. His previous place of abode was Chaite’s Grove, Bolney, which is where the family were living in the 1891 census.

Details about his medical state were somewhat vague. His bodily condition was described as delicate and the form of mental disorder was described as mania (later research would give more details). It gave his age on the first attack of the illness as 41 (which I am getting frighteningly near), and that the present attack had lasted about four weeks.

Then there were the dates of reception orders and/or continuation orders  and his medical certificate was signed by R. Fitzmaurice, and he was sent to the asylum by the authority of J.K. Esdaile. It was all getting too confusing, what had happened? Who were these people, I had to know more, but there didn’t appear to be anywhere to find out what all this meant?

I left the ESRO that day with more questions than answers, what was the nature of his illness? Could it be genetic? Why did he end up in the asylum? Had he done something bad to get locked away? Who were the people that had been responsible for getting him into the asylum?

At least I knew it was the right man and that I had enough information to be able to order the next set of documents, his reception documents and the case book which should tell me more about his illness…

[to be continued]

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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