Tag Archives: george thomas gasson

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.

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.

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