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Our Ancestors and Depression

Discussion in 'Workhouses and the Poor Laws' started by GrahamC, Sep 3, 2014.

  1. GrahamC

    GrahamC LostCousins Member

    Depression was not recognised as an illness until the 20th century. Before then sufferers would probably die in a Lunatic Asylum or Workhouse if they didn't take their own life first. My 3 x great uncle Richard Worsley was probably one of the lucky ones.

    Chelmsford Chronicle Friday 27 October 1871.
    A SPECIMEN FROM PAUPERDOM.- Richard Worsley, who appeared in the garb of a workhouse inmate, was charged with wilfully neglecting his children and allowing them to be chargable to the Chelmsford union. - Mr. Duffield, who appeared to prosecute, said the prisoner was a blacksmith. He had been living on the ratepayers of this union for a considerable time, and not only he but a number of his children with him. [A laugh.] He could have had a permanent situation over and over again, but he was absolutely too lazy to work. - Mr. Mason, workhouse master, and Mr. Cole, relieving-officer, were called in support. It was proved among other things, that he could have had work at from 18s. to 20s. per week. - A medical certificate was produced showing that the prisoner was able to labour. - Prisoner : I know my own feelings as well as the doctor. [A laugh.] - Mr. Duffield : Yes we know your feelings; you prefer to live on the ratepayers rather than do any work. [Laughter]. - The Chairman said the bench had made up their minds to see whether the accused really could work by sending him for a month on the tread wheel [A laugh.]

    Richard had recently lost his wife and at least one child. His two teenage sons had left home and he had two young kids to look after. No wonder he was depressed.

    By the 1881 census Richard appears to have fought off the "Black Dog". He had left the Workhouse and was working at his trade.
  2. FamilyHistoryGal

    FamilyHistoryGal LostCousins Member

    Very interesting. Your post was reminiscent of what happened to my great grandather. Although at least he was lucky enough not to suffer a bereavement. Any of my relatives who turn up in lunatic asylums, I always make a point of obataining their records. They can make for depressing reading but they do allow you to see how those with mental health issues were treated. My paternal great grandfather had two spells in the Norfolk Lunatic Asylum and yet he shows up on every census.

    First stay: Admitted 28 September 1883


    He has done no work since last March, but no mental symptoms showed themselves until a month ago when he became unsettled and talked at random, especially on religious subjects. His manner is completely changed and he frequently uses profane language. He is excited occasionally. He suspects without reason that various people do him harm. He does not sleep, is restless at night and inclined to wander about.


    Is able to answer correctly. Depressed and very fretful

    He was dishcharged on 30 December 1884 much improved but was re-admitted 18 February 1885

    Duration: 6 weeks

    He was discharged from this asylum in December last as ‘recovered’. For about a month after this he was feeling well. Up to this time he could not find any work. He was allowed a small sum by the parish. He was then told that this allowance would be taken away from him and it appeared to prey upon his mind so that he became depressed and moody, asked people to kill him and said that he had committed some awful crime against the Lord. Since that time, he has gradually got worse, more depressed, restless at night and disinclined to take food. On one occasion he fell down and pretended that he could not walk.

    On Admission:

    Converses freely, but is very depressed. Body is well nourished and the thoracic abdominal viscera generally free from disease.

    In 1891 he was discharged as recovered and never went back to the asylum again. He was on the 1891 census. If I hadn't discovered his two spells in the asylum I would never have known about this chapter in his life because, as I said, although in the asylum for long periods, he is on every census - amazing!
  3. Heather

    Heather LostCousins Member

    Interesting reading FHG. How did you discover that your great grandfather had been in the lunatic asylum and where did you get his record from, was it available on the internet or did you have to visit the asylum records office yourself?
  4. FamilyHistoryGal

    FamilyHistoryGal LostCousins Member

    Hi Heather,

    I discovered my great grandfather's (whose name was Joseph Kemp) spell of incarceration in a mental institution when I received a death certificate on one of his relatives (Charles Kemp). Charles had actually died in the same asylum after being there for just a few days. I sent for Charles records, and in these records, there is usually a question which asks about "insanity" in other family members. In those records it mentions my great grandfather having mental issues. I was then at a family history fair and a lady there had a CD listing the names of some of the men and women who'd been in the Norfolk Asylum. I then saw my great grandfather had been in there twice and went to the Norfolk Record Office to view his records. I was allowed to photograph the records. They also contained photos of my great grandfather which was amazing. I wouldn't have a clue how he looked otherwise. Things are much easier now. Ancestry has a similar limited database of people admitted to asylums.
  5. Heather

    Heather LostCousins Member

    Thanks FHG, that is really interesting. to get a photograph of your great grandfather as well, what a bonus. I have a few ancestors who ended up in either workhouses or asylums in the UK, hopefully one day these records will be available online.
    • Agree Agree x 1
  6. FamilyHistoryGal

    FamilyHistoryGal LostCousins Member

    I doubt they will ever put them online Heather (too personal perhaps) but there is nothing to stop you writing to the appropriate record office and asking for copies of the records. There will be a charge of course.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1
  7. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    There are some 19th century workhouse and asylum records online already at Ancestry and Findmypast.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1
  8. FamilyHistoryGal

    FamilyHistoryGal LostCousins Member

    Yes, I've seen the registers to say who was in which asylum, their names, when admitted and discharged or whether they died in the asylum; but as far as I'm aware no personal medical files describing their illness on a week by week basis are online or case file photos where you can search for your relatives.
    • Thanks! Thanks! x 1
  9. Ken

    Ken Member

    My Great Great Grandfather Richard Webber spent many years in a Workhouse in Bermondsey (Russel Street). He was described as being "Paralysed" Richard was a Leather Dresser by trade and obviously liked his drink as I found an account of him outside a pub in Jamaica Road in 1871 and being involved in some trouble there. Reading between the lines it sounds as if he was dragged into a yard by two Police Officers and given a beating. Rattles were involved in the assault. Until this reading I had assumed that the Police always carried whistles but it seems that a wooden rattle was often carried. This was followed by a court case against him in which several witnesses testified for him and the Judge ordered an investigation into the conduct of the Police Officers.
    This was the last trace I could find of him until the following census by which time he was incarcerated in the Workhouse paralysed. There he lay as far as I can ascertain, until his death in 1909. I wish there were accessible records either with the police or workhouse records that could shed more light onto this.
  10. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    My grandmother was in the Essex Lunatic Asylum on the day of the 1911 Census (she was discharged the next day, having been there for 8 months). No medical records have survived, but it seems very likely that she suffered from post natal depression, having give birth to her first child around the time of her admission.
  11. GrahamC

    GrahamC LostCousins Member

    Since sending my first post I have discovered that Richard's wife Elizabeth committed suicide by hanging herself from a beam in the kitchen of their house while the family slept upstairs. Being a Sunday they all slept in and she was found by the postman (on a Sunday?).

    Poor Richard. I really feel sorry for him.

    This brings up another thing that seems strange by today's standards. Rather than try to help Elizabeth, the postman's first thought was to find another woman. He wouldn't touch her as she was in her night attire.

    Attached Files:

  12. Ken

    Ken Member

    Richard Webber's wife described herself as a "widow" in the census following his admittance into the workhouse. I can only assume this was a way of gaining some financial assistance.
  13. Bob Spiers

    Bob Spiers LostCousins Superstar

    That is likely the reason for the incarceration of my own Ancestor Florence to Barnwood Lunatic Asylum (Later a Mental Hospital) situated at Barnwood Gloucestershire in 1910. She died there in 1933 after some 23 years of incarceration.

    The story of my research for her and eventual discovery is part of a story I wrote for the Midland Ancestor. Here is a synopsis. My use of just first names is deliberate.

    Florence was born c 1878 and married Albert in 1897 and bore him a daughter May in 1898. They can all be found in the 1901 Census and in 1909 they moved to Cheltenham, and she had a son Frederick the same year. I could not find Florence or her baby son in 1911 but I found Albert and daughter May with a new wife(?) Ann.

    By a circuitous route I discovered a 2 year old Frederick adopted by a family, and discovered the wife was Albert's sister. So Albert had given the baby up for adoption - so what had happened to Florence? Presumably as Ann was described as Wife (in the Census), Florence had died, but I could not find a death registration.

    After further intense research I was to discover in the 1911 Census Florence under her married name, aged 33 as an inmate at Barnwood Lunatic Asylum (see photo below). She had been committed to the Asylum sometime after the birth of Frederick, no reason known or later discovered.

    She died aged 55 in 1933 (Carcinoma of the Pancreas) after being institutionalised for 23 years. A sad story and one I can only put down to her being committed to Barnwood suffering from post-natal depression.

    (a) Albert married Ann in 1934, and she helped bring up May who later married and brought up a family of her own.
    (b) Frederick (as adopted) later married and became part of my paternal cousin's family.
    (b) Further research into Barnwood helped me discover it was a very progressive institution way ahead of its time, and later a notable Mental Hospital. It also accepted private patients, or funding from the family of inmates, and wonder if Albert or his family contributed in this way. One hopes they did.

  14. Vio

    Vio LostCousins Member

    My great grandmother was committed to an asylum with presumed post-natal insanity a few months after a stillbirth, and died there 23 years later. In the records she was described as a melancholic, clean in her habits. I wonder if she remained there because if she had been discharged she would have had nowhere to live and no income?

    However the family story (from my grandmother who visited her in the asylum, taking her own baby in to show him off to her) to account for her being in the asylum was that she had fallen down stairs. Presumably to explain a mental deficiency and reason to be locked away?

    I finally found all the information from workhouse records that are on Ancestry but not digitised, so you have to trawl through the pages as if in front of a microfiche reader. But more comfortable as you're at home and can have a cuppa and a biscuit as you do it. Then I went to the archives in London to see the ledger itself, and the children's ledgers to follow the story of my grandfather who was only 5 at the time and cared for by the workhouse, fostered (boarded out) by them, and then found a training job by them.

    The workhouse records are very detailed, and stated that friends had taken her to the infirmary as they feared she was a danger to herself and others. She'd thrown lighted lamps around the room, threatened to jump out of a window (presumably upstairs?) and needed 4 people to hold her down, was hearing voices, thinking items had been stolen but unable to specify what they were.
  15. peter

    peter Administrator Staff Member

    Lots more on this topic in the book I reviewed recently.
  16. Vio

    Vio LostCousins Member

    I discovered another relative in an asylum in Gloucester, and I wonder if he suffered from shell shock as his age and the date would make it possible he was in WW1.

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