I’ve shared this before, but I used it yesterday with my creative writing family history group… exploring how you can write imaginatively about a small piece of information:
While researching family history in the 1891 census, I came across John William Coker, a discharged soldier looked after by an officer for the insane in Bethnal Green. He was 26 and on the transcribed document I was looking at he was named, along with John Grimwood, an old man of 73 from Colchester in Essex. There were two nurses to the insane, 23 year old Harriet Jones from Blackdown, Worcestershire, and Susan Butler who was 69 from Wexham In Buckinghamshire. In the same household was young Phoebe Franklin, only 20, also from Essex, and she was the domestic housemaid.
My imagination began to create a dramatic scenario, a very small private institution with only two patients… But I looked at the complete record, John was one of over 300 patients in Bethnal House, a lunatic asylum on Cambridge Road!!!
John was in the famous Bethnal House, under the kindly supervision of Dr John Kennedy Will and his doctors, nurses and attendants. Bethnal House was extremely old and had been an asylum for over one hundred and sixty years when John Coker was a resident there. It was originally called Kirby’s Castle and was on the green from which Bethnal Green gets its name.
What had brought John to the lunatic asylum? Was it his service as a soldier? There is no way of telling. In 1881, a young John Coker aged 18, was working as a dock labourer in London and living in what must have been some sort of hostel or tenement, Great Eastern Chambers, Cable Street. Was this the same John Coker who became a soldier, was discharged and ended up in a mad house? There were 111 men living in Great Eastern Chambers on the night of the census, most were Londoners but many came from Ireland, a few from Scotland three or four from America, and one from Mauritius. What on earth were the conditions like? I dread to think, no doubt the place was vermin infested, literally lousy. Would they have slept in dormitories or would they have been “on the rope?”
“On the rope,” or a tuppenny hang, was accommodation where men would sleep standing up leaning over a rope strung across a room. You could fit more people in and there was no need for bedding. Poverty indeed. However, John and the other residents of Great Eastern Chambers were working, so poor they may be, but probably they could afford a bed.
What happened to John after the 1891 census? There is John Coker who appears on a later census but it may never be known whether he is the same poor young soldier who was detained in bedlam.