The schoolgirl, the mangler, and the railway porter’s wife

In my novel, ‘Magick’, a genealogical mystery, the main character Thomas says “Daphne wanted me to do her family tree; I was pleased to, although mentioned again that sometimes people appear and disappear, and sometimes unexpected things crop up, things which might have been secret”.

This is so true! When you are researching a family history, the most unexpected things can turn up, not necessarily that there is royalty in a family or a famous person, but the ordinary everyday lives of your ancestors maybe not be quite as ordinary after all. While looking up a friend’s family I found that a distant great-however-many-times grandfather had married his step-sister; another friend, another tree, and a son had married his aunty… Both these details had been ‘smudged’ in the family history as my friends knew it, but research and a little genealogical detective work found the truth.

However, sometimes other ‘secrets’ are revealed.  My character Thomas is searching for his maternal ancestors; a woman appears in a census, the wife of a distant member of his family, but in the following census she disappears from the family home. She hasn’t died… she was an inmate of Bethnal Green Lunatic Asylum. My character is fictional, but there is always the possibility that anyone’s missing ancestor might have been locked away because they were mentally ill.

As part of the research for my novel I looked at the 1881 census return for Bethnal House, The Licensed House for the Reception of the Insane. At that time the Doctor in charge was John Millar from Glasgow, who lived at the hospital with his wife and son. There were thirty-four staff, and twenty attendants.

I looked at one page in particular to get a sense of what might be found about an ancestor if he or she had the misfortune to suffer from mental illness in the nineteenth century.

The census page gives a lot of information that anyone might expect about the inmates; date and place of birth, occupation etc., but the last column on the return has a disturbing heading:

  1. deaf and dumb
  2. blind
  3. imbecile or idiot
  4. lunatic

On the page I looked at, all the women ‘inmates’ were noted as ‘lunatic’ and three of the poor women were also blind…

These women came from all over the place, Peterborough, Haverfordwest, St Just in Cornwall, Gosport in Hampshire… and New Zealand! Their occupations are equally varied too; some are just noted as ‘housewife’ or ‘Lady’, some work in mainly domestic situations, mangler, washerwoman, charwoman, laundress, needlewoman, machinist… others are described by their husband’s occupation, cabinet maker’s wife, plumber’s wife, draper’s wife, railway porter’s wife. They are of every age from 16, yes, 16, to 76 and there are almost equal numbers of single, married and widowed women.

I looked at the 16 year old; her ‘occupation’ noted as schoolgirl… how very sad and she is the young woman who was born in New Zealand. One can only imagine what had happened that she was locked away like this at such a young age among women of every age and background and affliction.

Bethnal House lunatic asylum was opened as a private ‘madhouse’ called Kirby’s Castle in 1726 but was extended and renamed the White House. By 1800 it had 300 inmates paid for by the parish, which cost nearly ten shillings (50p) per person per week. Within 15 years there were 933 inmates. Later there were separate houses for men and women, the Red House and the White House. One can only imagine the conditions, and abuses were reported which resulted in two resident medical manglerofficers being appointed. By 1851, after rebuilding, Bethnal Green had nearly sixty staff and the inmates were beginning to be treated more as sick people than mad animals. The asylum finally closed in 1920.

This is the fascinating thing about searching for your family, you never know what you may find!

Here is a link to Magick:


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