Are there some family secrets we may never be able to uncover? How many of us have made a new year’s resolution we have failed to keep such as “This year, I am going to build my family tree”?
Genealogy is all the rage these days. Fascinating TV programmes including:
- Who do you think you are?
- DNA Family Secrets
- DNA Journey and even
- Long Lost Family and
- Heir Hunters
All these make us wonder about our ancestors and what their story might say about how we came to be who we are
But it is not uncommon to come across gaps in the family tree and different relatives may offer different explanations. And Granny’s ‘facts’ may turn out to be fantasies hiding a carefully camouflaged family secret.
In the Glenside Hospital Museum library I came across a slim volume by genealogist Kathy Chater called My Ancestor was a Lunatic, which offers some guidance as to why it is difficult to fill all the gaps. Have you ever wondered if madness runs in the family?
Nowadays we are far more open and caring about mental illness and forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease and Autism Spectrum Disorders including Asperger Syndrome. In living memory they were all lumped together as worrying forms of mental disorder, as was Down’s syndrome. As a teenager I remember visiting Botleys Park, part of St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey, where male and female young people with Down’s syndrome were kept apart to avoid the possibility of relationships. The doors to their dormitories would be opened to allow them to meet for supervised dances on a Friday evening.
Beside the huts left over from wartime when patients from various London hospitals were evacuated to the relative safety of Surrey, there was what looked like tennis courts. They seemed more like cages for seriously disturbed men who would throw themselves about and tear off their clothes.
It was a terrifying experience for us young St Vincent de Paul Society volunteers who had come to befriend the gentler inmates. We were disquieted by some of the ward orderlies whose attitude to the patients in their care was disturbing if not downright sinister.It is doubtful whether any family would want to be reminded of or associated with what seemed to an outsider a very dysfunctional institution.
One of the major difficulties in this instance, of tracing missing relatives is that patients’ records from such institutions, quite properly, remain confidential for up to 100 years. Past patient records from Bristol Lunatic Asylum, which became Glenside Hospital, are being painstakingly researched at Bristol Archives by Dr Paul Tobia. Some of his findings can be found on the Glenside Museum website
My own analysis of the 1881 census for Stapleton Workhouse, whIch was besIde the hospital and has now been turned into luxury homes on Manor Road in East Bristol, revealed an extraordinary range of inmates.
The majority of the several hundred inmates came from Bristol and the West Country but 79 came from Ireland, 37 from Wales, seven from Scotland and 31 were Londoners. Others claimed birth in America, Chile, China, France, Germany, Gibraltar, India, Italy, Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. There were 41 people called Williams, 16 named Davis, 14 Harris and 14 Smith. The youngest inhabitants were Albert Axford and Edith Gilding from nearby Stapleton, and Ellen Adams and Esther Page from Surrey, all aged 1. The oldest were 97-year-old twins Maria, a domestic servant, and her ‘imbecile’ sister Mary, and William Chedzoy, 96, from Minehead.
Until the 19th century terms such as ’imbeciles’ and ‘idiots’ defined people we now say are autistic or have learning difficulties. Back then they were likely to be consigned to an institution, for life.
Members of the the Royal family were not immune. In the late 1980s Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, two cousins of Queen Elizabeth II who were thought to be dead, were found still to be alive in the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives. They had been there, along with three other cousins, Etheldreda, Idonea and Rosemary Fane, since 1941. Imagine the difference it might have made to the lives of many others if the Royals had acknowledged and accepted these women instead of locking them away.
Deafness and epilspsy were once regarded as permanent forms of madness unlike ‘lunatics’ whose occasional strange behaviours were linked to the phases of the moon. Another category was General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI) which covered the consequences of venereal diseases such as syphilis. Many were catered for in private madhouses, official asylums and early mental hospitals.
Others may have ‘disappeared’ into workhouses including the biggest one in the region, Eastville Workhouse at 100 Fishponds Road, Bristol.
Members of Eastville Workhouse Memorial Group traced the details of more than 4,000 people who died there and were buried in unmarked graves. Their research opened a window on the cruel penny-pinching attitudes of the so-called ‘Guardians of the Poor’ when families lacked the wherewithal to bury their relatives or were never informed of their death.
The story of this remarkable community project, which also helped to link relatives with past loved ones, is told in the book ‘100 Fishponds Road: Life and Death in a Victorian Workhouse’ published by Bristol Radical History Group.
It follows that anyone suspecting that their ancestors may have fallen out of the family tree could have a hard job tracing them. The National Archives might provide one route to finding out, especially if you know the names of missing relatives, and/or where they might have been a patient. National Archives
Good luck, if this was your new year’s resolution.