Saturday, 17 November 2012

ON ASYLUMS AND FAMILY SECRETS...


This is a personal story in memory of Mary, my great-grandmother, whose fate I only came to discover after writing about a Victorian asylum in my novel, Elijah's Mermaid.


Burghill Asylum ~ Herefordshire


When I was a child, whenever I happened to misbehave and my mother’s patience was pushed to its limits, sometimes she would shout at me, ‘You will send me to Burghill!’

Whatever could this Burghill be to hold such a sense of threat? Well, apparently, it was a village where the local county asylum was built, and within that asylum’s walls my maternal great-grandmother died.

Only recently did my mother confess the awful truth of our family’s past. Before that my knowledge of Burghill was a memory from my teenage years, when accompanying my stepfather on a visit one of his relatives who suffered from schizophrenia.

At that time the old Victorian asylums were being prepared for closure, their inmates to be rehomed or cared for ‘in the community’. Since 1994, when Burghill was shut down, the land has been redeveloped for homes – a far cry from 1871 when a sprawling gothic mass was built to accommodate more than 500 souls.

The institution covered ten acres, much larger than the one in my novel. There were 100 acres of gardens, farm buildings and cottages, a chapel, a brewery, a laundry, and even a gasworks in the grounds for providing all the lighting needs. With regular dances and concerts to give patients a sense of normality, the community was managed well, with no records of unusual deaths that resulted in other hospitals, where suicide or homicide were sadly an all too common event.

However, I have no idea if, in the asylum’s early days, any cruel Victorian ‘cures’ were employed, such as those described in my novel – when patients were ‘treated’ in baths of water alternately freezing cold or hot, or spun around on twirling chairs, or placed in drug-induced comas, or – horribly drastic though it sounds – forced to have clitorectomies, or the total removal of their wombs: the source of female ‘hysteria’. And what of patients not mad at all, with tuberculosis, or Down’s syndrome, or those born deaf, or dumb, or blind – there being no specialist schools back then?

Regardless of whether such barbaric acts were employed at the Burghill asylum, I cannot ignore the nagging fact that many of its inmates must have suffered confusion and misery. Looking back to the more recent time of my visit, I wonder if something deep inside had sensed my great grandmother’s presence when I clutched onto my stepfather’s hand and walked the asylum’s corridors, when I heard sighs and moans from behind closed doors and saw women who rocked back and forth on their chairs – and one who smiled and reached out her arms, thinking I was a family member.

Sadly I was not. My great-grandmother had long been dead. Now, I know that when she lived her arms were constrained by straitjackets. Her condition had been violent. But then she would have been in pain. When she died, when an autopsy was performed, a tumour was found inside her brain. Today there might be a medical cure, at the very least appropriate drugs to ease the torment that she felt.

But there her tragedy does not end. When the asylum authorities wrote to inform the family about my great-grandmother’s death, somehow that letter was lost. By the time her husband heard the news and arrived to fetch his wife back home, she was already buried, her body laid in an unmarked grave; not even given a funeral.

What anguish must the man have felt? Perhaps that, along with the shame of a family tainted by madness, is why his wife’s existence was thereafter hidden away – at least until more recently when the local county council was disposing of the asylum’s records and organised a ceremony for all who lay in the unmarked grave.

My mother was sad not to go along, only afterwards hearing about the event from a cousin who had been notified, attending the funeral service where 2,000 patients were named. Afterwards, 2,000 daffodil bulbs were placed in the soil above the mass grave, a beautiful, tribute to bloom each spring – to shine in the light, for all to see.


This article was originally published in The Bookseller/We Love This Book feature.

8 comments:

  1. Every family has tragic secrets that don't come out until they participate in Who Do You Think You Are? or the grandchild gets involved in genealogy. Somebody is always devastated to find out their relative was a convict (Australia), owned slaves (USA), was a fall-down drunk who deserted his children (UK and every other country) etc etc.

    I am so sorry your relative was treated like scum. Had she been rich, mentally disturbed and violent, she would have been put locked in a comfortable facility and treated with dignity. Only the poor mentally disturbed and violent were locked in vast, nightmarish asylums.

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  2. How sad, Essie. My grand-father was dispatched to the local mental asylum in 1970 because he was "talking to people who weren't there" and becoming distressed. Then he fell out of bed and broke his hip and was sent to a medical hospital. It was only after he died that they found his body was riddled with cancer - including a brain tumour. Although, the asylum episode lasted for a week only, he was treated throughout with little care or compassion.

    I was too young to appreciate it fully at the time but now I am appalled that such ignorance still prevailed as late as that. Far too may people who were neither dangerous to themselves or others were incarcerated in asylums when they either needed tender care and/or medical tratment. It's frightening.

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  3. My mum's stepmother ended her days in the terrifying Friern Barnet Mental Asylum - with the benefit of hindsight it sounds as if she was probably suffering from Alzheimer's.

    Sadly Thatcher's 'care in the community' for the mentally ill has been little improvement.

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  4. Interesting you should choose to write about this; just this weekend I was sorting some papers out with my mother in law when we found her grandmother’s birth certificate. She had been born in Lewisham Workhouse with no noted father’s name. My mother in law recalled that her grandmother had been one of thirteen children (although she didn’t recall all of their names, so it’s possible a few died in infancy) and the family had been so poor at one stage the children resorted to pickpocketing to be able to buy food. It quite upset her to recall it, but after a pot of tea and some cake, she improved immensely.

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  5. my father was consultant psychiatrist at Burghill st Mary's hospital hereford from 1962 to 1990. and still alive and well. I myself worked as a part-time nursing assistant between o and A levels. The patients were treated with the utmost care and loving attention by the nurses and doctors, it was their home. it is sad to see care in the community is not up to the standards of what I observed as a small child and later as an adult growing up watching my father work and care for his patients. it was after all 'Assylum' a place of safety for them.

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  6. Thank you for that. It's really good to hear that the hospital was a happy place. It is sad that so many inmates had to leave when the asylums were closed down.

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  7. Hi Its been a while since you posted this I understand.. but I just wondered if you had the postal address of this now demolished hospital..you see it is where my father ended his days and I am trying to retrace his journey...I was too young to have been aware of its location at the time of his death. If you can healp I would be very grateful Thank you.

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  8. Hello. I found information by contacting the Herefordshire County Council records office. If you ring the council they should be able to direct you to the right number/person. Unfortunately many records were destroyed after the asylum was closed (or so I was informed). The site has now been developed for housing, but I believe much of it is still there - and just outside the city of Hereford. The address postal code for what was St Mary's Hospital, Burghill, near Hereford is HR7 4QN.

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