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.