Wednesday 30 March 2016

Proper People. Chance meeting with renowned local historian Ian Dewhirst

As a former resident of Keighley, West Yorkshire, I had regularly read Ian Dewhirst’s fascinating weekly articles in his local history column “Memory Lane” published in The Keighley News.  I met Ian for only the first time when he was guest speaker at the Wakefield and District Family History Society in December 2015.  I was impressed by his use of original archived material during his fascinating talk and realised that here was a kindred spirit, albeit one with many, many more years’ experience as historian and author than I may ever achieve.  With a copy of Proper People in hand, I introduced myself and was absolutely delighted when Ian agreed to read and review my first book.

In his covering letter to me, I was particularly flattered by Ian’s remarks:

I must say how much I have enjoyed reading your “Proper People”, and how much I have learned from it.  I stand in awe of the huge amount of work and dedication which you have undoubtedly put into it
Just maybe I had hit my objective of producing an educational and entertaining volume! 


Wednesday 23 March 2016

Proper People. Review by celebrated Yorkshire historian and author Ian Dewhirst, MBE

Ian Dewhirst courtesy of the Keighley News
There is already an extensive literature on the Victorian treatment of mental health, but this study of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Wakefield adopts the less typical viewpoint of the patients themselves.  Thanks to surviving case notes, annual reports, letters and newspaper accounts, backed up by the records of fourteen archives and museums, David Scrimgeour has resurrected the stories of 158 of the forgotten thousands who passed through the Asylum during the first fifty year of its existence, from 1818 to 1869.

He calls his unfortunates “proper people” as a play on their committal warrants declaring each a “proper person” to be admitted.  And what a varied, sad and sometimes intriguing collection of people they were! – a wood carver, discharged as recovered after eight months, who put his stay to good use carving an eagle lectern for the Asylum chapel; a Gomersal cloth weaver turned suicidal because of “the reading of Writings rendering him dissatisfied with his condition”; a twenty-year-old iron moulder from Halifax, who thought it his duty “to pray on the Hills and Highways”, and who escaped only to be found drowned in the River Calder; a tailor from Bradford, “disappointed in love”, confined for 49 years at a total cost of £2,000; an alcoholic “stage player”, cured of mania within two months, who treated 400 of his fellow-patients to a dramatic entertainment which included performing dogs; a laundress, discharged to the care of her daughter after 32 years, who paid fanatical attention to her physicians’ linen, and a Sheffield housekeeper who after a brief incarceration thanked the Asylum management by way of a published poem.

There was even a young man from East Ardsley who had served as an officer throughout the American Civil War, and who may have been suffering from the then undiagnosed post-traumatic stress.

Cases of the criminally insane offer the sequel to some sensational local events.  When John Holdsworth, keeper of the Hawcliffe toll bar near Keighley, shot his wife dead in 1861, he made headlines throughout the West Riding, but once found not guilty on the ground of insanity and confined during Her Majesty’s pleasure, he disappeared from the newspapers.  Here, however, we follow his subsequent progress, from the Wakefield Asylum to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum wards of Bethlem Hospital in Southwark, London, and thence to the new Broadmoor Asylum in 1864.  From there he wrote a number of poignant but fruitless letters requesting release, almost up to the time of his death in 1886.

This half-century of “proper people” charts incidentally a growing humanity and understanding of mental illness.  Early forms of treatment could be harsh: the circular swing, “a curious mechanical device which patients either sat in or lay on to be spun at speed until nausea and vomiting were induced”; the pouring of cold water over a patient’s head; the cold shower bath (one woman “wept very much and promised the nurse to talk and be more cheerful if it might be omitted”).  Bleeding , blistering and purging were still being practised in the 1850s, yet by then the Asylum chaplain was running classes “to afford instruction, interest, and amusement to many of the patients”, a select thirty of whom were invited out to a picnic at naturalist Charles Waterton’s Walton Hall, where “a band of music added much to their recreation”.

All in all “Proper People” presents, beyond its basic subject, a fascinating broader slice of Victorian social history.  For good measure it includes a useful glossary of medical terms and treatments for the reader unaccustomed to the likes of albuminuria, cephalalgia, ipecacuanha and leucophlegmasia.

Ian Dewhirst

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Return to West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield

“West Yorkshire Archive, Newstead Road, Wakefield”
Today paid a visit to West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) in Newstead Road, Wakefield which for some twenty months between 2102 and 2014 had become my second home.

During that that time I trawled through a wealth of records including 48 patients case books, containing the records of some 11,500 patient admissions which took place during the formative first half century of the Asylum’s history, 1818 – 1869.  They contained an estimated 30,000 plus pages of handwritten doctors’ notes and it is my transcription of those notes that forms the backbone of Proper People.

The enthusiastic staff of WYAS never failed to make me feel at home and always provided excellent service whenever my research took me in a direction which needed yet another set of records.  In Proper People I acknowledge the kind assistance provided by Archivist David Morris, Alison Depledge, Jenny Kiff, Geoff Brown, Malcolm Mathieson, Katie Entwistle, Sean Parker, Hannah Cullen, Sally Evans, Megan Dix, Rachel Weldrake and the Head of Service, Theresa Nixon.
The author (right) with WYAS Archivist, David Morris

When requesting access to archived records at WYAS you have to complete a Document Request Slip.  The green copy is returned to you for your own records.  I have a bundle of “greens” about 2 inches thick!  Each one represents a trip upstairs for the member of staff on duty. 

Seeing this picture makes me think I should be writing short stories.  Was David M. actually standing on a box at the time?
The WYAS staff are busy preparing for a move of the entire archive to brand new purpose built premises in Wakefield which I believe is planned for later this year.  Hopefully that will not interfere too much with my planned second volume of Proper People.

WYAS Website

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Proper People donated to Library of Thackray Medical Museum

It was a delight to be able to present a copy of my first book,
Proper People. Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There to Alan Humphries, Librarian of the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds.

It is a new addition to their excellent collection of modern and historical medical texts which proved so helpful in creating the “Glossary of medical terms and treatments.” That appendix is essential for the reader who needs help to interpret the 19th century terminology transcribed from the asylum case notes. That often gave me Cephalalgia, or should I say a Headache.

“The author (left) with Alan Humphries of Thackray Medical Museum”.
Alan, with his keen eye for a handwritten prescription and his collection of contemporary pharmacopoeias and medical reference books has been instrumental in helping to give me a better understanding of the medical terminology and treatments referred to in the asylum records
Further good news is that Proper People will be available to purchase in the museum shop.  For museum opening times check their website. Thackray Medical Museum