Saturday 28 January 2017

Curious Anomaly in South Yorkshire Asylum Records

To help accommodate the growing numbers of pauper lunatics requiring treatment in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the South Yorkshire Asylum, much later known as Middlewood Hospital, was opened at Wadsley near Sheffield in August 1872.

South Yorkshire Asylum, Wadsley, Sheffield c 1928. (Sheffield Local Studies Library)
Four years earlier the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum had rented a large property, Mount Pleasant in Sharrow Lane, Sheffield which had been run as an annexe housing 75 patients. These patients were among the first removed (transferred) to take up residence in the new asylum. By the end of 1872, over 250 patients, all chargeable to the poor law Unions in the south of the Riding – Sheffield, Worksop, Eccleshall Bierlow, Rotherham, Wortley, Penistone, Thorne and Doncaster – had been removed from Wakefield to Wadsley, freeing up significant accommodation in that asylum. This movement of patients between asylums would continue throughout subsequent years as the West Riding authorities tried to cope with the ever rising demand for asylum beds.

For the genealogist, Sheffield Archives in Shoreham Street, Sheffield holds the surviving patient records for the South Yorkshire Asylum. Unfortunately, only patient admission registers exist for the period 1872 – 1915. Thereafter I am led to believe that patient case notes do exist but I have been unable to view those myself because of the 100 year restriction on access.

Some seven years ago, enthusiastic volunteers from Sheffield and District Family History Society undertook the transcription of the early admission registers covering 1872 - 1910. Their transcriptions have since been made available to researchers through Sheffield Archives website where you will find four downloadable PDF files organised alphabetically by patient’s surname, acting as the index to the actual admission registers.

More recently, the great work done by the Sheffield team has found a wider audience through the subscription website Findmypast where the 17,368 admission records have been made available under “Hospitals” in “Institutions & organisations”. Anyone searching for an ancestor might well find a record suggesting that they had been a patient in the South Yorkshire Asylum.

There is however a catch. The original admission registers have been accurately transcribed including the “age” of the admitted patient. From that age, a “birth year” has been calculated which is also shown in the Findmypast record although no birth year is shown in the original admission register. We genealogists use that birth year when trying to verify that we have got the right person so tend to place a great deal of store by it. For any patients admitted directly into the South Yorkshire Asylum their age on admission will allow a sensible estimate of their birth year to be calculated. The catch is that where a patient had been removed from Wakefield, the “age” recorded in the South Yorkshire Asylum admission register was actually their age on the date of their original admission to Wakefield.

William ROBERTS, 1871. Courtesy of WYAS.
For example, cutler William Roberts was admitted to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield in 1852, aged 40. I researched William’s case for my book Proper People and found that he had been removed to the South Yorkshire Asylum in 1872. The admission register entry for that institution has been correctly transcribed and appears on Findmypast as follows:

William’s age is shown as 40, his age on admission to Wakefield in 1852, so his real birth year was circa 1812. The actual year would depend on his date of birth which is why it is always a good idea to use +/- 1 year when carrying out online searches. The birth year shown here, 1832, is out by 20 years, long enough for another family generation, so having the real potential to confuse the researcher.

Other patients who appear in Proper People and were removed from Wakefield to Sheffield include Patrick GANNON, Alice BROADBENT and Charles WILCOX. Their birth years have been understated by 18, 20 and 31 years respectively. My guess is that 5 – 10% of the earlier Sheffield admissions will be for patients removed from Wakefield so are highly likely to show an incorrect age and birth year.

Admission Register Entry for Charles WILCOX (Second from bottom).
Courtesy of Sheffield and District FHS.

This is an odd situation as nobody has actually made a mistake. The admission records had been faithfully transcribed and the data held on Findmypast is a true copy of those transcriptions.
When I brought this curiosity to the attention of Findmypast their response was that they accept transcriptions from third parties in good faith and that I should take the matter up with the data owners, Sheffield and District Family History Society. I did indeed discuss this with a very helpful lady from the society and she was surprised to learn of the "problem". I understand that she is due to discuss the matter with Sheffield Archives with a view to perhaps including a warning that there is misleading data in some of the admission register entries. I would have thought that Findmypast should also publish a similar warning for its paying customers.

Without my having conducted research into asylum records in both the Wakefield and Sheffield Archives this oddity might never have come to light. The challenge now must be to identify all the hundreds of patients removed from Wakefield to Sheffield and establish their correct age, thence birth year. Some of those patients records hold a clue as, just in the case of Charles WILCOX above, their Previous Place of Abode shows Wakefield Asylum, but this is not consistent throughout the record set.

Any fortunate family historian coming across an ancestor in Sheffield who had been removed from Wakefield will have the added bonus of being able to access their pre Sheffield case notes which will be held by West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) and those may just contain a wonderful old photograph, as I found in the case notes of William ROBERTS above.

Note that WYAS is currently closed but reopens in a fantastic new building, the West Yorkshire History Centre, on 13 February, 2017.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Interview on BBC Radio Leeds

Back in 1966, a young Invernessian schoolboy was very excited to have been asked to participate in a "schools broadcast" on the Cairngorms for BBC Scotland. Fifty years later he was equally, and perhaps even more excited to have appeared on the Chris Stead morning show on BBC Radio Leeds.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was not nearly as nervous as I’d expected.

Chris set the scene and then asked me some questions about Proper People. I think I managed to answer without too much hesitation or “humming”.

My biggest worry had been about the 10 minute slot and how I could turn that into a sensible interview when I’d be very happy talking on my favourite subject for hours. Needn’t have worried as Chris managed it just nicely. Unlike me, he had clearly done it before!

Thank you so much to producer Sarah Whitham for the invitation. Amazon statistics suggest that I might even have attracted a few more readers.

Listen below to my interview which is reproduced with the kind permission of BBC Radio Leeds.

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Exploring Lincolnshire Archives - Lincoln Lunatic Asylum

Between 2012 and 2015 many happy days were spent in the search room of the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS), Wakefield delving into the myriad of surviving records for the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (WRPLA), a record collection that has since been recognised as a resource of national, if not international, significance. Beyond brief long distance forays into the archives of Bethlem Hospital, Fisherton House Asylum and Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum I had not studied records relating to other early asylums outside of Yorkshire. Inspired by November’s Explore Your Archive campaign I thought it was time to jump in the car and pay a visit to the neighbouring county of Lincolnshire.

Lincoln Lunatic Asylum (HOSP/LAWN/3/8/1)
Lincolnshire Archives in St Rumbold Street, Lincoln is the home for the surviving records from another early mental hospital, Lincoln Lunatic Asylum. Founded in 1819 by public subscription it provided treatment for both pauper and private patients. In 1885 it became known as The Lawn Hospital for the Insane and that is the name used to identify the collection in their catalogue. My own photographs of the records are displayed here with the kind permission of Lincolnshire Archives.

This was a just a one day “sampling” visit so that I could get some idea of the scope, completeness and age of the surviving records. By closing time I had been unable to examine the full range of records I had wished to check, for the simple reason that I had become engrossed with the content of those which I had been able to view. Being familiar with the WRPLA records held by WYAS I had some idea of the likely content to be found in Lincoln but I was still pleasantly surprised with what I discovered.

Minute Book, 1807 (HOSP/LAWN/1/1/1)
The Minute Book (HOSP/LAWN/1/1/1) provided an insight into the fund raising which went on to enable the hospital to be built, the first minute dating back to January, 1807. The fund raising committee then evolved into the asylum management committee.

Page from Director's Journal,
Patient’s case books (HOSP/LAWN/2/12), organised by patient and showing the treatments given to them over time, only start in 1847, unlike WRPLA where they go back to the very earliest admissions. That is however compensated by the existence of three other record sets - House Surgeon’s Journals (HOSP/LAWN/2/1), Physician’s Journals (HOSP/LAWN/2/2) and Director's Journal (HOSP/LAWN/1/2/1). These are organised by date and diarise notes regarding each patient seen on a particular day.

Although some date ranges are missing and the poor condition of some journals means that they are “Not For Production” these journals should allow the patient researcher, pun intended, to build up a relatively complete picture of observations and treatment for each of the earliest patients. No such journals survive in the WRPLA collection but reference has been found to the fact that they had existed and had been used to retrospectively create the very earliest case books.

Admission Papers for John ROBINSON, 1820.

Bundles of still folded Admission Papers (HOSP/LAWN/2/11/0) survive being the legal paperwork required to admit a patient to the Asylum. There are some papers missing, including almost inevitably, those for the very first admission. The numbering of these admissions suggests that in its first 50 years Lincoln admitted around 2,000 patients in complete contrast to WRPLA which admitted around 11,500 patients over the same period. What I found particularly interesting was the different paperwork accompanying patients being admitted privately as all the earliest admissions to WRPLA were at least part funded from local poor rates.

Statutory Registers of Admissions (HOSP/LAWN/2/6) and Removals, Discharges and Deaths (HOSP/LAWN/2/22) survive for the period after 1845 when the Commissioners in Lunacy were formed. Reporting to the Home Secretary, this body took responsibility for the management of the country’s strategy for the treatment of the insane in county asylums, private asylums, workhouses and prisons.

Register of Patients' Work, 1836.
Two very distinctive registers survive which have no equivalent in the WRPLA collection. Only one Register of Patients' Work (HOSP/LAWN/2/18) exists. Dated 1836 – 1837 it initially shows the daily work allocated to named patients but quickly becomes just a record of who was working on each day, a simpler but still time consuming administrative task.

Page from Register of Restraints, 1829

The Register of Restraints (HOSP/LAWN/2/19) was of particular interest as in the 1840s Lincoln Asylum was hailed as being the first example of a system of patient management which did not need to use mechanical restraint. The earliest register (HOSP/LAWN/2/19/1) dated 1829 – 1832 reads like a shopping list for a torture chamber, for example, body belt and hobbles, so clearly things must have changed.

I will be delving further into the records and writing more about what I found in the Lincoln Lunatic Asylum archives over the course of the next few weeks.