I have, over the past two or three years, been unlocking metaphorical cupboards to find metaphorical skeletons falling at me from all sides. Inspired less by ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ than by an indecent fascination with the minutiae of other people’s lives (nosiness I believe is an alternative word, an inability to mind my own business) I have been looking into my family history. Not all of it you understand. More thorough members of my family have done a terrific job of listing the details of most key branches, and have found that on the whole my background is dull and singularly uninteresting, on paper at least. However, there has always been some mystery over my maternal line. My mother has recreated for me a shadowy late Victorian, Edwardian and post Great War North London past, populated with stories of aunts reputed to be Vera Drake-like back street abortionists, shiftless uncles, haunted houses and a silversmithing grandfather who engraved the trowel that laid the first brick of the Albert Hall. With a fascination for Victorian London already well established, how could I resist the opportunity to delve a little further? What I found in fact, was a story ten times more interesting than anticipated, with a vein of deep sadness running through it, and not a little sheer horror. Digging into my family history has in fact uncovered years of unrecognised, or hidden, struggles with mental health issues. A denial that left my closest relations vulnerable and resulted in at least two fatalities.
The cutting reproduced above relates to my Great Uncle Alfred Hardiman, who at the end of 1922 murdered his ex-girlfriend, Ellen Street, with a cut-throat razor and then turned the weapon on himself and committed suicide by slitting his own throat. Horrific. The amount of blood is unimaginable. What was somehow as shocking though was that Bessie Hardiman, identified in the cutting as present at the time of the deaths, gave evidence at the inquest. She is my Grandma. She had never mentioned this incident to my mother, even when as an adult she would surely have been more understanding than shocked. I found the cutting purely by chance, in an online newspaper archive. It uncovered a mystery that explained many whispered conversations she had half heard, half understood as a child. ‘Poor Alf’ her family would say, ‘it was the war you know’. I checked his WW1 records, expecting to find years in the trenches of the Somme. Instead I saw that he had spent less than a year in the army in 1917, based in Mill Hill, North London. I can’t find any detail, but he was discharged as unfit. Whatever had affected my great uncle, it was not the trauma of the front line. Whatever it was, and I suspect it was his mental state, almost certainly went untreated.
When faced with this story, one that I was afraid to discuss with her for a while, my mother was surprised of course, but not astonished, as I thought she would be. Recalling her childhood in the same house, the same kitchen (a small thing worries me still – who mopped up all the blood? My Grandma?), in which the murder and suicide occurred, it was clear that her other Uncle, Alf’s brother, was also fragile in some ill-defined way, finding steady employment difficult. A sister too suffered with depression later in life. But the family had moved from overcrowded Victorian Clerkenwell out to the newly built suburbs of Hornsey and Holloway and mental health issues were something of a taboo as they painstakingly worked their way up a perceived social ladder. It was a time of judgmental curtain twitching, when society’s view was very ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘pull yourself together’, or risk being locked away in any number of institutions that I still remember from my childhood – Colney Hatch, Shenley – and much suffering and injustice must have been caused by this widespread attitude.
I looked back further, at Census returns from 1881. Alf’s mother was there described in classic late Victorian terms as a ‘lunatic’. His father, my mother’s silversmith grandfather, had children both with his wife, and with the family servant alternately in the same decade. It was clearly not a straightforward upbringing.
This was all news to my Mum, and it set us thinking, and talking, about how this might in some way explain the breakdown my Uncle, mum’s brother, had in his forties when he achieved a promotion he simply couldn’t cope with. I remember, as a teenager, the much-loved Uncle that my siblings and I treated almost as an older brother, turning up on our doorstep. He had got on his train as usual, but something had snapped and he found himself simply unable to get to work. I can picture myself as a child standing at the kitchen window, watching as he stood in our garden in tears talking to my mum. How accurate this recollection is I can’t say, but my mother’s explanation that his lifelong anxiety had all stemmed from their being evacuated at the start of WW2 may have been a little simplistic. With her care he recovered, but was never really well again.
I am like my uncle in some ways. I am able and well-qualified. I perform well at interviews. But somehow, whatever it is that drives others onwards, to levels of stress on which they thrive, for my Uncle and I it would drive us downwards, into episodes of depression and anxiety that meant, and means for me, that life can be difficult to deal with. My uncle died of a heart attack, aged just 49.
I can’t say that I have inherited a gene, or developed depression and anxiety through any family trait that stems from a one-sided family history. Others could better describe the likelihood of a genetic link, or what life was like for those with mental illness of any kind in the first half of the 20th century. I had a loving and supportive upbringing, with parents who doted on me, and my sister and brother. But for some reason I have developed a mental illness that, with the support of my GP, my family and a little medication I am at last finding a way to cope with. My poor mum still feels it must have been something she did when I was a child, or failed to do that has caused my distress, and I cannot dissuade her from those thoughts.
This is why, for me, it is desperately important to raise awareness of mental health issues. Honesty and openness are vital if we are to end stigma and discrimination. I am fortunate that I live in more enlightened times than Alfred Hardiman, whose crime of passion was terrible, but whose ‘unsound mind’ was probably one desperately in need of the help that should be available to anyone experiencing the effects of mental distress.