Telling ‘Sarah’s Story’ – finding truth in family history

It is some time since I have written on the history of my family, or on history in any sense really. I am deep into the process of finalising a manuscript that will be published in the next few months – an anthology of poetry and prose based on the wonderful guest posts written for my mental health monthly guest slot on this blog. I always knew publishing a book would be time-consuming, even with the help of a friendly editor and publisher but I still under-estimated how involving the whole process would be. Exciting of course; but never have my weeks seemed to evaporate so quickly.

However, I have recently unearthed information that I had been searching for to answer a number of questions about my mum’s family – the Hardimans of ‘An Unsound Mind’, ‘A family tragedy’ and ‘O Bessie where art thou?’. For some time I had been holding off ordering the death certificate of a Sarah Hardiman I had found after months of searching every possible internet resource. It felt a ‘long shot’. Sarah, the first wife of my Great Grandfather George Hardiman, had two children with him in 1870s, but by 1881 was listed in the census as living with them but as a ‘lunatic’. During the next decade, George had children with both Sarah and with Clara Bennett, the woman who my mother knew as her grandmother. By 1891 Sarah had disappeared and by 1901 Clara was living with George and the family as Mrs Hardiman. I could never find Sarah, but neither could I find a marriage certificate for George and Clara. Then, a few months ago I found the death record in Epsom. The age was right – 81- and I could find no other likely Hardiman family local to Epsom. It seemed hopeful.

But still I didn’t order the certificate. The family was solidly North London; a line, almost straight, linked them from Clerkenwell and Islington out to Hornsey  and Holloway, so it felt too much to hope for that I had at last found a woman I had been endlessly curious about ever since I found out about My Great Grandfather’s somewhat tangled love-life during the 1880s. What had been Sarah Hardiman’s thoughts as her husband of more than ten years had children with her young  ‘help’ Clara, a poor girl up in London from the Cotswolds? What form did Sarah’s ‘lunacy’ take? Where did she go after the birth of her last child in 1889?

At last I could resist temptation no longer. If I wasted money on the certificate so be it. Reading again all the wonderful stories people had written about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-natal depression and post-traumatic stress it felt right that I looked again at a story so pertinent to my family history. What relation Sarah is to me, if any, I still haven’t established, but she is nonetheless a significant character in the family story. As I pressed to confirm the order with the records office I felt that thrill a family historian gets when they sense the detective work might just have paid off. A week later, I had the certificate in my hand; and it was ‘right’.

Banstead Mental Hospital

Sarah Hardiman had died aged 81 in Hundred Acres, also known as Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum and later re-named Banstead Mental Hospital.  It was huge, housing 1000 mentally ill people from London, rising to 2,500 and was only closed in 1986. The informant on her death certificate is clearly a doctor at the hospital but her occupation is listed as ‘wife of _ Hardiman, of Islington’ Her husband was a ‘silver plate cleaner’. My Gt Grandfather was a silver plate chaser. There was no doubt I had found a woman I now thought of as ‘my’ Sarah.

Now the dilemma. Having disappeared from the family by 1891 it is possible that Sarah spent forty years of her life in a mental hospital. Her long life explains why I cannot find a marriage certificate for George and Clara. It means that my grandmother was illegitimate. It may go some way to explain the fragile mental health experienced by many in the family and the behaviour of my Great Uncle Alf who killed his ex-girlfriend and then committed suicide whilst of ‘unsound mind’. Madness, murder and illegitimacy. What a story. But isn’t that just what it is? A fiction?

How can I possibly do this story justice? Is it justice for Sarah when I only know part of the story – the pieces gleaned from official records? I find it impossible to believe well of my Great Grandfather, his wife was mentally unwell, for whatever reason, and he made the decision to sleep with the maid and have children by her in the family home. But before I tell the story I have to feel comfortable in my own mind that I am not making too many assumptions. I feel I want to know more and I might be able to find out a little from a trip up to the London Metropolitan Archives but will it ever feel like enough? I considered fictionalising an account but again my concern is that is will either sensationalise or trivialise an incredible real-life story. Knowing how important it was for people to tell their own story for my mental health blog posts it raises important questions of tone and of possible exploitation.

I would be really interested to know what others think. How do family historians, professional genealogists and those involved in writing up the ‘facts’ of our lives deal with these questions of ‘truth’?

How should I write ‘Sarah’s Story’? Should I write it at all? With a story like this, how on earth do I even start…..

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8 Responses to Telling ‘Sarah’s Story’ – finding truth in family history

  1. cassmob says:

    I think I would explore all avenues to see if the hospital admissions exist. have you found he on the later census records under the hospital’s name? I believe inmates were often listed only by their first name. Did he send her to the asylum for his benefit ir hers? Hospital records might go some way to answering these questions. I think you “should” write up the story- after all you’ve shown the gaps in the family history. It needn’t beam sensationalist, I don’t think. anyway, they are my thoughts.

  2. cassmob says:

    Sorry about the typos..should have checked.

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  4. Hi. I found your blog while reading about Jen Newby’s new book and am finding it very interesting. I have written a couple of books which fictionalise nineteenth century true stories and have grappled with these issues of tone and possible exploitation. I think the main consideration is that if reading your account leads to greater understanding and empathy, it can’t be wrong! If you do your research really well, of the particular case and wider research into the social history of the period, I’m sure you can do the story justice. It might be very difficult to write it from Sarah’s point of view, however, if you feel she was really ‘of unsound mind’. Perhaps from Clara’s point of view? I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on!

  5. keatsbabe says:

    I’m hoping to get to the LMA to check if there are any records of her time in the mental hospital as I am sure you are right – robust research is really important and I really appreciate your advice. Sarah’s point of view will be hard to establish – at least I have memories of Clara’s later life from my Mum. I’ve looked at your books on your website – you must spend a lot of time in local archives! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  7. Geoff Air says:

    What a great idea. Please do write as much as you can about ‘My Sarah’. I’m sure there are other people who’ve come across similar Family situations and wondered ‘What happened to …?
    Then decided, for what ever eason, not to pursue it further.
    I can also see your ideas becoming a Televison programme about ‘Incarceration and the People who suffered ?
    Good luck

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