‘Keep it in the family’ – can a family history ever reveal the truth of tragedy ?

Great Grandma Clara Hardiman. Did she hold the family together after the tragedy?

I have written before on the subject of my Great Uncle Alf Hardiman (see ‘An Unsound Mind’) and had an article published in Family Tree magazine (A Shadowy Past) relating his story and linking it to a family history of mental ill-health. Now, thanks to detective work undertaken by genealogist and historian Luke Mouland of Kith and Kin Research, more fragments of a story of murder and suicide have come to light. But how much closer am I getting to the truth?

Briefly, for anyone who has not read the original post, an uncle of my mother was always referred to in hushed tones. His death was shrouded in some mystery related, my mum believed, to trauma experienced in the Great War. Whilst researching my mother’s side of my family tree I came across a cutting from The Times dated January 1923. It referred to the murder of a young woman by one Alfred Hardiman who then took his own life. He cut their throats in the kitchen of the house rented by my great-grandmother, Clara Hardiman (pictured above in the 1930s) in front of my grandma Bessie Hardimanwho was a witness to the event and gave evidence at the inquest. My mum was more than shocked when I showed her the original cutting. Although the event had happened seven years before she was born she knew the house well and stayed there regularly as a child. No-one had ever mentioned the tragedy, and even as adults my mother and grandma had never discussed it.

But cuttings Luke has found for me recently, published in the Guardian shortly after the event itself and then again after the inquest, reveal more about my great uncle’s state of mind. I knew that his service in the war was restricted to ten months in Mill Hill in a works regiment before he was discharged unfit. He suffered from ‘eneuresis’ or bladder incontinence. He was only 30 and was clearly not mentally strong enough to deal with the pressures upon him. Some may have accused him of cowardice, but I linked his behaviour to the fact that three of his siblings and his nephew (my uncle) experienced mental health issues in later years and considered a genetic link. But what could have taken him over the edge at the end of 1922 in such a tragic way?

Images of the articles cannot be reproduced here but I can quote from the first, possibly less accurate, reaction to the event:



What is believed to be a case of murder and suicide by an out-of-work ex-serviceman was brought to light in Hornsey Rise, London on Saturday morning.

The dead couple are Mary Street (25) of Burton on Trent and Alfred James Hardiman (35) who lived in some tenements close to the scene of the occurence. They had been sweethearts for some time but the girl had decided to her leave her position in a Strand restaurant and return home. This, say the neighbours, had depressed Hardiman who out of work and with little immediate prospect of marriage feared he may be supplanted.

Quarrels took place between the two on Friday night and on Saturday morning the bodies were found in the house where the girl lodged. Both had extensive wounds to their throat’

The murder occured just after Christmas 1922 and the inquest was held in early January 1923. I can include here the report on that inquest that I found in The Times.

Hopefully this gives a sense of the story that came out at the inquest. However, in the report of the inquest I have read in the recently uncovered Guardian cutting, additional facts come to light. Mary, just 22 was lodging with Clara (Mrs) Hardiman, Alf’s mother and my great-grandmother. In addition to what is reported above Clara Hardiman told the inquest:

‘Hardiman joined the army in 1917 but was in hospital for a year and during a visit to London was caught in an air raid and received a great shock’

She denied there had been any threats made previously and despite what the neighbours had asserted the couple had not quarrelled.

For me this has raised many more questions, particularly relating to a timeline. Was Alf in hospital before he went into the army? He was conscripted and served less than a year so is it possible he was in a military hospital for that whole period? Or was he in hospital for a year before 1917? When did he experience the air raid? Zeppelin raids on London took place largely between 1915 and 1916 and then the Gotha planes dropped bombs on the South East until 1918. Was Alf  already traumatised before he joined the Middlesex regiment? Or was he a soldier, helping with the clear-up?

And had Mary and Alf quarrelled? What had the neighbours heard? They had at least some of the facts wrong when they spoke to journalists, but I have never quite believed the event came totally out of the blue, as my grandma Bessie half suggests in the evidence to the inquest reported above. In the Guardian cutting she is also reported to have given the following details:

‘Miss Hardiman said her brother was very quiet and depressed on Friday night…

…The witness said she believed her brother and Miss Street did not converse at all during the morning. Lately her brother’s eyes had been tired and tearful. He was very jealous of Mary, although he had not proposed to her as far as the witness knew’

She too denied any quarrel.

I am sure many professional genealogists and people researching their family history have felt the thrill of discovering what are referred to as ‘skeletons in the closet’. I myself have enjoyed and posted on the revelations about my distant ancestor Samuel Furneaux who was caught with women of a ‘generous’ nature shall we say in compromising positions.

However, this story feels very different. I am updating this because I am considering the possibility that the mental ill health esperienced by Alf’s siblings was at least partly due to this event rather than being caused by any genetic link. All the parties involved are now long dead, but publishing this still feels uncomfortable. My grandma, Bessie, was wonderful and adored me. I can’t comprehend the idea that she could never unburden herself of the horror she had seen. How did Clara keep contained all the grief she must have experienced at the death of her son? To have been so determined, to have literally ‘kept it in the family’ who were there in the house at the time and to have continued living at the scene of such tragedy must have been done for what the family considered a very good reason. They had moved from impoverished parts of Islington out to the new suburbs before war broke out and one can imagine ‘the talk’ amongst the locals. Who am I to dig it all up and publish it?

I think it is because I have to try and understand what happened; to appreciate what drove Alf to end two lives. Will I ever get closer to the truth? Where can I go next? Or will this be one of those family mysteries, the facts of which die with those involved?

And it feels like a story that needs to be told. The theatre of war is so vivid in relation to 1914-1918 – poems; films; plays; novels; history books in their hundreds and rightly so. However, there must be thousands of these ‘smaller’ stories that are just as tragic and had a continuing impact down the generations.

This entry was posted in Family History, History, Mental health, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to ‘Keep it in the family’ – can a family history ever reveal the truth of tragedy ?

  1. Suzie, I really appreciate your mixed emotions as I too uncovered a history of mental illness and suicide in my own family and have questioned my need to share the story. Is sharing a betrayal? I don’t think so, I see it as contributing to the better understanding of Mental Illness and, hopefully, a breaking-down if the misunderstandings and prejudices that still surround it. Thank you for sharing your story

  2. An awful but fascinating story. I haven’t experienced anything like this but I do have a family background of mental illness, so I agree with Nettie’s comment that if the sharing of such a personal traumatic history helps others understand such conditions then, as long as you’re comfortable with it, it isn’t a bad thing. Likewise, thank you for sharing x

  3. pauleen says:

    Thank you for a reflective post on a tragic family event. It highlights some of the ethical issues which we face as family historians. I understand your concern but you are treating the event with sympathy and respect not voyeurism. It really happened _ you are trying to understand the emotional nuances. Not only is this about mental health but also the hidden personal costs of war.

  4. Rowena Willard-Wright says:

    The unvarnished truth is always more useful and instructive to future generations, and it is important that to my it is realised that such tragedies are “normal”. I was adopted and later discovered an difficult history to my real father’s family, including prostitution and violence. When I was born it was enough just to be illegitimate to have a stigma. There was a strong belief in the ideal family, of course there are moral norms that provide stability to society, but in the 60s they were oppressive and branded people from birth, and decisions were made which caused great grief in order to be “normal”.

  5. keatsbabe says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments, and for sharing thei rown thoughts. I agree that it is a story that should be told and lives that need to be understood. I just want to be sure I am doing that story justice.

  6. Michelle says:

    Very interesting Suzi. I too am interested in historical mental health issues. I have been reading a lot about Bethlem hospital lately. It was all very cruel.

  7. cassmob says:

    I love your posts so I nominated you as one of my 15 favourite blogs. You can see more about it at my blog http://www.cassmob.wordpress.com. However as the “requirement” to nominate another 15 bloggers is onerous I don’t expect you will necessarily want to do this. I just wanted to share your great site with some new readers. Pauleen

  8. Pingback: An Islington murder | No more wriggling out of writing woman…

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