Sarah’s story – family history and poetry from the darkest places…

Inside Banstead Hospital, Carson. From the Henry Boxer Gallery

In a previous post, I wrote of Sarah Hardiman, the first (and only legal) wife of my Great Grandfather George Hardiman. George Hardiman was a journeyman silversmith, born in 1839 in an impoverished part of Clerkenwell, North London. Sarah (nee Withall) was born ten years later. Sarah was a ‘lunatic’. Apparently.

Family history has taken me to some interesting places, both physically (to archives, museums, streets) and mentally, as I work my way through a tangle of lives that are only ordinary at the most cursory glance. What shocking things we learn when we dig deeper.

A few weeks ago I met with Rosemary Morgan of London Roots Research for a genealogy and friendly catch up. We met at the London Metropolitan Archives where I wanted to look into the records of Banstead Mental Hospital, where, as I wrote in that previous post, I had discovered Sarah had died in the early 1930’s.

Banstead Asylum, as it was orignally called, only closed in 1986 but had a history that went back more than a 100 years. In 1873 the Middlesex County Council bought Hundred Acres Farm for the sum of £10,000 to build its third mental asylum.

The Banstead Asylum opened in 1877. It housed 1,700 patients, two thirds of whom were female. Each block, which housed 160 patients, was designated by a letter. Block A was the female infirmary, Block H the male. Blocks B to F and Block L housed women and Blocks J, K and M men.

The Asylum had its own farm, workshops, and gasworks and was practically self-sufficient. It continue to expand, with additional land bought in the 1880s and 90s, built on to increase the number of patients that could be incarcerated in further blocks.

In 1881 another two blocks – one for males and one for females – were added. Each contained 78 beds.  In 1885 another block for 120 patients was built and various alterations were made to the Asylum.

In 1889 control of the Asylum was transferred to the newly formed LCC who continued the expansion and by the middle of the twentieth century it had over 2,000 beds.

Looking through the enormous old ledgers was fascinating but frightening. Lists of women, running into hundreds of names, had been incarcerated in the various parts of the hospital over the years. Some had been admitted for only a short period, others for many years. Ages ranged from late teens to 80s and the reasons for admission were many and varied. The most worrying to me was ‘disappointed in marriage’ – had the poor woman been jilted? If so, hadn’t she the right to be screaming in anger and humiliation? Were these women truly ill? Or being judged by a society unsure how to deal with women who dared display a mind of their own? Most importantly, where did Sarah fit in?

To my horror, I found Sarah, admitted shortly after the birth of her second daughter in the late 1870s. Apparently ‘maniacal’ on admission, there was little detail and it is likely her records are lost (although I still have avenues to explore). In the column totalling the years she spent in the institution it says ’53’. 53!! She was there across decades of the hospitals history – from its opening and through the years of expansion. Despite the fact that the figure creates more family history issues than it solves, making it a  mystery how she managed to be in the family home (albeit listed as ‘lunatic’) in the 1881 census and then giving birth to my mother’s half-aunt in 1889, it is the simple fact that a woman could spend all that time in a mental hospital, from her twenties to her eighties, that is most shocking. I could not find anyone in those books who had spent longer in that place, with all its horrors, cruelties and changes over the years. I didn’t have time to find out much more on that day – a nine-hour round trip on the coach makes research quite difficult – but now I long to find out more. My heart goes out to Sarah. I believe my Great Grandfather is probably not the man I would like him to have been, having children as he did with his mentally fragile wife at the same time as he had babies with my Great Grandmother Clara, his servant. My goodness – studying family history introduces us to some relatives we would like to ask more questions of.

I entitled this post ‘family history and poetry’ because I was inspired to write it by my reading today of a poem by Selima Hill, a contemporary British poet I admire for her intensity and willingness to deal with difficult subjects, including mental illness and sexual abuse. Today I read ‘Hairbrush’, and it made me think of Sarah, sitting there in that miserable (for it would have been so) hospital, taken away from her children and her family. How different things would be today, I hope.


Anyone who touched her would be sorry
and that’s why they’ve put her away, because they were sorry,
and they’ve put her away
where no one will see her but nurses
who, seeing her sit here alone with nothing to do,
are standing behind her
ceaselessly brushing her hair –
the most beautiful hair the lodger had ever seen,
the hair of angels,
lovers –

till she panics.
She cannot bear their need to understand her,
she cannot bear their need to get so close,
to fondle her scar
and take off their gloves and explore it
and climb up her hair
and drill through her brain to the sorrow that never stops trying to snatch at the hands on the brush
as they ceaselessly, ceaselessly brush
her desirable hair.

Selima Hill

That phrase ‘and drill through her brain to the sorrow that never stops trying to snatch at the hands on the brush’ is chilling. I will write more of Sarah as I find out more. If I can. Her story is worthy of a novel, which might be the only way her life can be told, as a fiction. Fifty three years has taken away her identity and I long to give her at least a shade of herself.

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13 Responses to Sarah’s story – family history and poetry from the darkest places…

  1. Maria says:

    Would you brush sarah’s hair? “and drill through her brain to the sorrow that never stops trying to snatch at the hands on the brush’? Just wondering? Have you asked yourself why you feel the need to pursue this? With love M

    • keatsbabe says:

      Good point, but my question would be- why wouldn’t I want to pursue it? If this woman hadn’t been incarcerated in the asylum and was safely at home with her husband and children then I wouldn’t be here. My great grandfather betrayed Sarah. No-one in my family knew she existed until I found her. She may have been ‘maniacal’ on the day she reached the asylum for the second time, but she had been taken from her two small babies and there are not many of us who wouldn’t be behaving in a challenging way under those circumstances. There is just a part of me that wants to know why she was written out of history…

  2. cassmob says:

    A truly sobering story – 53 years! Without further details it will be hard to know if she was suffering from post-natal depresssion, more on-going mental illness or whether her condition was exacerbated by the betrayal of her husband. Certainly he did betray her, but was he at his “wit’s end” from trying to cope? Ordinary people on the surface but so much to understand in terms of family history.

  3. Pamela says:

    Having put George HARDIMAN, London, into a search engine, I came across your blog. My 3 x greatgrandfather, George HARDIMAN was a Londoner, married in 1809 and his father, also George HARDIMAN married in1784 both at St. George Hanover Square. As far as I can make out, there weren’t many Hardimans in London around that time so, I’m wondering whether we might be connected way back?

    • keatsbabe says:

      Hi Pamela. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Perhaps we are linked – what is the name of the wife on the 1809 marriage? I have actually found quite a lot of Hardimans in North London, but later so you never know. I am on Ancestry and Genes Reunited if you want to compare trees.

  4. Oh, how incredibly touching. Spending all these years in such a place! It’s hardly imaginable. My own ancestor was confined to an ‘asylum’ in Hessia, Germany, in the late 1890s, but only for about 2 years. Its history went back to the Middle Ages and it still serves as a mental hospital nowadays. Back then, it was self-sufficient as well. Though I have lots of records from his medical file which I found in an archive, I have little knowledge of the conditions he lived in. But one thing is for sure – he felt left alone and simply wasted away.
    Thank you so much for sharing Sarah’s story. Now I believe that sharing Hugo’s wasn’t a bad idea at all.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Hi there. Thank you! I was torn about sharing this story and hope I have respected Sarah’s memory. Reading Hugo’s story on your blog has reinforced for me the importance of keeping these members of our family in our thoughts.

  5. A very interesting post. I’ve done quite a lot of research on my own family history over the years and only just recently discovered that my great grand uncle was kept in Banstead Asylum for several years in the 1890’s. Your account of Sarah is so true of many women in those days. When I look back at our family records and see those wives who gave birth to children year after year, sometimes 12 or 14 of them, my heart goes out to those ladies. I’ve discovered one or two of these mothers who disappeared off the map with no trace and I’m sure they probably ended up in places like Banstead.

    • keatsbabe says:

      Thank you! Yes – it is, sadly, not an uncommon story. I have also found out that three of my great aunts ended their lives in asylums and I suspect at least one of those was suffering from dementia. So cruel.

  6. Veronica Short says:

    Hi My Great grandmother Amy was also admitted to Banstead Asylum after having 4 children with her husband at the age of 36. She died having never left the asylum. She was an Irish girl who at 17 married and came to live in England with her mother in law , Her husband John was posted abroad in the army. I want to know why she ended up in the Asylum . Why was she left there ? Her children ended up being brought up in orphanages. The pain travels is inter-generational and I understand the need to talk about our poor betrayed forgotten members of our families.

    • keatsbabe says:

      I so agree Veronica. These tragedies go down the generations and understanding them can help, but there is so little evidence to show why people were admitted that it is hard to move research along. Have you been to the LMA?

  7. Angela says:

    Hi Suzie, This is so touching, so sad. My Great grandmother Ada was also in that dreadful place. She too died there. I went today to visit the cemetary of the hospital to pay my respect. The poem you shared reminds me of her. I discovered years ago through the daughter of an elderly gentleman who knew her, that she had beautiful red hair and she also had epilepsy, which i believe is the reason she ended up there. I have a six year old daughter who also has that beautiful red hair…and sadly the epilepsy too. Had i had not discovered the history of my dear g.grand mother I would not of known to look for epileptic signs in my daughter (I knew nothing of epilepsy), so thankfully she has medicine which stops her from having abscent seizures and from them progressing. I feel so connected and it is like her DNA has survived through my child. Ada died aged 43 in 1937. I now plan to visit LMA to discover some more. Many thanks, Angela

    • keatsbabe says:

      Hi Angela

      Thanks so much for getting in touch. It really is a tragedy that so many people (often women) ended up in there for reasons so readily treatable in the 21st century. The LAMA is a fascinating place and I wish I could get up there more often.

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