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,
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.
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.