Shell Shock on the Somme: keeping the stress of war in the news

sommeWhilst I was researching for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First world War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Pen and Sword Books October 2014),  I came to understand how, during certain periods of the war, concern about the numbers diagnosed with shell shock, and the possibility of it becoming an ‘epidemic’ grew. Never was this a greater worry than during the battle of the Somme, when official reports suggest that, in a six month period, more than 16,000 men were recorded as a casualty of war owing to the trauma they experienced during the Somme offensive that lasted from July  1st to November 2016.

They suffered the classic symptoms – mutism, blindness and deafness, facial tics, paralysis and depression, alongside nightmares – reliving the horrors night after night. My grandfather was a victim, which led to lifelong anxiety and a terror of thunderstorms. My great uncle was hospitalised for a year with war trauma and, four years after the end of the war, he committed suicide, first murdering his ex-girlfriend by cutting her throat. It is the story that inspired my book , and, as I discovered, there were many similar tragedies played out across the country in the years after the war.

Featured Image -- 5439Of course, as Shell Shocked Britain describes, even the extraordinary figure of 16,000 would be a gross underestimate. Many men were recorded as physically, rather than mentally, wounded and others did not break down until later, even many years later, when an event seemingly unrelated to their military experience would trigger a breakdown. It is important too, to note how class based was the diagnosis and record of a man’s experience. As I sat in the various libraries, researching my book, the fact that officers were more likely to be diagnosed with ‘neuresthenia’ (or a long term break down resulting from the pressures they were under) where others might be categorised as ‘Shell Shock Sick’ and therefore not a ‘real’ casualty of war, became clear. Post war, men who remained hospitalised as a result of their trauma had their pensions docked to cover their treatment, where a man with physical wounds did not, leaving many families impoverished.

The First World War was a very different kind of war to that anticipated in the heady patriotism of 1914. The battle of the Somme was one of the first full scale battles in which volunteers and conscripts took part, and they had to endure days of heavy bombardment as thousands of shells were used by both sides. They could be buried alive in the stinking mud as trenches collapsed, blown into the air by a shell or mown down by machine gun fire. The would lose many close friends, often as they stood in the same trench, and it is of little surprise to us now , when we know that even the battle hardened regular troops were breaking down, that many thousands of others with less experience should find it hard to cope.

It is a subject I return to again and again as I give my talks – the sheer unfairness of the response to shell shock; the desire to ‘keep the numbers down’ in an attempt to ensure morale was not affected; the different treatments meted out depending on which hospital, which doctor and which class you were classified in – all are shaming. What is worse, in my view, is that 100 years on, things have not  changed sufficiently to prevent significant numbers continuing to suffer from what is now often referred to as ‘combat stress’. Veterans of conflict (or some ‘peace-keeping missions’) still find it is hard to ‘come out’ about any mental health problems they are experiencing and some are left with the same lifelong psychological wounds as their forbears in the Great war,  leading to alcoholism, family breakdown and ultimately, suicide.

So as I end my talks, I would just like to end this piece, marking as it does the start of that battle, with the thought that this commemorative period will come to mean little if we don’t, during the four years, work to properly understand the issues men faced then, and those our forces veterans face now. We must keep the pressure on the necessary organisations to ensure that research into the causes of and treatments to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress, PTSD or whatever we now choose to call it is properly funded. Charities are finding themselves overwhelmed as the MoD and NHS fail to meet the needs of men and women affected by war trauma. And the sort of legacy  left by the terrible crisis in the Middle East and the horrors experienced daily by civilians and troops in the war zone is incalculable.

So, even whilst the madness of the political situation Britain currently faces seems to hog the limelight, be sure to remember what happened 100 years ago, and consider the horrors still witnessed that leave a psychological scar that may never heal.

Shell Shocked Britain is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available from their website HERE or on Amazon HERE. It can also be ordered from any bookshop.

 

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Posted in Book, First World War, History, Mental health, psychology, Shell Shocked Britain, War, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Top 10 Walks in the Lake District…

My regular readers (and even irregular ones…) will know that I am at my happiest when I am in the Lake District. As soon as I cross that border into Cumbria, and see the first fells in the distance, worries melt away and I feel as if I have come home.

OK, it must sound sentimental to many of those who live and work in the area, who undoubtedly have to deal with the same day to day pressures as I do back here in Somerset, and may not get the time to wander the fells full of fine feeling (I love a bit of alliteration) but I am not going to apologise for it. I am, after all, one of millions who visit the area, catch the lake district bug and return again and again. Just four weeks ago I had a blissful week of fine weather (too hot to walk one day!)  and good walking, supported by two fabulous little books in a series I have only just discovered.

The Lake District Top 10 Walks series is published by Northern Eye Books, and includes a wide range of pocket sized books perfect for the walker who enjoys a morning or afternoon walk of about five or six miles, with the sure and certain knowledge that they are on the right track to something extra special. From high fells to low fells; from waterfalls to lakesides; literary to historical; there is something for almost everyone.  This year we packed Walks to Viewpoints by Stewart Smith and Walks to Pubs (yes OK I know….) by Vivienne Crow.

ViewsAt £5.99 each they are great value. Smith’s Viewpoints includes walks to try wherever you might be based and it introduced me to areas I would not normally have considered – Great Mell Fell in the north, and Gummers How in the south. I wish I could have tried them all, but there is always the next time, and I have to mention one walk I was particularly impressed by – a low level walk around Wastwater which offered me an entirely new perspective on a lake that already enjoys the distinction of having at its shore ‘Britain’s Favourite View’. On a sunny day, near a pool created by the River Irt and on the southern shoreline after a walk through the bluebells of Low Wood, the stillness seemed profound, until I heard the gentle lapping of waves in a slight breeze. Looking up, to our right, at the terrifying screes, it was, genuinely a view to savour. On the return stretch via Greendale we met with an American couple, carrying the same book,  who had been misdirected and had started the walk the wrong way round. Apart from being a good sign that the book is selling well, I almost envied them, as the view back to the lake from this point onwards is fabulous.

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The view back to Wasdale

Crow’s Pub Walks offered us the chance to follow a wonderful walk around Great Langdale and Mickleden, my own ‘favourite view’. It starts and ends at The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel and takes you on tracks along the side of the fells and on valley paths.In the Mickleden Valley you genuinely feel tiny, as the peaks of Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and the Pikes loom over you. And, of course, the pub is great!

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Walking in Great Langdale to Mickleden

Now, I have a few problems with my legs [let’s do a bit of awareness raising here – it’s called primary lymphoedema and I inherited it from my dad. It causes my legs to swell, become very heavy and at risk of serious infections and I have to wear sexy (if you are a bit weird) high compression stockings to manage it. It is a bl**dy nuisance but I have had it a long time and I don’t let it rule my life] which can make walking difficult. I can walk for miles, but ask me to climb a difficult stile, or slip down a steep gravel path and a normally word conscious woman will be cursing with the best of them. So I have to be cautious what I take on. This is perhaps the only caveat with some of the walks – Stewart is a fit landscape photographer, and Vivienne also has masses of experience so when they say a walk is steep, it most certainly is. The walks took me quite a bit longer than suggested in the book, and after consultation with my much more experienced brother in law I discounted a couple as a bit ambitious for me. This makes it doubly important to take the relevant OS map with you as the publisher recommends, and even though they might seem a relatively manageable length and  supported by well written and accurate directions, it is still possible to get lost. The photographs are beautiful (I have my very own Stewart Smith print on the wall at home), but taken in the best conditions, so make sure you still go properly prepared for all weathers.

I would heartily recommend both these books, and intend to buy others in the series. So many books of circular walks are too big to stuff in a pocket, and these are just the right size. After a week they are already well-thumbed, and I still go back to them to remind myself of the walks we did. Do give them a try – they are available from the publisher and all the usual outlets as well as nearly every outdoors shop in Cumbria.

 

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Q & A with Suzie Grogan

This gallery contains 6 photos.

Originally posted on Milly Wonford's Blog:
A few weeks back I sent a couple of questions to Shell Shocked Britain author, Suzie Grogan, for Warfare Magazine Online. Her answers left me with prickly skin up my arms, making my…

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Albert and The Somme: From Idealism to Realism by Pamela Davenport

large3As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.

To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.

By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.

unknown drummer and buglerAlbert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.

2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.

As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.

To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.

Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.

“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”

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© IWM (Art.IWM ART 518)

In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.

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© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2242)

Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road (above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.

Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.

Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.

Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been  able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.

Posted in Art, First World War, Guest posts, History, Mental health, Shell Shocked Britain, War, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Mind of a Murderer – A guest post by Angela Buckley

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Amelia Dyer              (Thames Valley Police Museum)

Today I am thrilled to have as my guest on No wriggling, Angela Buckley, who has written for me before, about her last book,  The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada. Today she looks into the mind of Amelia Dyer, the notorious Victorian baby farmer, who plied her shocking trade in Bristol and Reading. Angela’s latest book Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders is a gripping read and heartily recommended!

In the spring of 1896 the body of an infant was found in the Thames near Reading. This gruesome discovery exposed the nefarious crimes of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. Notorious baby farmer Amelia Dyer advertised in the newspapers for babies to look after for money, strangled them and disposed of their bodies in the river. Over a century later, the question still remains: was Amelia Dyer mad or bad?

There is no clear evidence that Dyer suffered from any mental health issues during her childhood, despite the early deaths of two siblings and her mother. She established her baby farming business in her home city of Bristol, in the late 1860s and the first documented incident of possible psychological problems arose in 1879, when a coroner opened an inquest into the deaths of four babies in Dyer’s care, following a suspicious death certificate. When police called at Dyer’s house to take her to court they found that she had taken a laudanum overdose, which prevented her from appearing. This was the first in a series of drastic actions taken by Dyer seemingly to avoid the law.

Gloucester asylumIn the early 1890s Amelia Dyer’s situation as a baby farmer became increasingly precarious, when a governess tried to claim her child, after her circumstances had changed. The bereft mother came several times to Dyer’s home and even brought a police officer on one occasion. Each time Amelia Dyer had a breakdown, was certified ‘insane’ and committed to the asylum. She made two further suicide attempts, by cutting her throat with a knife (she only sustained a slight scratch) and by throwing herself into a pond. Dyer spent three brief periods in the asylums at Gloucester and Wells, after which she returned to her baby farming trade.

When Amelia Dyer was finally brought to trial for murder at the Old Bailey on 21 May 1896, much of the evidence focused on the key question of her sanity. All the doctors who treated her in Bristol testified. Dr Thomas Logan described how Dyer had threatened to break his skull with a poker, leading him to conclude that she was suffering from brain disease and her ‘insanity’ had been exacerbated by mental anxiety. Dr Lacey Firth examined Dyer at Bristol Hospital after her drowning attempt. He believed that she was melancholic, but not insane. A third doctor came to the conclusion that she was ‘of unsound mind’.

In an attempt to unravel the mystery of Dyer’s mental state, the judge called upon expert witnesses. Dr Forbes Winslow had examined the prisoner in Holloway. Her delusions and hallucinations led him to believe that she was insane. However, the prison’s medical doctor claimed that she was not. The final expert medical witness was Dr George Savage, from St Bartholomew’s Hospital, a renowned doctor with ‘long experience in lunacy’. His final conclusion was that Dyer was not suffering from ‘homicidal mania’, and that the crimes were not the act of an insane person. Despite the contradictory evidence, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Dyer was sentenced to death.

Granny Smith

Granny Smith (Reading Borough Libraries)

The final word on this debate should go to those who were closest to Amelia Dyer. Her daughter, Mary Ann Palmer, told the court how her mother alternated between quiet periods and bouts of extreme violence – she had threatened Mary Ann’s life several times. Interestingly, it was Mary Ann who had told the doctors in Bristol about her mother’s mental health history, while they were considering her treatment. The person with the least reason for incriminating Dyer was Jane Smith, also known as ‘Granny’, an elderly woman whom Dyer had rescued from the workhouse. After visiting Dyer in Reading Prison, a journalist asked Granny if she thought the prisoner was ‘trying the old game on’, to which she replied, ‘I do; but I don’t think she will get off so easily as she has done before.’ Mad or bad, Amelia Dyer was executed for her crimes on 10 June 1896.

Cover copy[arEN][1]Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets. You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website angelabuckleywriter.com

Posted in Books, Crime, Guest posts, History, Mental health, Victorian History, Victorians, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Going ‘home’ -The Lake District as therapy

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View over Mickleden

Next week we have a week away. Well I do – I am not sure how much of a holiday my husband really thinks a week in the Lake District is, although we share a cottage with two of his numerous brothers and it is good chance for a catch up over a variety of wonderful Cumbrian beers. For me though, it feels like a visit home; the other 51 weeks (or 50 if I get to sneak in two trips up) being a kind of exile for me.

My first visit was with my family when I was in my mid-teens, and it was love at first sight. We stayed in Midtown House in High Lorton, travelling over the Whinlatter Pass into Keswick and rambling around Buttermere. My dad had early onset Parkinsons so we were never going to get to the top of a mountain, but that made no difference. We made more trips up, until I married and had my own family and started my own traditions. It has come to mean the world to me.

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Dow Crag (Photo – WainwrightRoutes.co.uk)

The week after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, in my early forties with two young children, we went up for a week and stayed at Torver, near Coniston. We were all in shock, and I knew I was going home to an immediate mastectomy, but a week in the Lakes was just what I needed. I climbed to the top of Dow Crag, and felt that anything was possible. I stood in the Langdales, looking over the Mickleden valley, and felt like a tiny speck in the mists of time. I vowed then that nothing would stop me going back, and I have stood in the same place, many many times since. Depression, anxiety – everything seems to melt away at the first sight of the fells.

downloadI raised over £4,000 for charity walking in the footsteps of the poet John Keats through the Lakes, despite the fact that much of his route is under the A591 and Thirlmere (I found a few detours!), and a trip up is always the best motivation to get a bit fitter. As we get older we are finding things hurt a little more a little sooner, but this year we are planning a few walks from Stewart Smith’s Walks to Viewpoints (Lake District – Top 10 Walks) and Pub Walks: Walks to Cumbria’s Best Pubs by Vivienne Crow in the same series. We know our limitations, but the experience of reaching the end of a walk – whether it be round something or up something – is worth every ache and pain.

I am going to try and keep up a little journal of the trip next week. I don’t usually write much when I am up there. But this time I will try (no pressure).

I would love Cumbria to be my home, but whether that happens, or not, it feels like the place I want to spend all of my days.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Books, Breast cancer, Family, Health, Mental health, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

How old newspapers can aid historical research: by Denise Bates

Historicalnews coverToday I welcome to No Wriggling Denise Bates, whose latest book, Historical Research Using British Newspapers is published by Pen and Sword this month. I have often written on this blog of how useful I found the British Newspaper Archive in my research for Shell Shocked Britain and at all my talks I stress how important a resource old newspapers are. Denise has used my experience, and that of other writers, as case studies in her book. In this post she looks at the ways in which research into mental health can be enhanced by reference to the newspapers. Shell Shocked Britain was inspired by a cutting found when I was undertaking some family history research, so imagine what you might find in those fascinating old pages…..

Old newspapers are no longer an archive resource mainly used by seasoned researchers. An internet connection and a log-in enable anyone with an interest in the past to read old newspapers, at a time and place which is convenient to them. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the past and digitised newspapers now offer anyone who is intrigued by topics that fall outside the academic or commercial mainstream a way of pursuing their own interests. Sometimes the subject-matter of historical research has been driven by the academic or the publishing community meaning that some topics have effectively fallen ‘out of history’. Some writers have been too keen to make a point at the expense of accuracy and, for some topics, finding material to learn from has been a practical problem. Newspapers can be very helpful in all of these situations.

Mental health in the nineteenth century is a subject where newspapers contain a rich repository of material for investigation, to supplement existing knowledge about life in the asylum or the hysterias supposedly experienced by females. When I researched Pit Lasses, my book about the women and girls who worked underground in coal mines until the job was banned for them in 1842, I had hoped to discover something about their mental well-being but found scant information in the records of the time. A fortuitous breakthrough came when I traced a newspaper report about an unnamed female who had died at a Lancashire Colliery in 1844. The case was included in Frederick Engels’ political tome, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels was keen to show that women still laboured underground and suppressed the inconvenient fact that the teenager did not work at the colliery but had killed herself by jumping down the shaft.

No reason for Margaret Wignall’s suicide was given in the brief paragraph, but as more newspapers became available on-line I discovered a detailed report of the inquest into her death. The Mines Act of 1842 had cost Margaret her job and other work was hard to find. She had briefly been employed as a children’s nurse but was dismissed because of her rough manner of speaking in favour of a more refined girl. Presumably depressed by her inability to earn her keep, perhaps nagged by her parents on this point, she took her father’s lunch to him at the pit and then killed herself in public view. The truth about her untimely death is much more complex and shocking than Engels’ text suggested.

Margaret’s is just one case amongst many reported in nineteenth century newspapers where an individual may have suffered mental health problems. My breach of promise research found several broken engagements where one of the parties probably had schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or depression, although this was not recognised at the time. Not all individuals turned to the devastating outcome of suicide but it is clear that many struggled to cope without support or understanding from of those around them.

As these brief examples show, newspapers contain a wealth of information on many subjects, but it is not always presented a direct manner. An open-minded researcher who is prepared to commit time to locating and interpreting information drawn from newspaper reports may make discoveries that enhance our understanding of the past, or even challenge existing beliefs about it.

My sincere thanks to Denise for writing this post, and do look out for her book in all good bookshops, or find out more at the Pen and Sword website.

Historical Research Using British Newspapers by Denise Bates is published by Pen and Sword in April 2016. Her previous books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry are also available from Pen and Sword.

Posted in Books, Family History, Guest posts, History, Mental health, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Victorian History, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment