Beyond the Lunatic Asylum of the Nineteenth Century – Its Legacy, My Family, and the Madness Within
02 February, 2023
By Lisa Edwards, writer and oral historian.
My dad passed away unexpectedly in October 2019 and then we lost mum twelve weeks later in January 2020. My world had changed in a heartbeat and then the world itself shut down. I found myself grieving for the loss of both my parents and trapped alone in my flat during the first lockdown and that changed me. I wanted answers as to why my clever and talented dad, the musician and poet had suffered with depression for most of his life and had self-medicated by drinking copious amounts of alcohol before finally becoming anorexic.
Now I’m on a journey of discovery into my family’s darkest history, unexplored before, where a diagnosis of insanity in Liverpool in the 1880s had devastating consequences for each generation that followed, including my own. As I begin to unravel the secrets of Victorian Liverpool, I wonder, is insanity inherited and if so, does the madness lie within?
When you look at the timeline of the images to the right, it doesn’t seem possible that a diagnosis of insanity for William Thornhill, so far back in time, could have impacted on the other generations that followed including me stood in front of my dad in the 1970s. But it did and I shall explain why.
“Last night a man named Thornhill presented himself at the hospital. He was holding his throat and could not speak. His clothing was saturated in blood, which was also oozing between his fingers. He was found to have a terrible gash on his throat, evidently self-inflicted.”
Manchester Evening News – Thursday 8 February 1894
This was one of the many newspaper reports of William Thornhill’s first suicide attempt – or cry for help as I like to view it. How did William get to this point? Records show that William had been in and out the asylum ward in the workhouse from at least 1883 until his death in 1896. There are various descriptions of him within the workhouse notes as being ‘of unsound mind’, ‘mental’ and ‘insane’. He also spent time in the Lancaster asylum and Rainhill Asylum.
William struggled to find work on the docks and he was an alcoholic who suffered with melancholia and had delusions resulting from the delirium tremens. His asylum records state that he believed he was being followed and that his wife wanted him dead. His delusions seem fanciful but it should be remembered that there is always a truth to a delusion. William apparently committed suicide on his third attempt in 1896.
This was not the end – it was actually the beginning because in 1910, William’s youngest surviving child Mary was admitted to Rainhill asylum and her alleged insanity is reported to be inherited from her mad, drunk father. The asylum admission photographs below are shocking and the people in them unrecognisable from the family tree images. It broke my heart to see my great grandmother Mary looking like this as I had believed her to have been an old lady when she was admitted.
Images courtesy of Liverpool Central Library and Archives.
Was Mary my great grandmother, really mad or was she suffering from the effects of her last pregnancy? She was a young mother of four; her eldest child was seven and the youngest a year old. She was isolated and alone as her husband was at sea. She had just been informed that her brother John had died overseas of a fractured skull in suspicious circumstances, all of which coincided with her admittance in 1910.
As a child and a young woman she had watched her father William’s mental health deteriorate and as a family they had to cope with his suicide attempts and him living rough on the streets. None of this seems to have been taken into account when diagnosing her. Instead the doctors saw a woman who had stopped looking after herself, her home and her children. And, of course, because her father had been described as an insane drunk and killed himself, Mary never stood a chance and sadly neither did her family. In later years Mary claims that she is in the asylum because she had too many children. In later years she does not know who the old ladies are that visit, she does not realise that they are the children she had to leave in 1910.
Think about the little girl sat in the chair, in the photographer’s studio on the previous photograph and just imagine, being that little girl as she loses her mother in 1910 aged five – the same age as I am in the 1970s Edwards family shot. As the little girl in the photograph grew up, she and her sisters were moved from family member to family member and to friends too as people died, emigrated or were conscripted into the Great War.
Think about being told that the mother you barely remembered had died, only to discover that she was actually alive and in an asylum. Think about not being allowed to tell anyone about her and keeping her a secret for 58 years, until she died in the same asylum she had been in since 1910.
It would seem then, that my nan’s life was one of secrets and lies: a grandfather who supposedly commits suicide on the third attempt and a mother who disappears and is presumed dead, only to be found living in an asylum.
I want to know how that would have impacted on my nan’s mental health. And how did that, in turn, affect my dad’s upbringing? Why was any of this allowed to happen? These are the questions I’ve yet to answer and when I do, I am hoping that the answers will help explain my dad’s problems with his own mental health. The final picture illustrates perfectly just how long it had been since Mary had been removed from her children because Mary was still alive and in the asylum when it was taken. The picture is of my nan and her sisters taken in the mid 1960’s.
And so now in 2023, three years after my world changed in a heartbeat, I am determined to make sure that Mary is no longer the family secret and that William will not just be viewed as the raving, mad drunk that lived on the streets and killed himself. Because this journey I am on is about throwing light onto the dark secrets of supposed insanity and how those trying to control the alleged growing numbers of pauper lunatics did not address the root causes and instead condemned generations of families like my own, to lives not properly lived.
To see more of Lisa Edwards writing, see History Workshop.