The Story of Phoebe Darby

By Edward Sillitto

Whilst working on the county asylums project as part of my work experience placement at the Staffordshire County Records Office, I was asked to write an article on an asylum patient from Stafford asylum that interested me. I chose to investigate patient No. 8612, a woman called Phoebe Darby. I decided to select this patient as the focus of my further research due to the unusual lack of information given about her in the Stafford Asylum Register of Admissions. The information given on Phoebe Darby in the register told me that:

  • She was currently registered as part of West Bromwich Union
  • She had been sent to the asylum by warrant of the Secretary of State – a very high profile figure that made Phoebe’s case more interesting in contrast to the majority of the other patients who were sent by the authority of clergymen or the Justice of the County
  • Her diagnosed disorder, chronic mania, and the supposed cause, bodily illness (both of which are not uncommon)
  • Her bodily health (feeble) and physical condition (excited)
  • She had been transferred from Garland Lunatic Asylum, Cumberland
  • She had become a “pauper lunatic” on 3rd February 1885 and had been accepted by Cockermouth Union on the same date

However, there were many gaps in the data of the register, including her age, marital status and previous place of abode, which had been listed for all the other patients’ records I had looked at. This led me to look further into Phoebe’s life, to try to gather as much available information on her in order to piece her unusual circumstances into an understandable picture. To do this I visited various archive websites, and searched for censuses, birth, marriage and death certificates, and prison and asylum records.

A census in 1851 allowed me to place Phoebe’s birthday in the year 1841/2 (1841 is the most commonly given year of birth although 1842 is sometimes given instead). She was born Phoebe Siddons, the daughter of Samuel and Mary Siddons and was the third eldest of 6 siblings. Samuel was a coalminer from Staffordshire and in 1851 the family lived in the parish of West Bromwich.

The 1861 census tells us that the family home now consisted of Samuel, his wife Mary, son Samuel and daughter Phoebe. Samuel Sr. is now listed as a boot and shoe maker, and Phoebe a boot and shoe binder, whilst Samuel Jr. was a Royal Marine. The family lived in a house on Bagnall Street, in the ecclesiastical district of St James.

In that same year, Phoebe takes the name Darby by marrying John Darby, although information on John and the following decade is very scarce. The next information on Phoebe is found in Cumberland in 1871, indicating that she and John moved further north in this time period. Sadly, this is the first indication of what would lead Phoebe to end up in Stafford County Asylum. Phoebe was being confined in a lunatic asylum in Cumberland, which led to her trial for “throwing corrosive fluid with intent to do bodily harm” being postponed. This is corroborated by records of the 1871 Carlisle summer assizes. It is indicated that she may have been an accomplice, or had an accomplice, in this crime, and that they too were in gaol, although there is no further evidence. Phoebe had been sent to the asylum for “being a lunatic”, which may show that she now had mental health issues which may have been related to her crime.

Phoebe Darby awaiting trial in Cumberland for ‘throwing corrosive fluid with intent to do grievous bodily harm’.

Phoebe was then transferred to Stafford Asylum at some point between 1871 and 1890, likely due to the discovery of her place of origin and the desire of the authorities in Cumberland to avoid having to pay for her keep. The records note that Phoebe was re-entered into the asylum’s register of patients on 1st May 1890, showing that she remained in the asylum until at least that date, despite now being charged to Cockermouth Union.

The penultimate record of Phoebe Darby’s life is of her internment in Cockermouth Union Workhouse in 1901. Phoebe was aged 61 at this point and was not a widow, which reveals that John Darby was still alive. Strangely, Phoebe’s birthplace is listed as Yorkshire rather than West Bromwich in the workhouse records.

31 Mar 1901 – Phoebe’s entry in the Cockermouth Union Workhouse records.

Phoebe passed away in the same year, between October and December, aged 61. Whilst much of her life remains a mystery, the case of Phoebe Darby can be of great interest to those wishing to study this period or the history of mental health problems in general. Phoebe’s medical diagnosis shows the scientific views of mental health at the time (and how they conflict with modern views on the matter) and her crimes may show some of the darkest effects of poor mental health on the mentally ill and others. The transferral of Phoebe from one asylum to another could indicate the attitudes of the institutions of the time: a desire to not waste resources or to keep within the asylum’s budget and cut spending. The fact that Phoebe’s husband John is rarely mentioned in any records could possibly show the lack of power family members had over their loved ones’ treatments, or alternatively could show a social desire to avoid issues concerning mental health (although the existence of asylums at all could be given as a counter-argument to this). Whatever the case may be, the records of Phoebe Darby’s involvement with the various institutions and figures mentioned above can show the depth of information on a smaller scale that archiving can reveal, and the interest that I found whilst researching her life shows one of the many benefits that projects like this can provide.

Arthur Malpass

By Lucy Smith

Historians have only just begun to research how the death of children affected men in the Victorian period. The old image of the stoical father with a large family who was relatively unaffected by child mortality is being overturned by recent research. Arthur’s story demonstrates how the strain of coping with bereavement and subsequent mental illness could quickly lead to the end of a career and the separation of a family.

Arthur Malpass in a photograph taken when he was admitted to Stafford asylum.

Arthur was born in 1856 in Stourbridge. The 1871 census shows us that at the age of fourteen he was working as a railway porter, however in 1875 he embarked upon a career with the Post Office, being appointed to the position of clerk. Five years later he married Eliza and the young couple shared their home with two boarders, a 63-year old factory engine driver and his wife. The 1884 Kelly’s Directory for Worcestershire lists Arthur as a stationer and sub-postmaster and by this time he and Eliza had two daughters. By 1891 he was a father of five and had risen to the position of ‘Post Office Chief of Clerk’, a good job for a man with a growing family. Arthur was described at this time as being of a cheerful and good-natured disposition and life seems to have been going well for him and Eliza. Sadly, within two years their lives were turned upside down with the death of their five-year old daughter, Ethel, in April 1893 and, just three months later, their ten-year old daughter Flora and baby Hubert who were buried on the same day.

This tragic loss had a devastating impact on Arthur. During the following year or so he became morose, irritable and desponding.  He was brought into the Stafford Asylum on Christmas Eve 1894 having threatened suicide and refusing to eat. On admission he was described as ‘sullen, fierce and reluctant to answer questions’ and it was noted that he ‘gazes fiercely and scowls at me.’  It is clear from the case notes that Arthur felt he should not be in the asylum, believing his feelings of anger and despondency to be a natural response to the loss of his children. Despite his protestations that he ‘felt alright now’, he was diagnosed with mania and remained in the Stafford Asylum until the following March, when he was transferred to Powick in Worcestershire. Unfortunately, Arthur never recovered from his illness, spending the rest of his life at Powick, whilst Eliza was left to bring up their surviving children alone. She moved to Sedgley where her son became a cabinet maker and Eliza once again took in boarders to supplement the family income. Arthur died in 1911 at the age of fifty-five.

For more on child mortality and the Victorian family, see Julie Marie Strange, Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain 1870-1914 (2006)

Selina Giblin

By Rebecca Jackson

Selina Giblin’s case is one of the saddest we have come across and the record of her short life leaves us with many questions about her background and family, living conditions, and the care of vulnerable children at the beginning of the 20th century.

Selina Giblin, aged 9, arrives at Burntwood asylum

The baptism registers for Burton on Trent record that Selina was baptised on 14 November 1894 and her parents were Andrew and Jane Giblin. A further search reveals that Andrew Giblin married Jane Peach at Burton in 1892. The couple had other children: William, born in 1895 and who died aged 1 in 1896; Thomas, born in 1896 who died aged 3 in 1899; and Agnes J. and Thomas, who were born in 1899. Agnes died in 1899 before she was a year old. In 1902 their parents Andrew and Jane died. They were both just 28, and left Selina aged 8 and Thomas aged 3. 

Selina’s baptism, Holy Trinity, Burton on Trent 1894

Looking at the admission registers for Burton workhouse on the Staffordshire Name Indexes website, we can see that Selina had already been admitted to the workhouse before her parents’ deaths. She was admitted on 13 May 1898 but was discharged on 11 June, only to be readmitted on 23 June the same year. With so many early deaths in the family and given Selina’s later medical notes, it seems likely that TB had spread rapidly though the family. It may be that Selina needed extra care that her parents could not provide, given the trauma of their young children’s deaths and possibly being ill themselves. It would be possible to find out more by looking at the records of Burton Poor Law Union.

Selina was just 9 years old when she arrived at Burntwood Asylum in September 1902 from Burton on Trent workhouse. The case notes state ‘she is an orphan and nothing is known as to her family history or relatives’. From the medical notes it seems that Selina was suffering from muscle spasms and was unable to speak. In December that year tuberculosis was detected and her physical health began to deteriorate. The detached tone of the medical case notes is interrupted briefly when the doctor is moved to say ‘she is a poor little thing’. By May Selina was losing weight rapidly and on 8 July 1903 the doctor recorded ‘Exhaustion having increased from the further spread of the disease this patient gradually sank, and died at 1.55pm in the presence of nurse Matilda Carter’.

Selina’s story leaves several questions unanswered, and our volunteers will be carrying out further research over the next couple of months to try to find out what happened to Selina’s surviving little brother, Thomas.

Mary Gegg

Mary Gegg was admitted to Stafford Asylum on 7 May 1895. She was 55 years old and a housewife. Mary was admitted to the hospital because she had tried to kill herself, she was diagnosed with ‘melancholia’ and the causes given were ‘previous attack and change of life’. The case notes report what Mary said about herself, she says she has been ‘rather depressed and miserable’ and a few days later says she feels she is ‘a trouble to everyone’.

Mary’s case notes

Reading the case notes Mary was under observation but we have no indication of any treatment beyond diet and a break from her usual routines.  However her general health improves and with that her mental health seems to improve too. On 22 July she is ‘Discharged, recovered’. Was her recovery as simple as that, a rest from her daily life and a good diet? Further research into Mary’s life will probably show us that it wasn’t that straightforward.

Frank Henry Turner

Steve Cunniffe & Mike Bulmer

Frank Henry Turner is one of our featured patients on the banner of the website. Every time I scroll through, I ask the question, what happened to Frank? There is nothing unusual about Frank. His story, it turns out, was in some ways not untypical of some of the patients who were admitted to a county asylum.

Frank Henry Turner was born in Etruria. In the 1861 census he was 1 year old and living with his family in Shelton. He was the youngest of five children. The massive Shelton bar steelworks and its associated flames and smoke would have been visible from far and wide, and been a huge landmark for the young Frank.

Frank married Mary Arkinstall in an Anglican ceremony at St. John’s church, Longton in December 1888. Mary originally came from Eccleshall and had been baptised at Eccleshall Church in 1857. Her father was a journeyman miller, and although probably trained for the job, it was likely that he would have moved from place to place according to where the work was, and the time of year. There were parochial schools in the area around Eccleshall, including Croxton, so it is likely that Mary received some schooling there. There are a number of coaching inns in Eccleshall and the opportunity to use the train via the local station a few miles away, so Mary may well have been able to travel fairly widely, perhaps meeting Frank on her travels.

St John’s, Longton, where Frank & Mary were married in 1888. The church was demolished in 1979 due to mining subsidence (1962 photograph –

After their marriage in 1888, Frank and Mary appear on the 1891 census when they were living in Trentham, and Frank was working as a tobacconist. He was admitted to Stafford asylum on 4 October 1894, with Stoke Poor Law union, being charged for his care.

His behaviour had been raising cause for concern. He had already been admitted twice before, and this, it was believed, was largely fuelled by drink. His disposition was sullen, and he had been drinking incessantly since his last discharge from the asylum. He had been violent when in a manic state, and had threatened his wife repeatedly. The medical staff diagnosed the cause of his mania as ‘intemperance, and heredity’ – it seems that Frank’s sister also had a history of mental illness. Such was his potential violence, that further detention was advised on the visit of an asylum inspector.

Frank’s illness progressed through stages of delusion, and he believed that his wife had ill treated him, and constantly talked about it. He was suspicious of the motives of those around him, and continued to be seen as unpredictable.

However, by the May of 1895, he was reported to be working in the engine room and he apparently made ‘quite a good worker’. It seems that, at least to some extent, the nature of the work he was given helped to ease him to some degree.

Frank was transferred to Hull Borough asylum in February 1898, but reappears on the 1901 census as a patient in Stafford Asylum. Whether he had returned to his life outside following his trip to Hull, or whether he was transferred straight back from Hull to Stafford is not known to us.

What happened to Frank after 1901 is unclear, as he is not listed as a patient again. His date of death is also untraceable. What happened to Mary is also obscure to us. Whether Frank and Mary ever again enjoyed a family life together after he was hospitalised is a question which, for now, will remain unanswered.

Bertha Littleford

Mike & Sue Bulmer, and Steve Cunniffe

One of the patients featured on our banner headings is Bertha Littleford. From the photograph we have of her, Bertha was a striking, red-haired woman, who appears relatively well, but with a definite sadness or vacantness to her eyes. As with our other headline patients, Bertha’s image has intrigued us, and made us keen to discover more about her.

Bertha was admitted to Stafford asylum aged 32 (according to the casebook) on 18 May 1894, and her care was paid for by the Wolverhampton Poor Law union. She was born Bertha Booth, in Harley, hear Much Wenlock in 1865. Her parents were Charles and Sarah Booth (nee Hill), who were married in Wombridge, Shropshire in 1848. By 1851 they were living in Harley, and had one son named William. By the time Bertha was born, her father was listed as a labourer.

The 1871 census shows Bertha’s date as a year earlier, and she is living with the Hill family in Homer, a small village near Harley. She is listed as the niece of Andrew Hill, presumably the brother of Bertha’s mother Sarah. Bertha’s father, Charles Booth is listed in the same census as a sawyer, and widower, and is still living in Harley. Looking at the records further, Bertha’s mother had died about six years earlier in the second quarter of 1865 – between April and June.

Bertha was baptised on 9th April 1865, and presumably her mother died very soon after, or even whilst giving birth, which might further explain why Bertha is found living with her uncle. This situation must have persisted, as when Bertha started school she has entries referring to living with a ‘Hill’ in Homer. The school house in Homer which Bertha was likely to have attended still stands.

Bertha’s birth date seems to fluctuate in the documents between February and April 1865, but she continues to be traceable through the census in the 1880s and 90s. In the 1881 census Bertha was 16 years old, and was working as a domestic servant at an address in Much Wenlock.

In 1881, Bertha’s future husband John Littleford was living nearby at Little Wenlock, with his grandparents John and Sarah Davis. Aged 18, John was listed as a labourer in an ironworks. John was born in New Penshaw, County Durham. John and Bertha must have met in the Wenlock area, and married sometime in the 1880s. A marriage is recorded in Blackburn between a Bertha Booth and John Littleford, although we cannot be sure if this is our couple without further investigation. It could be that John had travelled for work, as there was an ironworks in Blackburn, and Bertha may have travelled to join him. We cannot be sure.

What is certain is that Bertha appears in the 1891 census together with Andrew her youngest child. Andrew was one year old and had been born in Hanley. They are recorded in Workington – seemingly as lodgers – with Bertha ‘living on her own means’. Workington at this point in time was a steel town, and so it seems likely that Bertha and John had travelled there for work. John is not present on census day, however. It appears that the Littlefords were a family who felt the need, or were forced by necessity, to move around for work.

A few years later in 1894, Bertha was committed to Stafford asylum. By this stage she had two young sons, Andrew and a sibling named, John, born in 1893.

Her casebook admission notes record the following:

Causes: Hereditary, first attack, is suicidal, attempts to strangle herself.

Father was insane, has been temperate. Has always been rather reserved, lately has not been in good circumstances. Bodily health has been bad, and she lost her youngest child 6 months ago and she has gradually lost interest in household chores. Sometimes refuses food, sleeps badly, has had 2 or 3 children. Dull and melancholy, stares about her with a vacant expression. Thinks she has committed some terrible sin and that the devil is after her.

A child named Barbara Littleford, with parents Bertha and John, was baptised in Wolverhampton in November 1894. Barbara’s death is recorded in the first quarter of 1895. Bertha’s asylum notes indicate she had three children, two surviving and one who had died six months before (i.e. at the end of 1893). Could it be that Barbara was Bertha’s third child, and that her dates have been mis-recorded? The dead infant could not be her son John, as we will explain later. The death of her third child had been a major factor in Bertha’s mental decline. If Barbara was not Bertha’s child, then another infant may be recorded somewhere, whose death caused Bertha’s tragic mental deterioration.

Sadly, Bertha’s recovery did not last for many years, and she was admitted again to Stafford asylum in August 1899, when she was working as a charwoman. Wolverhampton was again her Poor Law Union, and she was very excited, noisy and incoherent. She was not in good bodily health, was thin and worn, and had scars from old bruises on her legs. Bertha was discharged again, recovered, in July 1900. It appears that her life continued to be a hard one.

Bertha’s death is recorded in 1905, when she was 39 years old. From the hope of recovery in 1896, Bertha sadly did not live long to enjoy her family life. To find out whether her death was connected to her mental illness will need further investigation.

Some good news comes after Bertha’s death, however. It appears that her second son John Robert Littleford was adopted by another family. Aged 12 when his mother died, John Robert reappears on the 1911 census, aged 18, listed as ‘adopted’ and living with the Whiting family in Fenton, with new siblings – a brother and three sisters. His adoptive parents, Richard and Emma Whiting, are living and working in the heart of industrial Staffordshire. Richard worked as a blacksmith’s striker for a railway company, an extremely physically hard job. John Robert is working at a pottery in Stoke-on-Trent as an apprentice printer.

What happened to John Littleford Snr. and his other son Andrew is for now a mystery, but one which may be solved by further research. Bertha’s story is in many ways tragic, but we do know at least that one of her sons found a family to care for him after her death, and that as a young man he was learning a trade and making his way in the world.

Ellen Davies

Pete Gurney, with additional research by Steve Cunniffe

The story of Ellen Davies brings to our attention the links between prisons and asylums in the late nineteenth century, and the mechanisms by which you may enter one and find yourself transferred to the other.

Ellen Davies was admitted to Stafford Asylum on 29th September 1887, after being transferred from Stafford Prison. She was aged 39, married with no children, and described in her admission notes as a pauper and a prostitute. Her religion was described as Church of England and her board was being paid by H.M. Treasury.

By tracking her down through official documents and civil registration, it appears that she had a long and varied criminal record as Ellen Davies (or Davis) and also as Ellen Burns. This started at the age of 21 in 1869, when she was fined 5/- and costs at Wolverhampton Petty Sessions for disorderly conduct. After several other minor offences, she was tried at Wolverhampton Quarter Sessions for stealing £11 10s and a purse from David Edwards on 22nd July 1876. David Edwards was described as a labourer and £11 10s seems a large sum of money for him to have on his person. Nevertheless, the jury found her guilty and she was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment with hard labour in the House of Correction at Stafford.

The Wednesbury Examiner’s report of the court proceedings makes it clear that the Recorder was not enamoured of David Edwards’ behaviour, and the implication is that he was robbed by Ellen after picking her up off the streets when she was soliciting.

Ellen Davis, alias Burns (31), prostitute, was indicted for having, on 22nd July, stolen £11 10s from the person of David Edwards, labourer, Moor Street, Horseley Fields. The prosecutor stated that on the day mentioned he met prisoner in Horseley Fields and accompanied her to a house in Fleece Yard. After they had been in the house for some time, prisoner left the house, and prosecutor then missed from his pocket a purse containing £11 10s. Although he at once gave information to the police, prisoner could not be found until the 4th inst.

The prisoner was found guilty, and sentenced to twelve months hard labour. As she was removed from the dock she broke into a violent fit of hysterics, and was with difficulty taken downstairs. Addressing the prosecutor, the Recorder said: If you had not lost a very large sum of money I should have disallowed the costs of this prosecution, because your conduct is very discreditable, and it is very wrong that people who put themselves in your position should inflict upon their fellow-townsmen the cost of the prosecution of those whom you almost tempt to rob you.

Female prisoners exercise at Stafford prison (Staffordshire Museum Service Collection)

Exactly how Ellen ended up on the streets is open to speculation, but prostitution was a common phenomenon to all towns in Britain. As Judith Flanders observes, ‘From the little information we have, we know that most women who earned their living from selling sex were working class, the majority taking up with men from their own socio-economic background before going out on the streets.’ (

Low earnings for female workers were a major cause of ‘casual’ prostitution in the late Victorian period, with women supplementing their meagre wages. Whether Ellen worked as well as soliciting for sex is unknown, although her criminal record suggests she made a full time living from involvement in the sex trade. Estimates for the numbers of women working at least part-time as prostitutes vary wildly, the possible range of numbers being between 50,000 and 368,000 as guessed at by the Westminster Review (E.M. Sigworth & T.J. Wyke, 1980). It is clear that the numbers involved in sex work were very high, possibly making it the fourth biggest occupation for women. The term prostitute also covered women considered to be living immorally, outside wedlock or with illegitimate children. From Ellen’s appearance in the local press, it seems that she was actively soliciting for sex, and that property theft was either an opportunistic aspect of her activities, or part of her modus operandi. Her later brushes with the law, of which there were many, suggest the latter. It appears that the Recorder did morally censure her victim on this occasion, but as much for his carelessness in putting himself in a vulnerable position as for his use of a prostitute as such.

After several more minor offences Ellen was fined £5- or one-months imprisonment after being convicted of running a brothel at a house in St James’s Square, Wolverhampton. In the same court Elizabeth Lewis (of the same house of ill-fame) was jailed for a month for stealing 25s 6d from Henry Blakemore, baker, of Little Chapel Street, Monmore Green. In 1885 Ellen was again in court for stealing money from a person but this time she was acquitted. Perhaps her oddest brush with the law was when she was charged with stealing railway cushions, for which she was acquitted. Her final appearance in court was in 1886 at the Wolverhampton Quarter Sessions again for stealing money, this time belonging to George Hopcott. The court records listed all her previous convictions (at least 13 of them) and she was found guilty of larceny after a previous conviction of felony (presumably the 1876 conviction for stealing) and sentenced to 12 calendar months imprisonment with hard labour at Her Majesty’s Prison at Stafford.

Less than a year later she was transferred to Stafford Asylum suffering from mania with delusions, the cause being unknown. She was finally released, recovered, on 20th December 1889.

Ellen would have been classed as an ‘insane convict’, or prisoner who had become insane whilst serving a sentence, under the laws which had been amended in the 1860s. These individuals would be kept in an asylum until their sentences expired and they were discharged, or they were declared sane and sent back to prison. Broadmoor, the national hospital for the criminally insane, became the destination for a minority of convicts found to have become insane, until their sentence ended or they were found sane once again.

There are two possibilities – that Ellen really did develop delusions whilst in prison, or that she was displaying signs of mental instability before imprisonment but was imprisoned anyway. The latter is possible, and more common than we might think. Without a diagnosis many offenders were sent to prison, with petty offenders with mental illness likely to be gaoled by the magistrates, rather than being committed to any other institution. Often there was no alternative available. If an inmate was later certified in prison, they would most likely be sent to a local county asylum, rather than Broadmoor. As historian J.F. Saunders argued, many people who were mentally ill first and criminal second were sent to prison rather than to the asylum. In the latter half of the century the public asylums housed over half of all the criminal lunatics detained in Britain.

As Saunders’ research on Warwickshire shows, the majority of criminals transferred to county asylums had not been found guilty of violence, and most were convicted of lesser offences such as vagrancy, property crime or disorderly conduct, of which Ellen Davies is a good example.

The next record of Ellen that we have is in the 1891 census, when she was living at 4 Baker’s Court, Dudley, as a 42 year old hawker lodging with George Connery and his wife Eliza. She was described as a widow born in Dudley, Staffordshire.

She also appears in the 1901 census as an inmate in Dudley Workhouse in Sedgley, aged 51, again described as a widow born in Dudley. No trace of her can be found in the 1911 census nor can her death be pinpointed. As for her early life her name is too common to be able to accurately pinpoint her marriage. It is possible that her maiden name was Burns as she used this as an alias but there is no trace of a marriage of Ellen Burns to a Davies or Davis in the relevant area. Whether Ellen lived on into her sixties is a question which we may never be able to answer. Her case highlights the fact that public asylums housed about half of all criminal lunatics in Britain, a phenomenon which requires further historical investigation.

Further Reading:

Judith Flanders, ( (2014)

E.M. Sigworth & T.J. Wyke, ‘A Study of Victorian Prostitution and Venereal Disease,’ In Martha Vicnius (ed.), Suffer and be Still. Women in the Victorian Age. (Methuen & Co, 1980)

J.F. Saunders, ‘Criminal Insanity in Nineteenth Century Asylums’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 81 (1988), pp.73-75

Letitia (Lettice) Eden

Susan Large, with additional research by Steve Cunniffe

Letitia (Lettice) Julia Eden’s story is one of habitual criminality. How, and why, she first came to theft as an occupation can only be speculated upon. But it appears that an unsuccessful marriage, and her own problems with mental illness may have exacerbated her ongoing problems.

Lettice Julia Eden’s birth is registered in the 2nd quarter of 1864 in Stoke on Trent.  She was one of seven children born to George Eden and Mary Foster. He was a potter from Burslem, and she came from St. Helens in Lancashire. The first civil registration record of Lettice is in the 1871 census, when she is aged 7. She appears as both Letitia and Lettice in various documents over time.

Sadly, her criminal career appears to have started at a young age. As far as we can tell, her first appearance in court was on 15th Jun 1882 at Tunstall, when she was accused of stealing a dress shirt and was given a sentence of 14 days in prison.  Letitia (as she was called in the records) was only 16 at the time, and so began a lifetime career of petty offences.

Later the same year, on 6th October at Stafford’s Quarter Sessions, Letitia appears once again. In the records, she is described as 17, her occupation a potter.  The offence was breaking and entering the dwelling house of Henry Leigh and stealing 26 packets of dry soap (most probably clothes washing soap).  She was tried on 16th October and pleaded guilty to housebreaking.  She was sentenced to imprisonment, with hard labour, for 2 calendar months, in HM Prison Stafford and was released on 15th December 1882.

We have a reasonable description of Lettice from this time. In the Habitual Criminal Records it states that Letitia Julia Eden was single and a potter.  She had a pale complexion with light brown hair, light blue eyes and was 5’1½” tall.  She had a slender build with a long face and had a small mole and burn mark on left cheek and with a slight impediment in speech

What kind of prison experience could a young woman have expected in the early 1880s? Unfortunately for Lettice, the prison code had been made considerably harsher by the Prisons Act of 1865 and being incarcerated between the mid-1860s and the mid-1880s was one of the worst times to be imprisoned in the later 1800s. A moral panic about rising crime rates led to a new regime after the Act, focusing primarily on deterrence through ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board.’ Hard labour became more ubiquitous, and the crank (a stiff handle) and the treadmill increased in usage. These were the most likely forms of hard labour to which the teenager was subjected. Local administration of prisons meant that punishments varied, and so in some areas oakum picking (picking apart old ropes) and net making were also still employed.

Treadwheel in Stafford Prison c.1869-71 (Staffordshire Museum Service)

The regime in the 1860s at Stafford prison, under Major William Fulford, was particularly harsh, with rock breaking introduced because of a lack of cranks. He also favoured military style floggings for disciplinary offences. The treadmill and the crank were designed to be purposeless activity, the movement of both being completely pointless. This lack of utility was part of the punishment, although the treadwheel at Stafford prison did power a corn mill. For male prisoners the Prison Discipline Society recommended that 12,000 feet ascent by the legs when climbing on the treadmill was the optimum amount each day (which Michelle Higgs comments is the equivalent of climbing the Matterhorn ( ). Stafford’s male prisoners were expected to climb over 16,000 feet.

It was in the later 1880s that reform of the prison service came to the fore in national politics. The 1894-95 committee on reform chaired by Herbert Gladstone led the way towards a ‘punish and reform’ approach, and the consequent removal of meaningless labour, although its recommendations were slow to be enacted after the Liberals lost power in 1895.

However, at the time that Lettice was sent to prison, the attitude towards incarcerated women was rather confused, and took no account of them as female prisoners. The Victorian prison was a man’s world; made for men, by men. Women in prison were seen as somehow anomalous: not foreseen and not legislated for. They were provided with separate quarters and female staff dealt with all that for reasons of modesty and good order – but not otherwise differently. ( quoting Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography, 1830-1914, (Pimlico, 1999) pp. 69-70)

Despite her two months hard labour, Lettice reoffended in 1883. On 18th October, she appeared at Hanley Borough Sessions. She was recorded as 16 years of age (which makes her younger than on her last appearance) and a potter’s sponger when she appeared at the Quarter Sessions in Hanley.  She was charged that, on 18 July 1883, she stole one silver Geneva watch and one hair guard and appendage belonging to Joseph Berrisford.  She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 6 months hard labour. On 1 April 1884, Lettice was photographed by the prison authorities, before her release. Her photograph still exists in the archive (unfortunately, this is unobtainable during the current lockdown).

Stafford Prison inmate Caroline Pulley c.1885. All inmates were photographed with their hands to the camera. In this instance the sitter refused. (Stafford Gaol photograph albums, Staffordshire Record Office)

Why she kept stealing is open to conjecture, as she had a job in the pottery industry (as a sponger – which could mean either removing seams and wet clay which had been created during the potting process or applying sponged decoration to the finished pots). Whether her wage was too meagre, or whether her criminality was compulsive, caused by personal or psychiatric problems, or for a particular purpose we cannot be certain. It is clear that she was troubled throughout her early adult life.

As Lucy Williams and Barry Godfrey wrote in their histories of Victorian female criminality, petty larceny (small time theft) was one of the most frequent forms of crime committed by women, and that such crimes were dealt with relatively harshly. Theft from the person and shoplifting were commonplace. Theft by a servant was also a common female crime, due to the low wages servants were paid. Unlocked doors and lack of security also led to women and girls thieving from other people’s homes. Burglary and housebreaking could give women an income stream, by selling on stolen goods. Whether this was Lettice’s motivation is unknown.

Four months after her release from prison she was facing yet another criminal charge. On 14th August 1884, Letitia was in court. Letitia Julia Eden was now described as 18 and a potter.  She was charged with breaking and entering the dwelling house of David Abbots in Cobridge and stealing one pair of boots.  She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to imprisonment, with hard labour, for 12 calendar months at Stafford Prison. Her previous larceny offences meant that her sentence was on this occasion more substantial.

However, something occurs in April 1885, during her prison sentence, and she is certified insane and transferred to Stafford asylum, only a short walk from the prison, on 29th of the month. Whether the illness is new, is caused by her incarceration, or whether an underlying mental illness which was present before sentencing has only just been diagnosed is impossible to say. Many offenders with psychiatric problems were sent to prison, and only certified later. This may help to explain her criminal career. However, we cannot discount that she became mentally ill because of her incarceration. Prison, as we have seen, was a harsh and unforgiving environment in 1885.

Letitia was recorded as 20, a criminal, single and a potter.  Her abode was given as Burslem and prison was listed as a previous institution she had been in. She had been ill for 14 days, was suicidal and dangerous, had indifferent health, and was suffering from melancholia. This is the first mention of suicidal tendencies.

Her stay in the asylum was short, and she was discharged on 20th October 1885, as a recovered patient, her prison sentence now expired. However, only weeks later on 6th November she was readmitted to the asylum, this time with recurrent mania and suicidal tendencies, and recorded as ‘Lettice’. Her stay was much longer the second time around, and she was discharged on 28th Jun 1886 as ‘recovered’.

Things seemed to take a turn for the better for Lettice in 1888, as she was married on 10th April, to William Marsh, also aged 24, at St Johns Church, Burslem. This proved to be false dawn for Lettice, however, as a report in the Birmingham Daily Post from 29th October later that year shows:


Attempted suicide:  A married woman, Letitia Julia Marsh, attempted to commit suicide late on Friday night by swallowing a quantity of insect powder.  It seems the woman, who is separated from her husband, resides with her mother in Peel Street.  She has been confined in the county asylum at Stafford, from which institution she was discharged a few months ago.  On Friday night she was seen to break a cup, and directly afterwards to fall to the ground.  She admitted that she had taken poison, and medical aid being summoned, Mr Hatchell and Mr Russell, surgeons, were quickly in attendance.  The stomach pump was used and other remedies adopted and on Saturday the woman appeared to have recovered from her rash act, though, being subject to fits, she had been severely attacked by them during the night.  She had taken the contents of a packet of ‘Dalmation Insect Powder’ which she had purchased the same evening.

This report seems to suggest another admission to the asylum since her marriage to William, although the case book for female patients in Stafford asylum in 1888 is missing, making it harder to ascertain the details.

The next time we encounter Lettice is in a report from 29th May 1889 from the Stafford Sentinel. The report stated that she had been involved, with another woman, in an ‘assault’ on two other people.  It was very much a case of he said/she said, and the event was not taken to trial. Later that year, however, it appears that Lettice was up to her criminal activities again. The Stafford Sentinel of 21st August reported her court appearance:

Letitia Julia Marsh, an old offender. was convicted of stealing apples from the garden of Charles Adams, Porthill, on 15 August.  Marsh had said that the painters who were in the house had given her permission.  She was sentenced to 10s 0d fine and costs or 14 days imprisonment

Lettice makes many appearances in court reports but tracing her through civil registration is more difficult. After her census appearance in 1871 she is not traceable again until 1901, when she is living in Wolstanton (just around the corner from Porthill) with her husband William.

The 1891 census seems to show that William returned to live with his parents for a while, perhaps the rift with his wife lasting for some time after their marriage or subsequent mental health and legal problems. Interestingly, it would appear that Lettice’s brother George Eden, aged 15 and a scholar, was in Stafford Prison during the 1881 census, perhaps indicating a familial involvement with crime.

What happened to Lettice and William after 1901 is unclear, but a death was recorded for a Letitia J Marsh in the first quarter of 1931. The record entry is not very clear, however. The rest of her family are difficult to trace, and so the Eden/Marsh family disappears into the ether in the twentieth century, at least for now. It would be nice to think that after her many troubles, Letitia/Lettice found some kind of peaceful life with her husband, and that she found relief from her past problems.

Further Reading:

Lucy Williams & Barry Godfrey, Criminal Women, 1850-1920: Researching the Lives of Britain’s Female Offenders (Pen & Sword, 2018)

Lucy Williams & Barry Godfrey, Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England (Pen & Sword, 2016)

George Hearndon

By Joyce Jones

Whilst working on the Burntwood Asylum admission registers for the 1860s one of the cases that caught my eye was that of George Hearndon, a publican from Liverpool. George was admitted to Burntwood a total of three times with a diagnosis of dipsomania (a compulsive desire to drink alcohol) between December 1868 and May 1869, the second admission being on the same day as his first discharge. The question that intrigued me was – what had he done to be readmitted so quickly? Had he gone into the first pub he’d seen in Burntwood? As will be seen the reason was more mundane than that, and shows that the correct paperwork was just as important to the Victorians as it is today. Tackling the ‘drink question’ occupied politicians of all persuasions in the period, and finding the occupation of publican or barmaid in connection with drink-related mental health issues is a frequent occurrence when looking through the asylum documents.

George was baptised George Wellington Hearnden on 27th June 1830 in Canterbury, Kent. He married Betsy Gadsby in London on 7th June 1851 and by 1861 they were living with their two children, William aged 8 and Clara aged 4, in Liverpool. The 1861 census shows George running a public house on Springfield Street in that city.

George was first admitted to Burntwood on 17th December 1868 as part of a group of “out of county patients” from Liverpool. The superintendent of the asylum at Liverpool Workhouse informed Burntwood that this was his fifth attack and that he had been an inmate of asylums at four different times. Two of these previous admissions to asylums can be been found in the Lunacy Patients Admission Registers available online. The first was in August 1865 to Liverpool Asylum, when George was recorded as a private patient, and the second in February 1867 to Chester Asylum, when his circumstances had declined and he was admitted in the pauper class. On both occasions he was a patient for only a few months. Burntwood were also informed that he was dangerous to others and he had attempted to murder his wife. His case notes tell us he was above average height, had brown hair, grey eyes, a ruddy complexion and a scar on his left cheek. His admission notes say that his  “bodily health appears good” although he was “a trifle shaky from drinking”. The supposed cause of the dipsomania was given as hereditary predisposition (he had two siblings who were also in asylums at that time) and intemperance. His notes go on to say that he was addicted to drink and he claimed that it was his wife who was violent and that she had made an attempt on his life.

Bridge Street in Burton-on-Trent, with the Queen’s Hotel and Saracen’s Head, seen here decorated for Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897 ( Brewery Centre, Burton-on-Trent)

George’s first discharge from Burntwood asylum came about when his admission paperwork was found to be incorrect. On the 6th January 1869, Burntwood received a letter from the Commissioners in Lunacy. In this they stated that the original doctor’s certificate “was not in compliance with the Lunacy Acts and was therefore worthless” so George “was discharged in accordance with their wishes and readmitted under a new order and certificate this day”. It looks as though he did not even leave the building on this occasion. On the 15th April he was discharged as recovered, only to be readmitted on the 20th May 1869 when there was “no doubt he has been drinking” and “he believes he is being ill treated by his wife”. He was finally discharged on the 12th April 1870 “by wish of his daughter and brother-in-law”.

On his discharge George appears to have moved to Burton-on-Trent, as the 1871 census records him with Betsy and his two children at Horninglow Road. The connection with Burton appears to be through Betsy as she was born in Boylestone, which is just over the border in Derbyshire. George has also had a change of occupation, and he was now a painter. Perhaps his family were hoping he would remain sober, without the temptation of alcohol in his new working environment. This was a vain hope, however, as we find him mentioned in the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of the 2nd June 1871. A report from the Burton-on-Trent petty sessions of the 23rd May 1871 states that “George Wellington Hearndon was fined 5s and 9s4d costs for being drunk and riotous on the Horninglow road on Monday.” Any treatment George received at Burntwood does not appear to have been that successful. Burton-on-Trent was a particularly bad location for an alcoholic to try to go sober, being the centre of Britain’s brewing trade and boasting many public houses.

By 1881 the family had broken up. Betsy and the children were still living near Burton-on-Trent. Betsy was living with her daughter Clara, now married, still in the Horninglow area and William, also married, was living with his wife in Tutbury. They appear to have lost contact with George as on the 1881 census Betsy gave her marital status as “believed to be widowed”. In fact George was living in Bulwell, Nottinghamshire still working as a painter. He died in Nottinghamshire in 1892.

From reading George Hearndon’s case notes it would appear that his and Betsy’s marriage was not a happy one with claims from either side of violence and attempts on their lives. We will never know the truth of these claims but the state of George’s home life along with the easy access to alcohol as a publican certainly would not have helped with any drink problem that he had. Certainly once George and Betsy had split up and he had moved away he does not seem to have come to the authorities’ attention again.

Margaret Wakefield

By Caroline Nash-Smith

I have researched an asylum patient from Stafford asylum, who attracted my attention because of the circumstances of her admission and the notes attached to her register entry. It appears that she had a history of pyromania. Her story illustrates some of the problems of diagnosis over time, and also how problematic the authorities found it in dealing with people who committed criminal acts and who also had mental health issues. The patient in question is a woman called Margaret Wakefield. The information given about her in the Stafford Asylum Register of Admissions told me that:

  • She was 34 years old and unmarried
  • She was currently registered as part of Uttoxeter Poor Law Union
  • Her health on admission was described as good
  • Her diagnosis was imbecility. The cause was described as unknown or congenital
  • She was described as being violent and dangerous since birth, and weak minded.
  • She had become a “pauper lunatic” on 21 March 1894 and had been accepted by Uttoxeter Union on the same date
  • Her previous institutions were listed as prison (Stafford) for arson, and the workhouse.
  • Her occupation was listed as a domestic servant
  • Her religion was Wesleyan Methodist

However, there were many gaps in the data of the register, including much of her earlier background, information about her crime, and the whereabouts of her service as a domestic servant. I visited various archive websites, and searched for censuses, birth, marriage and death certificates, newspaper reports, prison and asylum records to build a more complete picture of Margaret Wakefield.

The census in 1861 allowed me to place Margaret’s date of birth in the year 1859. She was born Margaret Wakefield, the daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Wakefield and at that time was the younger of two siblings. Richard was a joiner from Uttoxeter, Staffordshire and in 1861 the family lived in Spiceal Street in the town, which the name suggests was once a spice or grocery trading street. The census ten years later tells us that the family home now consisted of Richard, listed as a widower, his wife Elizabeth having died in 1868, daughters Emily (16) Margaret, (12) and Elizabeth (9). The family still lived in a house on Spiceal Street, Uttoxeter. All three of the daughters are recorded as being scholars.

In the 1881 census, Margaret was single and a general servant in the household of Andrew Buchannon Torrance, a brewer’s traveller, living in Slade Lane, Uttoxeter. We have no further information about Margaret until the 1891 census when Margaret had moved in as a general servant (domestic) for William Foster, a farmer, of Marchington Woods, near Uttoxeter.

Margaret’s story becomes better documented once she comes to the attention of the authorities. A newspaper report in the Burton Chronicle dated 28th July 1892 reported that Margaret Wakefield, aged 31, was found guilty at Staffordshire Assizes of feloniously setting fire to some farm buildings belonging to John Wilton, a farmer from Knott Hill on July 13th. She was also charged with setting fire to two stacks of straw the day before the main incident. Margaret was described in the article as being of weak intellect and “sometimes (the prisoner) did not seem to understand what she was doing.” Mercy was recommended, but owing to the serious nature of the crime she was sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour:

Arson at Croxden: At the Staffordshire Assizes, on Saturday, Margaret Wakefield (31), servant, was charged with feloniously setting fire to some farm buildings on July 13th. belonging to John Wilton. farmer, of Knott Hill, Camden, near Uttoxeter. She was also charged with setting fire to two stacks of straw on the 12th of July. Mr. Boddam prosecuted. Prisoner lived with prosecutor as domestic servant. On the day in question she was missed from the house at noon. A few minutes later she returned, and the barn was discovered on fire. Subsequently prisoner told Police-constable Findlay that Mrs Wilton had been very unkind to her and had knocked her down on the previous Tuesday because she happened to be in her way. She set fire to the ricks on account of this of this. Afterwards. prisoner said Mrs. Wilton had called her a sly fox, and she went out and set fire to a bit of straw on the barn floor. She did not think it would burn as it did —Henry Lunn was called in defence, and said that prisoner was his wife’s sister, and had lived with him off and on for about fourteen years. He considered her of weak intellect & sometimes prisoner did not seem to understand what she was doing —The jury found the prisoner guilty, but recommended her to mercy. Mr Boddam also joined in the recommendation. His Lordship said the case was a serious one, but, after the recommendation to mercy, be would sentence the prisoner only to nine months imprisonment, with hard labour.

Burton Chronicle – Thursday 28 July 1892

Nine months with hard labour in 1892 was not a light sentence by modern standards, and had the capacity to physically break an inmate.

Margaret’s case illustrates an area which troubled the late Victorians – what did arson mean? Jonathan Andrews has described the changes over time in the understanding of pyromania. Was it a psychiatric condition, or did it indicate other things? The medical authorities disagreed as to whether it was a condition or not. Some saw it as a symptom of wider ‘mental derangement’, unlike kleptomania which was considered a type of ‘moral insanity’ in itself.  Others saw pyromania as a distinct condition, an ‘insanity, with an irresistible desire to destroy by fire.’ Richard Quain’s medical dictionary of 1890 argued that pyromania’s ‘claim to be regarded as a special form of insanity has not been established.’ The majority of later nineteenth-century writers on crime and insanity questioned whether pyromania was a psychiatric condition in itself, and whether it could be used as a defence in court. Pyromania in Britain was discredited as a distinct disorder by the early 1900s, largely because of a drift away from symptom-led classification of disease. A study conducted in Broadmoor found fire-starting to mostly be a symptom of other conditions (‘congenital imbecility’, melancholia and mania), and not a distinct form of moral insanity or a monomania about fire. Modern day understandings of fire-setters tend to focus on impulse control disorders, psychosis and intellectual disabilities, often with alcohol misuse as a major factor.(Jonathan Andrews)

Whatever lay behind Margaret’s pyromania symptoms, the first prison sentence was not the end of her career as an arsonist. A further article I came across in the Burton Chronicle, dated Thursday 15th March 1894 indicates that Margaret was now resident in the union workhouse and had once again been charged with fire setting. On this occasion she apparently burnt a sheet, and then pushed a witness towards the fire, pushing the fire stove over in an effort to prevent the sheet from being saved. She was remanded in custody and held under restraint to protect the public. A surgeon at Stafford gaol examined Margaret as to her state of mind.

It appears that after this incident, Margaret was adjudged ‘insane’, and sent to the asylum. The admissions register of Stafford Lunatic Asylum lists Margaret as a new admission on 21st March 1894, and her discharge is dated 16th May 1895, when her condition was described as ‘not improved’. The spell in the asylum had clearly not done her any therapeutic good, and the range of medical support available at the time for someone like Margaret (who we can only speculate possibly had some form of learning or intellectual disability), was practically non-existent.

Sadly, the story does not end here. The register for Stafford Asylum covering 1898 contains a record of Margaret being readmitted on 27th July and the 1901 census confirms that Margaret was once again a patient at the asylum, aged 41 years old. Margaret was to die at the asylum on 26th May 1904 aged 45.

Further Reading|:

Jonathan Andrews, ‘From stack-firing to pyromania: medico-legal concepts of insane arson in British, US and European contexts, c.1800–1913. Part 2’, History of Psychiatry  December 2010, 21(84 0 4), pp.387–405

Richard Elisha Leak

By Pete Gurney

Richard Elisha Leak was admitted to Stafford Asylum on 27th June 1876. The admission record stated that he was married, aged 30, a saddler from Hanley and paid for by Stoke on Trent Poor Law Union. It also stated that he was Church of England, had been transferred from prison and had received a head injury as a boy. The reason for his admission was described as mania, and the cause as family discord and that he was violent and dangerous. He was incessantly talking in an incoherent manner and was very violent and destructive.

Richard had been baptised on 5th July 1846 at the church of St. John Longton, the son of Elisha Leak, saddler, and Jane Bagnall. They lived at Lane End, which at that time was a separate township from Longton. Richard then appears in the 1851, 1861 and 1871 censuses as the only child living with Elisha and Jane. Subsequent research confirmed that he was indeed the only child of that couple.

It would appear that Richard’s father Elisha was a well to do member of the community. He appeared as a saddler in trade directories including Kelly’s, White’s, Post Office and Slater’s in the 1840’s, 50’s and 60’s, and also in the Electoral Rolls. In 1855 he was one of the signatories, along with many of the leading potters of the day including Wedgwood, Minton, Copeland and Meakin, of a petition to Parliament objecting to the amalgamation of the North Staffs Railway with the London & North Western Railway. At the time the North Staffs Railway owned the Trent & Mersey Canal which was used by many potteries to transport raw materials and finished goods, and the petitioners were afraid that it would increase their costs. Also in 1855, Elisha sold properties in Longton including The Railway Inn, a saddlers shop opposite the railway station and the Three Cups beer house. Whether he then moved the saddler’s workshop to other premises or rented from the new owner is not known.

Three Cups beerhouse and Garfield works Opposite St James church Longton (

It was reported in the Staffordshire Sentinel in 1860 that Elisha had several drunken arguments in the street with his brother, for which he was bound over to keep the peace to the sum of £20, and that there had been a writ issued against him for libel. However, he obviously continued to be well respected in the community as in 1873 he was nominated for Municipal Honours in the election for St John’s ward in Longton but declined. When Elisha died in 1876 he left his entire legacy to his wife Jane with nothing to his only son, who at that time was in Stafford Asylum. His effects totalled under £450 (around £50,000 in todays’ money).

When Richard Elisha was 11 a newspaper report in the Staffordshire Advertiser on May 2nd 1857 described his involvement in an accident in Stoke in the following way:

“A rather serious accident occurred yesterday week near the Old Swan Inn, Stoke, to Mr and Mrs Elisha Leak and their son and nephew in consequence of the pony in the phaeton in which they were seated having taken fright and run off. Mr Leak endeavoured to rein the animal in, but finding himself unable to do so, his attention was confined to guiding it free from obstructions. This was a comparatively easy matter as long as the run was on the open Newcastle turnpike road, but as they neared Stoke danger every moment became imminent. The pony became more unmanageable and excited as it proceeded at its gallop and at length ran against the gable of a manufactory near the Old Swan Inn upsetting the phaeton. Mr Leak was not much hurt but his wife had two of her ribs dislocated, while his son and nephew were rather severely injured about the head. Dr Campbell was immediately sent for and under his prompt and skilful treatment the party were enabled to be taken home the same evening and are now progressing favourably.”

This incident explains the head injury described in the asylum register on Richard Elisha’s admission in 1876.

Richard joined his father’s saddlery business at an early age. In the 1861 census, aged 14, he was described as an apprentice saddler working in the family business and in 1871 he was assistant to his father.

On the 8th August 1871 Richard married Harriet Nicklin who was his first cousin (Harriet’s mother, another Harriet, was the sister of Jane Bagnall, Richard Elisha’s mother). Their first child, Lucy Jane was baptised at the church of St John, Longton on September 12th 1872, followed by son Richard Elisha junior on 14th August 1874.

On 1st Jul 1876 an article in the Staffordshire Sentinel described an incident that had taken place in Hanley the previous Tuesday (27th June) which may account for the very different personality portrayed over the next couple of years. Was this a delayed reaction to his head injury, or were there some other family reasons?

“Richard Elisha Leek, saddler, seventeen, Chatham Street, Shelton was brought up and charged with being a wandering lunatic. PC Williams said that he was on duty in Howard Place, Shelton and about ten minutes to four o’clock this morning he found Leek wandering about without either coat or hat on. Leek had a poker in his hand and with him a large black dog. Leek was flourishing the poker. Witness, seeing the state Leek was in attempted to take him into custody when Leek struck at him with the poker and kicked at him. Leek said that he only wanted his dog and Fan (meaning his pony). Witness was obliged to call assistance and handcuff Leek. Leek: May I ask him any question. Mr Hamshaw: You may presently. Leek: Thank you, Thank you, I bow to you. Dr J B Davis said that he had examined Leek, who was unquestionably insane and a dangerous lunatic. Dr Weaver, Longton, said that Leek had always been a sober, steady man. He quite agreed with Dr Davis that Leek had an attack of mania and was dangerous. Leek: I am neither mad nor maniac. Leek here made a rambling statement respecting some man with whom he had been fighting. An order was made for his removal to an Asylum.”

Despite the discrepancy in the quoted age (Richard was actually 30) this is certainly the right person. There is no mention in the account about “family discord” but it is interesting that Richard is described as living in Shelton not with his wife and family in Longton.

Hence Richard Elisha was admitted to Stafford Asylum on 27th June 1876 as described above and was subsequently discharged, recovered, on 25th July 1876. Richard’s father Elisha died whilst Richard was in the asylum and the saddlery business was taken over by Elisha’s wife Jane. As soon as Richard was discharged he issued a notice in the Staffordshire Advertiser of 26th August that he was taking over the family business. Whether this is what precipitated the “family discord” recorded on the Asylum register is not known but it must have caused some disagreement in the family. Whatever the reasons Richard was re-admitted to Stafford Asylum on 30th December 1876. This time he was described as married, aged 30, a saddler from Longton. The register states that he had a two month illness, was violent and dangerous, plucked living pigeons and pulled off his clothes and put them in a cistern of water. Despite all of this he was discharged on the application of his wife and mother (as reported in the Staffordshire Sentinel concerning a letter from the Asylum to the Stoke Board of Guardians) on 31st July 1877. Tragically a few days later, on 17th August 1877, Richard committed suicide. This was reported in the Staffordshire Sentinel on the 18th in the following terms:

“A shocking case of suicide – Yesterday morning Mr Richard Elisha Leak, saddler, Church Street, Longton committed suicide at his own house under very painful circumstances. He seems to have gone downstairs about half past seven o’clock without dressing and having obtained a sharp knife used in the saddlers shop he went into the parlour and cut his throat. As soon as the sad discovery was made medical assistance was procured. It was found that a terrible gash had been made in the throat and the windpipe had been cut. The wound was sewn up and Mr Leak had every attention. He expressed a wish to be taken to the Cottage Hospital, but it was deemed best not to remove him. He died about half past nine o’clock. Deceased has been in Stafford Asylum and only came out a month ago. His age was 31 years.”

An inquest was held on 20th August and was reported in the Staffordshire Sentinel on the 25th. Part of the inquest is reported as following:

“Mrs Jane Leak, widow (who gave her evidence in much distress), stated that the deceased was her son and was 31 years old. She lived at his house and shop in Church Street. She remembered Friday morning last, on which day she came downstairs about half past seven o’clock. The deed was then done. Her son lay on the floor and there was a lot of blood about but she did not see any knife. A dog was in the room watching her son. She gave an alarm and a doctor was sent for. In reply to questions by the coroner witness said that deceased came out of Stafford Asylum a month on Saturday. He had been in since last December. They were told at the Asylum that he was fit to come out. Since he had come home he had been carefully watched, but they had no idea at the house that he was likely to commit an act of this kind. Harriet Leak, wife of deceased, stated that on Friday morning her husband got up as usual. He brought their two children to her. She had no suspicion of what he was about to do and was asleep when he got up the second time and went downstairs. She was roused by his mother calling out. Since her husband came out of the Asylum he appeared to be sane. A time or two he had threatened to destroy himself, but she did not think he would do so.”

A further extract states:

“Charles Twigg, porter at Longton railway station, said that on Friday morning he stood on the incline at the station, when he heard cries proceeding from Mr Leak’s house. He ran down and saw Mr Meigh who said: Go in he (the deceased) has cut his throat. He went in the house and saw Leak lying on the floor. He lifted him up and Leak at once put his hand to his throat where the wound was and made a tear at it with his hand. He pulled his hand away. Deceased leaned against witness’s knees until a doctor arrived. A saddler’s knife, covered in blood, lay about six inches from the right hand of Leak as he lay on the floor. He knew that Leak had been in the Asylum twice . His insanity was not caused by drink, he had known the deceased for seven years and never saw him worse for drink. A doctor came and sewed up the wound but he said it was all over, nothing more could be done for the man”

The jury decided upon a verdict of “suicide while in the state of temporary insanity”. Interestingly the foreman of the jury said that he knew the deceased and that he was a steady man. The regulations around the eligibility for jury service are very different today, and under modern day rules the foreman would have been disqualified for being acquainted with the deceased.

No record can be found of Richard’s burial although some of the relevant records are missing from the online catalogues. Church rules around suicide and burial may be a complicating factor in filling in this part of the story. Subsequently Richard’s wife Harriet gave birth to son Charles who was baptised on 4th September 1877. Sadly, both Charles and Richard Elisha junior died young.

In the 1881 census the saddlery business was being run by John Evans, and according to subsequent censuses he continued to run the business very successfully for many years.

Richard’s widow Harriet married Ambrose Sale in 1880, and the 1881 census has them in Bold Street, Hanley with daughter Ellen aged 1, but without Lucy Jane (Harriet’s first child with Richard Elisha). No trace could be found of Lucy Jane in the 1881 census, but in 1891 she was with cousin Catherine Bagnall as a dressmaker in Commerce Street, Longton.

In the 1901 and 1911 censuses Lucy Jane can be found as a patient in Cheddleton Asylum – born in Longton and described as an imbecile. She died in the March quarter of 1918 still in the Asylum.

A tragic end to a tragic story.

John Frederick Trotter

By Pete Gurney

John Frederick Trotter was admitted to Stafford Asylum, aged 18, on November 20th 1858. He was unmarried and a Lieutenant in the 11th Regiment of Foot, British Army. He was diagnosed with acute mania which seems to have been caused by a bout of African fever in Gambia for which he had taken large doses of morphine. He was having grandiose delusions (a Captain, very rich etc.) and had great general debility. He improved over the next few months and was discharged, recovered, on March 9th 1859. His connection with Stafford is unclear as every other reference to him places him abroad, in the south of England or in Jersey.

John Frederick Trotter is first recorded in the army on November 22nd 1856 when he was commissioned Ensign in the 39th Regiment of Foot transferring from the 1st West India Regiment, as posted in the London Gazette. He was then promoted to Lieutenant in the 11th Foot and this was posted in the London Gazette on September 7th 1858. After his brief stay in the asylum John returned to army service and was eventually promoted to Captain 11th Foot on January 25th 1869 (Army and Navy Gazette 20th March 1869).

There appear to be few records of John’s early life. He does not appear in the 1851 or 1861 census nor are there any birth or baptism records available so it must be presumed he was living with his family stationed somewhere abroad. Records from the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa show that John had an elder brother Henry who was baptised on 25th June 1834, in the presence of parents Alexander and Elizabeth Taylor Trotter. There are some records of the Royal Hospital Chelsea that seem to show that the family were receiving compassionate allowances from the army around 1859/60 so it may be assumed that John’s father died whilst still in army service.

John Trotter picked up a fever in the Gambia, north of Sierra Leone, seen here in a plate from Thomas Eyre Poole’s Life, Scenery & Customs in Sierra Leone and Gambia (1850) (Wikimedia commons CC BY)

John was therefore part of an army family. He appears in the 1871 census, born in the Cape of Good Hope, and a naturalised British subject. He lived at this date at 103 Clarendon Terrace in St Helier, Jersey with his mother, Elizabeth Taylor Trotter and younger sister, Margaret Jane. John is still described as a Lieutenant in the army, but unfortunately the regimental description in the records is abbreviated and could be R A or R S. In 1871 John’s mother was a widow, aged 59. She had been born in America and was also a naturalised British subject. His sister Margaret Jane, aged 19, was born in the Cape of Good Hope and was also naturalised.

It seems that John’s army career went downhill after he was promoted to Captain, as it was recorded in The Englishman’s Overland Mail that he had been court martialled on 17th June 1870 in Morar, Gwailor, India. He was accused of various offences prejudicial to good order and discipline including

  • Failing to pay the men of “C” company under his command on 13th and 14th March 1870.
  • Failing to comply with the orders of his Commanding Officer on 11th March 1870 to hand over to Lieutenant-Colonel Tuite the public monies due to him on account of “C” company.
  • Another similar offence on 15th March 1870.
  • Of running an account with Colour Sergeant D Mateer of “C” company and being indebted to him for about 249 Rupees.
  • Of knowingly signing false certificates that he had settled monthly with the Sergeant.

On all but the fourth charge John was found guilty, but the report does not specify the sentence. He seems to have managed to survive in the army though, as he retired from the service “receiving the value of his commission” on 18th October 1873 (Broad Arrow).

The next record of John is from the Aberdeen Evening Express of 25th December 1879, when he appears in the list of applicants for the post of Police Superintendent in the city. He is described as a Londoner, Captain late 11th Foot and having had charge of the native African Police. There is no record as to whether he was successful, but it seems unlikely.

As a private citizen John also seems to have had a chequered career. He was brought before the magistrates on several occasions accused of fraud. On the first occasion, in Hastings in 1885, he was convicted of obtaining money by false pretences and sentenced to three months imprisonment. There were several other appearances where he was accused of similar crimes with some of these resulting in short custodial sentences. On one appearance before Marylebone magistrates it was reported that  he had had a meal with an unknown lady and child in a restaurant in Edgeware Road owned by Pietro Reggiore, but when presented with the bill claimed he had no money. John was handed over to the police, and one Police Constable Gould (23 DR) searched his clothes and found 8d in money plus some unpaid bills in the name of Captain Onslow. John was also known as Captain Onslow at a grocer’s shop at 5 Blandford Street, Portman Square run by George Margerison. At this establishment he cashed cheques with the proprietor on the National Provincial Bank which were returned “no account”. On this brush with the law he was described as of no fixed abode and with no occupation. John was eventually convicted and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment with hard labour. The sentencing was reported in The People of 27th November 1887 as “the conviction of a notorious swindler”, implying that he had something of a reputation.

At this point John disappears from the records entirely although he may have returned to South Africa. There is a record of a death in Natal which may be John. His siblings, however, remained in England.

John’s brother Henry served in the Colonial Service and retired to Devon. In the 1901 census he is recorded in Ide, Devon in the company of his wife Helena and daughter Dorothy, aged 6, born in Penang Straits Settlement. There were also three servants in the household so he must have done reasonably well in his career. He subsequently moved to Jersey and can be found there in the 1911 census.

Margaret Jane, John’s sister, married Joshua Le Bailly, a much older man, a magistrate and banker from Jersey. He died in 1881 and she subsequently married a gentleman with the wonderful name of Wardlaw Cortlandt Anderson who was a Colonel in the Bengal Staff Corps. She seemed to be prospering, but by the 1911 census she and her daughter are found living at Hampton Court Palace with two servants. This is not as grand as it sounds on first impression. By this time the Palace had been converted to grace and favour apartments giving free accommodation in return for husband’s services to the monarch. This again sounds luxurious, but the apartments were often described as “perishingly cold and damp” and having little access to hot water, so perhaps it wasn’t so grand after all.

John Frederick Trotter’s life was certainly colourful, and embraced army service abroad, illness and mental distress, fraud and vagrancy, and possibly ended full circle with his death in the British colonies. There must be much more to the story of this adventurer, waiting to be discovered.

Thomas Dolan and the Hamstead Colliery Disaster

By Pete Gurney

Thomas Dolan was admitted to Burntwood Asylum on 14th October 1908 and was diagnosed with mania. He was 39 years old and was a coal miner. This was the first attack and it had been going on for nine months. He also suffered from seborrhoea (excessively oily skin). His health was impaired due to sudden and prolonged mental stress as he had, in some way, been involved with the Hamstead colliery explosion of 1908. His case perhaps illustrates how someone with existing poor health may have been pushed into the asylum by the sudden trauma of an industrial accident.

Hamstead Colliery pit bottom after the fire of 1908 (Handsworth Historical Society/Birmingham Museums Trust)

Thomas was born in early 1869 in the district of West Bromwich. His father was James Dolan, born in Castlereagh, Ireland and his mother was Henrietta Caseley from Oakengates, Shropshire. Unfortunately, no baptism records are available for Thomas (he was probably Roman Catholic) so his actual date of birth would need to be found from his birth certificate. He had an elder brother, Thomas James, born in 1865 who died in 1868. Younger siblings included Elizabeth (born 1871), Mary (1873), Francis George (1875), Henrietta (1877), Edward (1880), Henry (1882), Ada (1883) and Joseph (1885). Again, no baptism records can be found for any of the children so it must be assumed they were all raised as Roman Catholic.

Thomas appears in both the 1871 and 1881 census with his family in Handsworth, Birmingham. His birthplace is given as Handsworth. On Christmas Day 1890 Thomas married Eliza Green at Trinity Church, West Bromwich. Prior to the wedding they were recorded as living at different numbers in Roebuck Street. The street still exists in West Bromwich but is now given over to industrial premises. By 1904 the couple had five children – Frank, Thomas James, Ellen Elizabeth, Hilda and Ada, all of whom apart from the first survived until at least 1911. The family appears in the 1891 census in West Bromwich and in the 1901 census in Hamstead, at 136 Hamstead Cottages. At the latter date he is described as a coal miner (haulier below ground) and, although there is no direct evidence, he probably worked at Hamstead colliery.

The Hamstead Colliery Disaster commemorated, with insert of the rescue party member, John Welsby, who was killed during the rescue attempt (Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0)

The Hamstead colliery explosion recorded in the asylum admission register was actually a fire and took place on March 4th 1908. The is no evidence that Thomas was directly involved in the fire, but he was almost certainly working at the pit and may have been underground on that day. However, Thomas’s brother Francis George (Frank) was certainly closely involved. The disaster was covered extensively in the press with articles appearing in newspapers from Aberdeen to Plymouth and London.

Frank Dolan was a timekeeper (underground) and, at the time the fire broke out, was at the bottom of Number 1 shaft. It was fortunate that earlier the same week the lifting gear at Number 2 shaft had broken down and hence there were fewer men in the pit than usual. Strangely, there were no trained rescue teams available in the area and two teams had to be sent for from Yorkshire. They arrived the following day and attempted to access the area of the pit where the men were trapped. They found the conditions impossible, with excessive heat and roof collapses barring their way to the area. One of the rescue team, John Welsby, was overcome by heatstroke and sadly died. Twenty-five men had been in the immediate vicinity of the pit and none survived. Both Dolan brothers, further from the fire, survived.

Postcard – the men who perished and the rescue party (Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0)

An inquest was held starting on 25th March, which concluded that the twenty-five miners died of inhalation of fumes and recorded a verdict of accidental death. A subsequent Home Office inquiry led by Professor R.S. Redmayne made a more detailed investigation into the causes of the disaster. Frank Dolan was at the bottom of Number 1 shaft and noticed smoke coming from the workings and tried to get to the water pipe to attempt to control the fire. Unfortunately, the ladder normally left in position had been taken by an electrician to another part of the mine and was not available. In Frank’s opinion the fire started in the candle box situated near the bottom of Number 1 shaft. The inquiry was told that although the candle box was normally locked, the lock had broken some time before. The candle box held sixteen to eighteen dozen pounds of candles tied in bundles. The candles were normally issued to the miners by the cager (or cage loader), but if he was not available the miners would help themselves, although this was against the rules. It was stated that if the miners did not have a knife they would strike a match and burn through the cords binding the bundles. In Frank’s opinion this was the cause of the fire. It was also reported that sometimes candles were left burning close to wooden pit props and this had caused problems with small fires in the past. It seems strange that the normal practice in the mine was to use candles for illumination, but apparently the mine was in the “Staffordshire thick” seam of coal which had a very low risk of gas and candles became the norm. It was reported that various attempts to clear the mine of smoke using the ventilation system were unsuccessful and any rescue attempts were abandoned as impossible. Both the inquest and the subsequent inquiry recommended that the practice of storing candles underground should be banned.

Postcard showing the miners’ last message, scrawled on a door in chalk (Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0)

An appeal was launched very quickly to collect money for the bereaved and the King donated 150 guineas and the Queen £100. By July the fund stood at around £12,000 (over £900,000 in today’s money). A substantial sum was donated to the widow of the rescue team member John Welsby as well as medals and sums of money to other people. Frank Dolan received a silver medal and £10. The fund was also used to support the 490 people made redundant by the disaster (this probably included Thomas Dolan).

The mine disaster lived on in popular folklore, and several amateur poems were published on the subject to raise money for the miners’ relatives, including one by George Baker, ‘The Story of Hamstead Mine’, which began:

Death! Death! O Death, what is it?
Why, horrors, you cannot know,
When entombed like the Hamstead miners,
To whom fire was a terrible blow.

They left their homes both hearty and strong,
To gain the bread for their wives and young,
They planted a kiss on their faces sweet,
But fate destined them no more to meet.

Charity concerts were also given to raise money for the relatives, with a particularly notable one occurring 0n 21st March 1908 at Birmingham’s Theatre Royal, which attracted the world famous music hall artistes Harry Lauder and Vesta Tilley.

Souvenir paper napkin of the disaster (Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0)

A full account of the disaster may be found on the website of the Hamstead Miners Memorial Trust at Hamstead colliery eventually reopened and continued working until 1965 and at one time it was the deepest coal mine in the world.

Thomas Dolan died, still in Burntwood Asylum on 14th March 1909 with the cause of death recorded as ‘general paralysis’ (possibly caused by pre-existing syphilitic infection). His wife Eliza did not survive him long, dying in 1910 and being buried in Handsworth cemetery. At this point the children were found other homes, some with family and others adopted. According to the 1911 census Thomas and Ada were nephew and niece in the house of William and Martha Hipkiss (sister of Eliza Dolan) at 56 Long Lane, Blackheath, Birmingham, whilst Hilda was an adopted daughter in the house of Norman Henry and Ann Maria Parsons at 28 Holt Road, Blackheath. Ellen Elizabeth (Nellie) was an adopted daughter in the house of Thomas and Maria Brookes at 48 Beaumont Road, Blackheath. Interestingly in the 1911 census Thomas Dolan, aged 15, had the unusual occupation of ‘golf ball presser’. It seems that the children all found good homes despite the early death of both their parents. Miners’ lives were always precarious, and their families existed only one accident away from penury. Thankfully, the sudden change in fortunes for the Dolan children brought about by the Hamstead accident did not end in the workhouse.

Elizabeth (Betty) Edge

By Pete and Sue Gurney

Elizabeth (Betty) Edge was born in 1799 in the Longnor parish of the Staffordshire Moorlands. She was the illegitimate daughter of Sarah Edge. Sarah may have had other illegitimate children, but the Edge name was very common in the area, and it appears that there was another Sarah locally with illegitimate children. Consequently, pinning down which people (if any) were Betty’s siblings is not possible.

In 1808 Sarah married Thomas Berresford in the church of St Peter, Alstonefield, also in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Unfortunately, Berresford (or Berisford) was also a common name in the area and tracing Thomas has proved inconclusive.

In the 1841 census Betty Edge appeared in the house of Thomas & Sarah Berisford at Archford Moor, a farmstead near Alstonefield. She was unmarried. Thomas was described as an agricultural labourer. By 1851 Thomas was describing himself as a farmer, and Elizabeth Edge is still in the household and described as stepdaughter, and still unmarried. Thomas was a widower (his wife Sarah, Betty’s mother, died in 1848), born 1783 in Alstonefield, so the family appears to have travelled little.

In 1803 Sarah’s brother Thomas Edge married Ann Kirkham and they had numerous children. They lived at an isolated farm between Longnor and Leek with the wonderful name of  “Noon Sun” which still exists today.

In March 1856 Ann Edge came from Noon Sun farm to live with Thomas Berisford and Betty at Archford Moor, in order to keep house as Betty had been unwell. The house at Archford Moor was small with only one bedroom, and Thomas slept in one bed with Betty and Ann sharing the other.

On the morning of Thursday 24th April 1856 Betty got out of bed leaving Ann asleep and went downstairs. Thomas believed she had gone for a drink of water. Some minutes later she returned with an axe and before Thomas could stop her struck Ann three blows across the head and face. Thomas then prevented her from delivering any further blows and took the axe from her. A neighbour was dispatched to fetch a doctor and the police. The doctor, arriving from Sheen about an hour later, pronounced that Ann had died instantly from the blows and Betty was arrested by Police Constable Critchlow on the charge of “wilful murder”. It appears that after striking Ann Betty had got into Thomas’s bed and remained there unconcerned until the police arrived. A woman named Marsh was called in to assist with dressing her. When charged with the crime Betty said “I don’t know whatever induced me to do it. I cannot tell why I did it. I was in such a heat when I awoke that I went downstairs and fetched it up. After I killed her I meant to kill myself but the heat went off.”

Alstonefield village green, c.1892-95. The George Hotel is behind the trees in the centre. The photo was taken by W.H. Horne of Leek (, donated by Mrs Jean Overend)

Betty was taken to a room next to the George Hotel Alstonefield. She was described as “a stout, healthy looking country woman”. Betty remained in the room at The George until Friday when an inquest was held in the Club Room of the Hotel. On the Thursday Betty had been sullen and morose but on the Friday morning she conversed freely with PC Edis and frequently asked if “the old man”, meaning Thomas, was still alive. At this point it was conjectured that she had meant to kill Thomas and made a mistake, or that she had meant to kill both of them.

The Derby Mercury of 30th April, from which the above details have been taken, also reported “There appears to be an absence of motive for the perpetration of the tragedy – the parties having always lived upon the most friendly terms”, and decribing Ann Edge in the following terms: “The victim was a most industrious woman who procured a livelihood by taking in spinning for ladies resident in the locality”. Ann was buried at Alstonefield on 26th April and, unusually, in the parish register it was noted that she had been murdered.

The inquest took evidence from Thomas Berisford, the police and the doctor. The doctor, Mr Ephraim Matthews Cridge from Sheen described the injuries received by the victim and concluded they had been caused by blows from a blunt instrument such as the head of the axe produced in evidence. He also stated that he had attended Betty in November and December the previous year and treated her for dropsy (an old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water). He had not seen her professionally since 16th December. The inquest jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Betty Edge and she was committed for trial at the next Staffordshire Assizes. On the following Saturday she was taken by train to Stafford gaol by PC Critchlow, and whilst in the train became very violent but was secured and safely taken to her destination.

Betty remained in Stafford gaol until July 1856, and appeared in the Criminal Registers of the 16th July as a prisoner committed for trial. It was noted, however, that she did not stand trial but was removed to Stafford Asylum on the 10th of the month. This was also reported in the Staffordshire Sentinel on 19th July.

The records for Stafford Asylum confirm that she had been admitted on 10th July 1856 when she was described as single, aged 56 and a criminal lunatic. It was also recorded that she lived at Archford Moor and came under Alstonefield Union. She was described as violent and dangerous and “if spoken to does not reply except at intervals when she tells other patients about the crime she committed.” Betty was in a good physical state and was diagnosed with dementia with occasional homicidal tendencies. It was also noted that she had been ill and under medical attendance for some time before murdering her aunt in April.

The treatment given to Betty, as described in the asylum casebook, was very strange by modern standards. It was listed as “diet, alcohol, fed with stomach pump” which must have been most unpleasant. Betty died on 13th December 1856 still in the asylum.

Thomas Berisford did not survive Betty very long, being buried on 16th February 1857 at Alstonefield. The motives for the murder, whether it was the result of momentary insanity or as the result of her longer term illness will never be determined.

Arthur Daniel Mayou

By Susan Large

An unusual name which jumped out at us from the documents of admission for Burntwood asylum was that of Arthur Daniel Mayou. At first this appeared to be a variation on the Irish Mayo, but further investigation suggests that it is an ancient name from Provence.

Arthur’s admission details hinted at an intriguing case. He was admitted to Burntwood asylum on 17 Jan 1896. He was 34 years old, unmarried, and described as a clerk in holy orders. His abode was recorded as Denbigh, which we learn later in the admission entry indicated that he had been a private patient at Denbigh asylum before being transferred to his native Staffordshire. As a patient at Burntwood, it appears that Tamworth Poor Law Union paid for his upkeep.

Arthur had been ill for some time, as he had been certified insane on 31st Oct 1895 and had been experiencing symptoms for at least a year. He was in bad health, and was diagnosed with dementia and general paralysis, but the cause of his illness was unknown.

Arthur’s name proved to be a challenge when researching his life and times. People have not been consistent with the surname over time, as the transcribing in successfully located documents proves. The most common mis-transcription was Mayon, and also:  Major, Majour, Majou, Majoux, Mayor, Mayou, Mayoux, Mayoud, Mayaud, Mayoult, Mayot, Mayet, Mayer, Mayeu, Majoral, Majorel.  However, newspaper reports which were traceable generally showed the correct spelling.

Denbigh asylum (

Arthur Daniel seems to have come from a middle-class Victorian family. His father, John Webster Mayou, born in Appleby Magna, Leicestershire in 1821, was the son of a surgeon, and went on to have his own business as a wool stapler (a dealer in wool), seed merchant, and manufacturer in smallwear in cotton and worsted, employing 140 hands according to the 1851 census. The family were probably quite comfortable economically and socially. In the 1851 edition of White’s Directory John was listed as, Mayou John Webster, woolstapler etc, h. Bonehill Villa – Mayou and Toulson, smallwear manfs, woolstapler etc. The firm was based in Fazeley, near Tamworth. It appears that the partnership with William Tolson was dissolved in April 1860, ‘by mutual consent’, according to the London Gazette.

John Webster Mayou first married in 1846 and had 3 sons in quick succession. Unfortunately his wife died in 1855, and 14 months later he married again and had 3 daughters and 3 sons, one of whom was Arthur Daniel.

They were an affluent family, able to keep servants and the occasional governess.  All the boys went to boarding schools.  The three from the first marriage were fortunate to be very close in age, so they were all contemporaries at the same school in Sutton Coldfield.  Arthur Daniel went to a boarding school in Atherstone, Warwickshire, and the youngest went to Oundle school in Northamptonshire. The final son also went to boarding school, but tracing his alma mater has proved difficult.

Of Arthur’s brothers the eldest, John Webster Jnr., went into the family business. Two of John Webster Snr’s sons from his first marriage became mechanical engineers – Robert William and Charles Marmaduke. 

The story of the brothers took a sad turn in the 1880s, as three of them died young. John Webster Mayou Jnr., the senior partner of Mayou and Watson, died 22nd June 1882, aged 33 in Wilnecote. His inquest concluded that he died of natural causes. Robert William Mayou died 27th October 1890, aged 40 in Strood, Kent. Charles Marmaduke Mayou died of pneumonia in Hull on 7th April 1884, aged 31. He had become a marine engineer, and was presumably stationed in East Yorkshire as part of his job.

Their father had lived long enough to carry out the sad task of burying three of his sons. John Webster Mayou Snr followed the three brothers, dying on 6th April 1890 in Burton on Trent, aged 69. In the space of 8 years Arthur Daniel Mayou’s three elder brothers and his father had all died, leaving him as the male head of the family. This decade of grief and a turnaround in family fortunes must have made a deep impression upon Arthur Daniel in his mid-to-late twenties.

The 1881 census states that Arthur Daniel was an Oxford undergraduate, but on further investigation he doesn’t seem to have had a brilliant academic career.  In the results printed in the Oxfordshire Weekly News of 12th November 1879 the following appears –‘Matriculation – unattached – Arthur Daniel Mayou.’ 

The Reading Mercury of 10th November 1883 lists ‘BA – Arthur Daniel Mayou – unattached.’  It appears that he studied at the Honours School of Modern History in Oxford and was awarded a 4th class degree – unattached. Whether this created family tensions, or affected Arthur Daniel personally cannot be ascertained, but for a public schoolboy from a middle-class professional family, this was not the start in life which would have been expected.

In December 1889 Arthur Daniel was ordained by the Lord Bishop of Chichester, and in the 1891 census appeared as an assistant master at Ardingley, Sussex – an educational facility grounded in the Christian faith.  Arthur Daniel appears to have remained in the Church. In the Lichfield Mercury, dated 6th April 1894, the list of clerical appointments included Rev. Arthur Daniel Mayou, BA, as a curate to Tamworth. He later appears on the Clergy List of 1896 as BA Ox, p 1889, curate 1893 Tamworth.

Sadly, Arthur Daniel’s transfer to from Denbigh to Burntwood would not see an improvement in his condition. The Mid Sussex Times, in their edition of 18th February 1896, reported the death on 8th February of Rev. Arthur Daniel Mayou, late curate of Amington, Tamworth, in his 35th year. There was no indication of a will, and evidence of this will need further investigation.

St. Editha’s Church, Amington, Tamworth (Tamworth Castle Museum/

The Mayou family is a fascinating one, with interesting stories waiting to be told of the two sets of children of John Webster. The fourth son, George Herbert Mayou, moved to Swansea and had 4 daughters and a son (the only male child to any male member of the family). George Herbert was a Brewers Agency Manager and lived to be about 80.

The youngest son Francis Reginald went to Cambridge and is shown on the Electoral Register as living in the Grammar School House in Stratford upon Avon during the late 1890s. The 1901 census contains intriguing details about Francis’s whereabouts – he is shown at Wellington House, Clevedon, Somerset, occupation Schoolmaster, BA Cant.  All those in the House are down as visitors, and there were both men and women.  He died in 1903, aged 33. Interestingly for our story, his will states that he lived in Camberwell House, London at the time of his death. There was a lunatic asylum at this address, which occupied three Georgian houses on the north side of Peckham Road.

There were 3 girls from John Webster’s Snr’s second family. The first is untraceable after the 1871 census when she was 13.  The second headed a cookery and home economics school and lived into her 90s.The youngest died in Canada. Their mother, the second wife of John Webster Snr, survived into her 90s.  There is no evidence of the traceable daughters marrying.

The Mayou family was marked by tragedy, and many young deaths. Two of the brothers died in asylums, and despite Arthur Daniel’s initial promise, he failed to achieve the academic career which might have been expected for the younger sons in a middle-class family. Despite their comfortable position, the family suffered losses which were common across all social strata in the 1800s. This fascinating family surely has more stories to tell.

Mary Titley

By Pete and Sue Gurney

Mary Titley was born Mary Whatmore in 1826 in Wolverhampton. She was the fourth of eight children of Samuel Whatmore, a bricklayer, and Elizabeth his wife. In the 1841 census she is living with her mother and seven siblings in Cleveland Road, Wolverhampton close to where the Royal Hospital was built a few years later, her father having died a few days before the census. She married William Titley, a shoemaker, on 22nd January 1849 in Wolverhampton. Surprisingly for those times Mary was literate although her husband was not.

In the 1851 census Mary was living with her husband William, a shoemaker, and their first child Emma in Bushbury Lane, Wednesfield. They went on to have five further children, Ann (1851), Lydia (1853), Fanny (1854), George (1855) and Joseph (1857) although Fanny and George both died in infancy. They were all baptised in either Wednesfield or Wednesfield Heath.

On the 26th June 1858 Mary was admitted to Stafford Asylum as a criminal lunatic although no documentary evidence can be found to establish why she was described as criminal. She was also described as a pauper, married with four children and a housewife. The Union responsible was Wednesfield. According to the admission register her husband had treated her badly. Further information on the admission register says she was Church of England, could read and write, had no previous mental illness and the current illness had lasted 1 month. She was described as suicidal and violent although she was in a good physical state. As well as the bad treatment from her husband the cause of her problems was stated to be poverty and privation. She obviously made progress over the following months as she was discharged, recovered, on 25th May 1859.

Unfortunately, it appears she relapsed, as on the 10th March the following year she was arrested on the charge of wilful murder having killed her 2½-year-old son Joseph in horrific circumstances. An inquest was held on the 12th March at the Rose and Crown, Wednesfield before Mr W H Phillips, Deputy Coroner. Police Constable Pepper gave evidence that Mrs Titley had told him she had killed her child in order that she might be hanged. Mary was declared insane and committed for trial at Stafford Assizes. She was directed to be held in strict custody. Due to the circumstances of the murder the details of the inquest and subsequent trial were reported all over the country. The reports disagreed on some of the details as a number of them described the child as a girl although the official records all agree that the child was Joseph.

Print after Paul Renouard (1845-1924), ‘Woking convict invalid prison, 5 women prisoners convicted of infanticide’, from The Graphic, London 21st Sep 1889 (Wellcome collection, CC BY 4.0)

The trial was held at Stafford Assizes on 16th March 1860 before Mr Justice Keating, with Mr McMahon as counsel for the prosecution and Mr Scotland appearing for the prisoner. The Staffordshire Advertiser of Saturday 17th March 1860 covered the trial at length. Mary, who was 33 years old, was described as looking 10 years older. The newspaper report also said “The unhappy woman, who was attired in a black silk bonnet, coarse plaid shawl and cotton dress, appeared altogether unconscious of the heinousness of the crime with which she was charged and stood during her trial with her eye vacantly fixed on the opposite wall, apparently listless of the proceedings around her”. On being called to plead she said “I certainly murdered the baby, Sir. I am guilty”.

The facts of the case were then presented to the court. Again, to quote the Staffordshire Advertiser article “On Saturday night last between eleven and twelve o’clock the prisoner, who is the wife of William Titley shoemaker of Wednesfield, was nursing her boy when she nearly severed his head with a razor. Her husband instantly ran into a neighbour’s house and related what had taken place and then returned with Mrs Jackson, the neighbour, to his own house. The prisoner was sitting in a chair, the dead body of her child resting on her lap with his head almost off. Her clothes and those of the child were covered with blood of which there was a large quantity on the floor. After looking at Mrs Jackson for some time without speaking, the prisoner asked if she did not think the child had gone to heaven,  adding that she had intended to destroy herself but had killed the child as she thought he would have no sin to answer for.”

Evidence was taken from Mark Noble Bower MD, medical officer of the County Lunatic Asylum and Mr Robert Hughes, surgeon of the county prison. Mr Bower declared that he had treated Mrs Titley when she was in the asylum the previous year and in his opinion she was totally insane. Mr Hughes disagreed but the judge decided that the opinion of Mr Bower was more relevant as he specialised in mental health issues. The jury agreed with the judge and found Mary insane. Technically she was acquitted on the grounds of insanity, but the judge directed that she should be confined in a proper asylum during Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Trial for infanticide by mothers was not at all uncommon in the nineteenth century, and although Mary’s fate may seem a grim one to us, the acquittal rate, whether by means of insanity or other factors, was very high. Many women suffering from puerperal mania (post-natal mania or psychosis), which affects perhaps one in five hundred new mothers, were admitted to asylums (perhaps up to 15% of the asylum population nationwide), and such cases which had led to the death a child were often dealt with more sympathetically than our modern understandings of Victorian justice would allow for. Courts were very open to the argument of temporary insanity after childbirth and thinking at the time believed that the moral wrong involved could be atoned for with treatment.

Motherhood was seen as so natural a state, and an innate part of femininity, that any transgression of it must have rendered the perpetrator insane. Robert Browning wrote, ‘womanliness means only motherhood: all love begins and ends there.’ Accepting insanity as a plea made it easier for courts to deal with the incredibly difficult social issues of a woman transgressing her natural instincts towards a child. ‘Leniency’ in child murder cases did not go unquestioned, and the notorious case in the 1860s of Esther Lack, who murdered three of her children claiming her fears of starvation and mental disturbance drove her to it, and the court’s decision that she was unbalanced due to previous pregnancies, led to widespread debate about the ‘epidemic’ of infanticide cases. The willingness of courts to reach a conclusion of insanity caused by childbirth and its effects was scrutinised, with The Times amongst others questioning the ‘loose’ definitions involved.

Mary, like many mothers before and after her, was admitted to Stafford Asylum on 3rd April 1860 as a criminal lunatic but was transferred by warrant of the Secretary of State to Broadmoor on the 17th June 1863. She appears in the quarterly returns of Broadmoor until she died there on the 26th December 1866. She was buried on 1st January 1867 at St Michael’s Church, Sandhurst with her residence declared as Broadmoor Asylum. Strangely her age was given as 56 although she was only actually 41 years old.

Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, Broadmoor, Sandhurst, Berkshire. Illustrated London News, 1867
(Wellcome collection, CC BY 4.0)

Despite the tragedy the remaining members of the Titley family seemed to have stayed together as in the 1861 census William and the remaining children Emma, Ann and Fanny are together in Wednesfield. By the 1871 census Emma was just about to be married, Ann was with her aunt Jane and Fanny was a servant in the house of Samuel Pickering, lock and latch maker, next door to her father. Whilst Mary was a tragic figure, caught up in the mental distress of childbirth and childrearing under difficult circumstances, the rest of the family seem to go on to lead normal lives.

Further Reading:

Emma Butcher, ‘A most ‘barbarous and revolting murder’, History Today, 5 Aug 2015 (

Hilary Marland, Dangerous Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain (Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).

‘Infant killing and the Victorian mother’,

Matilda Stockley

By Mike & Sue Bulmer

Matilda Stockley was admitted to Stafford asylum on 18th Dec 1875. She had been born in 1847, was single, and working as a cook at the home of the Hon. Reverend Bridgeman’s home in Weston-under-Lyzard. Her entry notes record that she was chargeable to Shifnal union. Her religion was Church of England, she had been ill for six days, and had paranoid delusions, talking a great deal about religion

Matilda was born in West Bromwich in 1847 and grew up near the centre of Oldbury. Oldbury and the immediate surrounding area was home to many industries which damaged the health of those who worked in them. Smoke pollution was an ever-present problem. When growing up in the town in the 1850s, Matilda’s environment would have been a noisy, dirty and polluted one.

During the nineteenth century, the situation in Oldbury was typical of many other parts of the country in respect to provision of sanitation and clean water supplies. Numerous Parliamentary reports, bills and acts highlighted this ongoing problem. A report in 1856 covering Oldbury stated that water was only available from wells or springs, within, or adjacent to, the town, and needed to be transported to people’s homes. This situation was repeated in several Black Country towns, so a means of providing an adequate water supply to the district began to be explored.

The solution was for a private company, South Staffordshire Waterworks, to provide the towns with water. An act of Parliament was obtained in 1853 to take this forward. In 1858 the Black Country town of Walsall received their first piped water supply. Walsall was closely followed by Wednesbury and Darlaston (1859), and Tipton (1860). However, the population of Oldbury had to wait until 1862 for water to arrive in their town. The problem of sewage and waste disposal also worsened over this period, due to the town’s growing population. Large numbers of deaths from preventable diseases were to be the outcome of an inadequate sewage system.

Many workers in Oldbury were employed in the chemical industries which manufactured poisonous substances. Messrs Albright and Wilson Ltd, founded in 1856, were the main manufacturers of phosphorus in England. By 1863 they employed 60–80 men. One of the first methods used to transfer lethal white phosphorus was by the workman sucking it up a tube. Phosphorus poisoning was one of the first four industry related diseases to be officially recognised as occupational hazards.

In 1865, there were 25,000 workers in the South Staffordshire coal field, which encompassed most of the Black Country. It is probable that a good many of these workers suffered from pneumoconiosis, or silicosis, debilitating diseases which became visible after many years of working in the mines. The other main dust producing industry in Oldbury was the edge tool works of William Hunt and Sons which employed 150 men in 1848. Workers in this industry suffered from grinders’ asthma. The dust contained minute particles of metal, and led to a very painful demise, similar to consumption. These work-related illnesses led to invalidity from work, poverty, and premature deaths.

Matilda was born into this industrial landscape, and in the 1851 census, she was 2 years old. She was one of nine children. The road she lived on was surrounded by collieries and brickworks. The male members of the family were employed as ‘pit sinkers.’ John, Matilda’s father, was a pit sinker, as was 16-year-old John Jnr. and 14-year-old Benjamin. Matilda’s third brother Mark was aged only 10 but was also employed in this arduous work.

A pit sinker was a highly skilled man who ‘sank’ (i.e. dug) the shafts for coal mines. Skilled sinkers were in great demand and moved from colliery to colliery to dig shafts, and were usually employed by a specialist contractor. One known pit sinker moved around all over the north of England and Scotland. Sinkers often lived in purpose built temporary buildings, as navvies had when building railways and canals, but the Stockley family may have had enough work locally in the South Staffs coalfield to stay in one location.

Digging the top layers down to the bedrock was relatively easy, but then the work became harder. The spoil was removed in a giant bucket on a pulley, whilst the men shored up the pit walls initially with wood, and later with brick. The dangers were manifold, not made easier by the haste to complete the work, as sinkers were paid per yard completed. In the dangerous world of colliery work, pit sinking was one of the most arduous and hazardous jobs. This was the life and environment into which Matilda was born and grew up.

However, the young Matilda’s life was turned upside down in 1857 when her mother Sarah died, and in mid-1859 her father John also died. Their deaths were recorded in West Bromwich, and so the family appear to have lived in the same area for many years, indicating that pit sinking was common enough in the coal field to keep the family in employment.

After the 1851 census Matilda’s younger siblings become untraceable, but her elder siblings do make some mark on the official record. Two of Matilda’s older sisters were living in the same household in the following census of 1861, and their employer appears to be one William Fisher. Emma was working as a nurse & Alice was working as a domestic servant. Emma was 20, and Alice was 18.

The search for Matilda, however, takes in a wider geographical spread and stretches as far as Merseyside. Matilda was still only 12 in 1861, but seems to be working as a servant at an address in West Derby. The head of house was the wife of a Master mariner, who was presumably at sea on census day. The mariner’s wife, Elizabeth Wescott, was 31 and had two young children, the eldest only 3 years younger than their servant girl. Confirming that this is the correct Matilda is possible – she was of the right age and is from Staffordshire.

The British census of 1891 found that 1.3 million girls and women worked as domestic servants in Victorian England. Many were recruited between the ages of 10 and 13, and Matilda appears to have been one of them. Bearing in mind the loss of her parents and the scattering of her family, finding work in a house many miles from her former family home is perfectly feasible.

1960s photograph of St. Andrews, Weston-Under-Lizard (photograph County Archaeology Department/

By the time of the 1871 census, Matilda had moved back to Oldbury and was working as a domestic cook in the house of Samuel Rhodes, a glass blower, in Titford Road. Whether her cookery skills had been nurtured in her previous work is unclear. The other young woman in the house was Emma Caddick, a 16 year old servant to the household. Matilda was listed as a visitor (rather than a resident), and so may have been working there temporarily, or intermittently –  and she may also have been working at Weston-Under-Lizard.

The next record of Matilda’s life is her entry into Stafford Asylum, when she was described as the cook at the Hon. Reverend Bridgeman’s home. The diagnosis about delusions and talking a great deal about religion may have come from her time spent in the home of the Rector of Weston-under-Lizard.

Weston-Under-Lizard is on the Staffordshire Border with Shropshire, and is the location of Weston Hall, the home of the Bridgemans. Weston Hall was built by Sir Thomas and Lady Wilbraham in 1671, and Lady Wilbraham is believed to have been the architect. In 1762 the Hall and Park passed to the Bridgeman family, later Earls of Bradford (second creation). Weston Park was landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1760s.

The Hon. Reverend John Robert Orlando Bridgeman was the Rector of St. Andrew’s Church, including the parish of Weston-Under-Lizard and the whole of Weston Park, which was owned by his father George Bridgeman, Second Earl of Bradford. Matilda’s employer had attended Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, and as a younger son of an aristocrat a career in the Church was acceptable, even expected. Reverend John’s uncle, Orlando, suffered from mental illness, and has been written about by June Ellis, which we hope to feature as a blog post in the near future.

The church of St. Andrew adjoins Weston Hall, and was in the gift of the Earl, who unsurprisingly gave his son the living of the parish. The church is medieval in origin, but was rebuilt by Lady Wilbraham in 1700-1701, following her architectural update of the Hall. The vestry and Bridgeman family chapel were added in 1876-1877 by Ewan Christian, most famous for restoring Southwell Minster.

George Bridgeman 2nd Earl of Bradford by Sir George Hayter (1835) (Wikimedia commons CC BY)

The comparison with Matilda’s early life must have been considerable; from pit sinkers daughter whose mother and father were dead. Whilst still a servant, expected to work incredibly hard over many long hours, the environs of Weston Hall were a world away from the environmental degradation of Oldbury. We can only surmise that she may have taken to the life ‘downstairs’ in a country house. Having lived possibly for many years at the house of the third son of the Earl, she may well have travelled with him in her role as cook, meeting a lot of the ruling class and also being influenced with the constant exposure to religion.

For some reason, however, Matilda ended up in the asylum. She was discharged on 29th Apr 1876, and her notes say that she was ‘recovered.’ We have not yet discovered any evidence as to whether she returned to her job as cook at Weston.

Matilda next appeared in the 1881 census, where her surname was misspelt as ‘Matilda Stakley’. At this stage in her life, aged 34, she was working as a cook at the home of Morgan Jones in Llandygwydd, Cardiganshire. He was described on the census as Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant. There were 6 live-in servants, so Morgan Jones’ wealth and influence must have been considerable. Matilda was the only person in the household that was not from Cardigan. Perhaps this employment was found through the networks of the aristocracy for whom she had been working.

Later in 1881 Matilda married a John Ford. The marriage appears to have taken place in Cardiff, perhaps indicating that this was someone she had met whilst working in Wales. The rest of Matilda’s life is still undiscovered and may hold further interesting stories. As we leave her in 1881, it appears that her asylum experience – caused, we can only guess, by the stress of work, religious fixations, or some other factors – is behind her. Hopefully, the asylum continued to remain a past memory.

Patrick Malia

By Mike and Sue Bulmer, and Steve Cunniffe

Patrick Malia was admitted to Stafford asylum on 11th June 1895. He was 28, unmarried, Roman Catholic and his upkeep was paid for by Wolverhampton Poor Law union.

He had been ill for a week at least, was epileptic and violent, was recovering from an attack of delirium tremens, and was suffering from violent delusions. He was described as ‘strongly built, with several bruises and scars’, and so may well have been a physical challenge to the attendants.

His medical notes claim that his illness was mania with epilepsy, caused by alcoholism and insolation (or sunstroke). This is perhaps explained by another note in the casebook – he was an ex-soldier, who had served in India and Zululand. Heatstroke was not uncommon in the services. Boredom in the forces also often led to excessive alcohol intake. Ultimately, Patrick’s epilepsy had caused him to be discharged from the army.

The main ‘treatment’ he was offered whilst in the hospital was work on the wards. Keeping patients active and mentally occupied was a common way of reducing their symptoms and trying to offer respite. He stayed for 8 months until 3 February 1896, when he was discharged ‘to care of friends’. Whether he had significantly improved during his time in the asylum is hard to judge, from the notes made about him.

Patrick was born in Wolverhampton in March 1866, and according to records baptised the following month at St. Patrick’s Church (or at least in St. Patrick’s Parish, as the church was possibly not yet built). The Catholic population of Wolverhampton rose from 600 in 1800, to 5,500 at the time of the 1881 census. Irish families from Galway, Roscommon and Mayo in the poorest parts of Western Ireland formed the bulk of this increased population, especially during and after the famine of the 1840s.

In 1865 the Catholic parish of St Patrick was founded in Wolverhampton, and land purchased for the building of a church. The foundation stone of St Patrick’s Church was laid in 1866 by Father O’Sullivan at the corner of Littles Lane and Carberry Street (now Westbury Street).

The church served all the local Catholics, but particularly those in ‘Carribee Island’, the heart of industrial Wolverhampton. The island was bounded by Stafford Street, Back Lane, Carberry Street and Canal Street (later Broad Street). Father Walter Hall became the first priest, and he oversaw the building of the church, which was designed in the fashionable Gothic style by Edward Welby Pugin, the eldest son of A.W.N. Pugin.

It is likely that Patrick’s family had been amongst the relatively recent Irish arrivals in the Black Country. For Patrick’s later life, his military records are one of the few means we have for tracing his journey towards Stafford asylum.

In the context of Wolverhampton in 1885, Patrick and his Irish family would most probably have been surrounded by many other Irish families, perhaps in ‘Caribee Island’, and the prospect of working as a labourer in the chemical industries/iron & steel/mining would be looming on the horizon for many young men.

The attractions of army life ranged beyond military matters. Campaigning in Africa fulfilled desires for adventure and foreign travel. Young soldiers would experience an exotic continent that most of their families and friends never would. It was far from unusual for Irish born and ethnically Irish men to join the army. Up to a third of the British army in the nineteenth century were Irish born or Irish in origin.

North Staffordshire Regiment (64th Foot), c.1900 (Wikimedia commons CC BY)

The military was an opportunity for adventure, and for the potential to better your lot in life. As Sergeant J. F. Bolshaw (17th Lancers) wrote from Zululand: ‘If I ever do return again I shall be quite a rich man, as we cannot spend any money here. All our pay is saved.’

Patrick Malia joined the North Staffordshire Regiment on 9th October 1885. His enlistment papers give his birthplace as St. Peter’s Parish, Wolverhampton – which covers the centre of the town around the Collegiate Church of St. Peter – indicating that Patrick was born near the centre of town, possibly in the Irish enclave as discussed earlier. He was 19 years and 7 months old and listed as a labourer.

The North Staffordshire Regiment was formed as The Prince of Wales’s (North Staffordshire) Regiment during the 1881 Army reforms, by merging the 64th (2nd Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot and the 98th (The Prince of Wales’s) Regiment of Foot. These became the new unit’s 1st and 2nd Battalions respectively. It inherited the 64th’s association with Staffordshire, and was made the regiment for the north of the county. Many of its recruits came from Burton-upon-Trent, Stafford, Stoke-on-Trent and Tamworth.

The 1st Battalion was in Ireland when the merger occurred. It moved to England two years later, and then to the West Indies in 1884. It was deployed in Natal, South Africa in 1887, remaining there until 1890, when it moved to Mauritius. These dates fit well with Patrick’s army documents.

On enlisting, his medical took place at Lichfield and there were no serious problems highlighted. Patrick was measured as 5ft 10” and weighed just over 9 stone. This would be a healthy BMI today. He had a ‘fresh’ complexion, brown hair and blue eyes.

Patrick’s army record can be found on his Military History Sheet:

6th Oct 1885 – 30th Dec 1886 – Home

31st Dec 1886 – 4th Dec 1888 – South Africa

5th Dec 1888 – 20th April 1890 – Mauritius

21st April 1890 – 13th May 1890 – Home

Patricks problems seem to have started in May 1889 after 4 years in the army, during which he would have been involved in the continued tensions with the Zulu nation, and the run up to the Second South African War (Boer War) in 1899.

Patrick’s medical record indicates that all was not well long before he left active service. He was diagnosed with epilepsy and also eclampsia. There seem to be quite a few instances of epilepsy in the following months whilst in Mauritius. The regiment at this time was in Curepipe, the location of the British barracks, between mid-July 1889 and February 1890.

Mauritius – the view from Curepipe (Wikimedia commons, CC BY)

Being on the island would seem at first sight to have been the perfect place to recuperate after being away from home for years, mostly in South Africa on active duty. A letter written by an officer gives an insight into island life, however, and it was far from paradise. George Hawes was Captain and adjutant in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers when they were given a two-year posting to Mauritius after serving in South Africa for three years. He wrote in 1908:

Mauritius is an absurd place, and what they want with a whole regiment here beats me, unless it is to keep the very unsavoury locals in order. The island is about 40 miles by 30 miles, more or less round, and our barracks are at a place called Curepipe, somewhere about in the middle. It is very beautiful in an unhealthy sort of way, and the vegetation, owing to the fact that it is in the tropics and that it rains over 300 days in the year, magnificent. The main industry is sugar-growing, though the sugar one buys for the mess, owing to some trade nonsense, comes from England, 9,000 miles away.

The barracks are very luxurious, and well they may be, for there are no compensations in this exile. It is a wretched place to spend one’s adjutancy in. There are about 50 different races in the island, the majority being Indians, who work on the sugar plantations.

There are a lot of old French families living here. The two principal professions are lawyers and doctors – lawyers because these people are always quarrelling, doctors because they are always getting abscesses on the liver from too much drink. It is the sort of place where any vice one had would be sure to be developed to the utmost.

This sounds like a posting which would exacerbate any problem drinking amongst soldiers, due to sheer boredom. It was Patrick’s epilepsy diagnosis, however, which ended his military career. Epilepsy is usually only diagnosed if a doctor thinks there is a high chance that the person could have more seizures, and so it would seem to be only a matter of time before Patrick was discharged. The army surgeon seems to have observed Patrick during an episode of epilepsy and recommended that he be discharged from the army. Patrick’s medical record contains a note by the M.O. – ‘certified that I have seen No. 1821 P Malia, 1st North Stafford Regiment in a true epileptic fit, Surgeon Curepipe Camp 23rd Jan 1890.’

A potassium bromide patent cure from France (wellcome collection, CC BY 4.0)

On several occasions, Patrick’s fits were treated with chloral hydrate and potassium bromide. Chloral hydrate, a general sedative, was discovered in 1832 and became a common drug used in psychiatric treatment in the later 1800s. Because it was a fast acting sedative, it became a popular drug in asylums. Sir Charles Locock first described the anti-convulsant properties of potassium bromide in 1857, and it became the first effective drug treatment for epilepsy. Locock thought, as many did at the time, that epilepsy was caused by sexual excitement, and believed that bromide’s ability to quell this was the root of its success against epileptic seizures. Potassium bromide became ubiquitous in treating nervous disorders in the late nineteenth century, to the extent that a single hospital often used several tons of it a year. Its use in treating epilepsy was only overtaken by the introduction of phenobarbital in 1912. The use of it to quell soldiers’ sexual appetites however appears to be a myth. From his record, it appears that Patrick was receiving the correct medication as the medical profession understood it, and that after each epileptic episode he received medical attention. He was also periodically kept under observation in case of fits.

We haven’t yet been able to discover what happened to Patrick between leaving the army in 1890 and becoming a resident in Stafford asylum in 1895, but we can surmise that his life continued through periodic crises. On admission he was still suffering from epilepsy, alcoholism and, surprisingly for Wolverhampton, sunstroke – although this could well have been from an earlier episode during his time in the tropics and in southern Africa. Homelessness and worklessness was a problem for many discharged soldiers, and several charities were established to try to find them work, such as the National Association for the Employment of Ex-Soldiers, founded in 1885. We can only guess at his circumstances after discharge, and whether he had a home to go to, or whether he became homeless and jobless, as so many disabled ex-servicemen did.

At the time of the 1901 census, Patrick was again a patient in the asylum, after his first discharge in 1896. His life after his asylum residency is also obscure, although a Patrick Malia died in the 1920s, but the age recorded is six years too low – this could of course be an error by a clerk or doctor.

Patrick’s story illustrates the adventures and dangers of army life for a young man from a poor background in the late 1800s. The army could be an escape, but it could also encourage hard drinking, and if illness ensued, a discharge and the lack of support for ex-soldiers could mean very hard times indeed. The treatment of epilepsy, as shown in Patrick’s case, was still in its infancy, and although the army doctors prescribed the correct treatment for the times, they were only superseded by more effective treatment many years later. The treatments offered at the time for all mental illnesses and other conditions in the asylums largely amounted to sedatives and occupational therapy, as this one case among many illustrates.

Samuel Adcock

By Mike & Sue Bulmer

Samuel Adcock was admitted to Stafford asylum on 22nd October 1894. His case shows how the army was not a place for some men with particular personality traits, and how army service could lead to severe problems, if an individual’s temperament was disinclined towards military discipline.

Samuel was born in 1872, and was unmarried when admitted to the asylum. He was described on admittance as a soldier, with a history of previous attacks of mental illness. He had already been a patient at Moulsford asylum in Berkshire. His treatment was to be paid for by Wolverhampton Poor Law union. Samuel’s illness had lasted some time, according to his admission notes. His illness manifested in ‘rambling statements, many delusions.’ He was ‘fairly well nourished, 9st in weight, diagnosis – mania, cause – not known.’ A contributory factor was believed to be two years imprisonment for striking an officer.

Tracing back through Samuel’s life, a history of anti-social behaviour begins to emerge, perhaps caused by an unsettled childhood, as well as possible underlying mental health problems.

The 1871 census is the first official document in which we find Samuel, as a 7-month-old child. His father John was 55 years old, and was born in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. He was listed as a chimney sweep. John’s wife Jane was aged only 22, and was born in Lambeth.

Living with them in their house in St. Mark’s Ward, Wolverhampton, was 13-year-old Suzannah, who must have been by John’s previous wife. Interestingly, Suzannah had been born in Norfolk. Their next child, Jane, was aged 2 at the time of the census and had been born in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. And finally, Samuel was the youngest, aged 7 months and born in Wolverhampton. For some reason, John Adcock had travelled widely in his life, and further investigation is required to trace his previous wife and domestic details.

John and Jane’s first child (also named Jane) was born in the first quarter of 1869, and it is likely that her parents married just before or just after her birth. A record exists of a marriage between John Adcock and Jane Gilday (or Gulday) on 26th January 1869. They were both resident in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, just over the county boundary from Berkhamsted. Jane Gilday may have been from Birmingham. Their son Samuel was born in the third quarter of 1870 which matches up well with the census date of April 2nd 1871. His baptism is recorded on 18th October 1870, in the parish of St. Peter, Wolverhampton. Rev. Charles Bodington performed the ceremony, and, interestingly, John’s profession is recorded as carpenter. At some point between early 1869 and late 1870, the couple had found themselves relocated to the Black Country.

A death record exists for ‘John Adcock’ which could well be the same man. It appears that Samuel’s father died when he was about 3 years old. There is no sign of Samuel in the 1881 census and he disappears from view for most of the next decade, until he reappears in prison records in 1889. The charge was begging on 2nd September 1889 in Cheltenham, and he was sent to the County Goal later that month. These events do not seem to bode well for Samuel. At the time of his arrest, he gave his profession as labourer. One year later he decided to join the British army. The enlistment documents record his details and mention that he was living in Gloucester at the time of enlistment.

He joined the South Wales Borderers at Brecon. His attestation record was dated 14th November 1890, and he was living in Gloucester at the time. Further documents mention his medical condition which seemed to be good. He was 5ft 5¾in tall, with brown eyes and a sallow complexion.

On part of a document there is an entry for next of kin. Samuel’s mother is named as Jane George, living at an address near to Cannock. She remarried, understandably,  as she was still a young woman at the time of her husband’s death – perhaps Samuel didn’t settle with his new father, or perhaps he was turfed out at a young age and ended up begging on the streets. We cannot be sure, but such a scenario would perhaps explain how his wayward path through life began.

His statement of service is perhaps the most telling document we have discovered about Samuel’s personality. His Army career was not one to be proud of:

On 11th July 1891 he deserted, and was recaptured and awaiting trial by early the next year. He was convicted on 26th January 1892, meaning that ‘all prior service (was) forfeited by conviction for desertion’.

He was returned to duty as a Private in March. Later that year he struck an NCO, the result of which was 2 year’s imprisonment with hard labour. Samuel spent 1 year and 338 days in the army, and a total of 164 days in military gaols not including his 2 years imprisonment.

He was dismissed from the Army on 10th October 1892. The sentence as previously mentioned was 2 years Imprisonment with hard labour – his release date would be around 10th of October 1894. Soon after this he finds himself in Stafford Asylum, on 22nd October.

Whilst in the asylum, his treatment consisted mainly of work therapy, according to his admission notes. His time in the hospital did not seem to offer him immediate relief, and a note exists of a suicide attempt in October 1904.

Sadly, whatever troubled Samuel could not be salved by the asylum’s treatment, and there is a death notice for Samuel Adcock in 1910 in Stafford – we must assume that he died without ever leaving the asylum again. Life in the army was tough in the late 1800s, and it seems that Samuel’s temperament did not suit it. For someone seemingly on the margins of society at the time of his enlistment, the army still often served as the ‘employer of last resort’. He may have had pre-existing mental health problems before his enlistment, but his army experience may have been the step which consolidated his problems and led to his sad death in 1910.

Harry Bickerton: A First World War Case

By Mike and Sue Bulmer

1915 was the year when the Great War intensified, with the beginnings of an air campaign against Home Front targets, and continued developments on an increasingly static Western Front – the first use of poison gas at the second battle of Ypres, and the stalemate of the battle of Loos.

Although most army psychiatric casualties found themselves in the new ‘War Hospitals’ established at several mental hospitals up and down the country, other cases received treatment in mental hospitals which were still serving the civilian population, such as Cheddleton asylum.

Harry Bickerton was admitted to Cheddleton on 11th August 1915. He was 21, had been born in about 1894 in Wolstanton, was a pauper (paid for by a Poor Law union), single, and had worked as a grocer’s porter. He had no known previous attacks of mental illness, and had been ill on this occasion for at least two months. His notes state that his health was poor, and he had primary dementia, with the contributory causes of dyspepsia, insane neurosis, alcoholic heredity and war worry. The medical notes therefore indicate that Harry was considerably unwell, and from a variety of causes and with various symptoms.

Tracing Harry’s history back to the turn of the century, he appears in the 1901 census as a 7-year-old boy. At the time he lived with his parents and four siblings in Wolstanton. His father Thomas was 38, and worked as a ‘potter’s earth handler’, making handles for ceramic ware. Thomas’s wife Lizzie was 32. James was 16 and did the same job as his father, as did 14-year-old Samuel. Three other children were not yet of working age – William 10, Fanny 9 and Harry 7.

Handle making in the 1930s (Stoke on Trent Museums/

By 1911 family circumstances had not changed a great deal, but the family were living at a different address, still in the Wolstanton area. Thomas and Samuel are still potter’s handlers, William Bickerton is 20 and an assistant at a boot shop, Fanny is 19 and an apprentice dressmaker, and Harry, 17, a grocer’s porter. James must have set up home on his own, most probably after getting married.

On the census we get more information on Lizzie and Thomas’s marriage. They had been married for 20 years but there are children that predate this marriage. Harry’s father was previously married, and this first wife died at the very young age of 29. Samuel was born very close to her death. Harry thus has step-brothers only 7 and 9 years older, a not uncommon set of circumstances at a time when child mortality and the survival rate of women who have given birth left much to be desired.

In 1914, only a couple of months after the outbreak of WW1, Harry married Minnie Simpson. In the 1911 census, Minnie was living on a street in Wolstanton, with John and Harriet her parents. John was a bricklayer, a heavy and difficult job. Minnie was 13 and working in a tile warehouse. Three years later, Minnie was a 16-year-old bride, and still working in the pottery industry.

The 1911 census also tells part of the story of Minnie’s mother – tragically, she had given birth 17 times and had lost 7 of her children. With four children still at home, Harriet’s remaining six children must have established their own homes or have been living elsewhere.

Happily, for Harry and Minnie, their first child William was born in 1915, between April and June. His birth must have virtually coincided with Harry deciding to join the Army. Harry went ahead with his plans to join up and enlisted on 6th April 1915.

Harry’s attestation forms detail that he is a 23-year-old potter, and had never been in the army or served as a reservist before. His married address is on a street adjacent to Minnie’s parents’ house. Harry was not tall – 5ft 1¾in, with auburn hair and grey eyes. Some of the army documents are hard to read, but a stamp seems to indicate that he was in the Sherwood Foresters.

It seems that Harry’s army career was cut short by his admittance into Cheddleton on 11th August 1915, after 5 months army service. He had general poor health, and as we can see from his medical notes he was in substantial mental distress. He was officially discharged from the army six weeks later on 29th September 1915.

His official discharge information was that he was ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’. What happened to Harry and Minnie for the rest of the war needs further research, but their second child, Lily, was born in 1919 suggesting that Harry had left Cheddleton hospital sometime in 1918. Sadly Harry died in July 1919, and the registration district of Newcastle suggests that he was not in Cheddleton asylum at the time. This time did coincide with the third wave of Spanish flu to affect Stoke-on-Trent, so we can only speculate that that may have been a contributory factor. Sadly, Minnie died soon after, also at a desperately young age. The family was gone, and William and Lily were left as orphans.

Francis Cunningham, Soldier

By Mike & Sue Bulmer

Francis Cunningham was admitted to Stafford asylum on 2nd April 1895. He was around 35 years old, had been born in 1860, was unmarried and was funded by Stoke on Trent Poor Law union. Francis had been working as a labourer, had been ill for three days and was violent and dangerous when admitted. His notes list him as a Roman Catholic.

On admission Francis, like all patients, was given a medical and psychiatric assessment: ‘delusions, fear and suspicions. Health fair. Tall, thinly nourished, weight 10st. Heart and lungs not satisfactory. Appeared to be suffering from heavy drinking bout. No marks of violence.’ The conclusion was that he was suffering from acute mania, caused by intemperance.

Francis had been a soldier for 9 years and served in India. On first inspection of his asylum records, Francis’s story seems straightforward, but on further inspection his life is more intriguing.

Francis was born of an Irish family, but there appears to be no reference to them in the 1861 census. His sister Mary is mentioned in the 1871 census, and her birth is given as occurring in Staffordshire in 1854. The family must have moved to England before her birth, perhaps driven by the potato blight and the ensuing mass migrations from 1845 onwards.

Francis was baptised at his local Catholic church, St. Gregory’s in Longton, on 1st September 1861. His mother was Anna (given in the Latin baptism record as Hannah) Cunningham nee Corcoran, and his father Francis Cunningham Snr. His godparents were Michael Kelly and Maria Kelly, Irish friends or relatives of the couple.

St. Gregory’s, Longton, c.1910-30 (Potteries Museum & Art Gallery/

In the 1871 census, Francis lives with his six siblings at Berry Bank in Longton. Francis Snr is working as a labourer,  17 year old Mary is a potter’s paper cutter, Thomas and John, both 13 and so possibly twins, are working in a pottery, as is 11 year old Catherine who is also a paper cutter. The whole of the family of working age, except for their father, are bringing in wages from the local pottery industry, and very likely the same pottery. Francis, Ellen and Patrick are still all of school age.

However, 1871 would prove to be a terrible year for the family, as a tragedy occurred not long after the census. The census day was 2nd April 1871. The death of Francis’s 11-year-old sister Catherine is recorded in the second quarter of the year, so she must have died within weeks of the census.

Another tragedy occurred in 1880 when Francis’ father died at the age of 58, which for the times was not altogether a bad age after a life of manual labour.

By the 1881 census the family are depleted, and living on Berry Lane in Longton, which could be the same house recorded earlier, or very close by. Francis’s mother is now known as Marianne on the census, and is listed as a widow. Francis is now 19 years old and is working as a pottery labourer. With the exception of his youngest sister Ann, and 23-year-old John who is a bricklayer’s labourer, all the children in the house are working at the pottery, as labourers transferrers and burnishers. Six children, aged from 26 down to 6, are still living in the family home.

The family would not all be together for much longer, however, as tragedy struck in late 1883 when Ann (Marianne) Cunningham died. It seems that Mary, being the oldest of the children in the house aged approximately 28 at the time took on the duties of looking after the family. It is perhaps fortunate that they are all working and thus able to remain at the address, as we see later in the 1891 census.

Francis’s slightly elder brother John, who had been working as a bricklayer’s labourer, died in 1888. The 1891 census records that Mary, still unmarried, has attended to her remaining family and has her youngest sister still at home together with a number of boarders. The house in 1891 consisted of 36-year-old Mary, working in the skilled job of pottery transferring, sister Annie, a potter’s scourer, and John Towey, a bricklayer’s labourer.

View of Longton – ‘A Bit Thick for Father Christmas in the Potteries’ – Taken by William Blake, c.1900-1940 (Potteries Museum & Art Gallery/

Francis had joined the army in 1885, and so is missing from the 1891 household. Joining the army was one of the few options available to a working class man who wanted to escape working in the heavy industry of their home town.

Francis was attested on 23rd May 1885 and joined the 3rd North Staffordshire Regiment. His attestation states that he was 21 years and 8 months old – it appears that he shaved a few years off his age – something that was possible in the days when individuals did not need to have personal documentation. We have managed to trace numerous documents pertaining to Francis’s service with the army. His ‘description on enlistment’ mentions his condition when he enlisted. He weighed 130lb. When he was admitted to the asylum, his weight was 110lb which was a drastic drop.

His military history sheet allows us to track his location and career. It mentions his service in India as per his asylum case notes. Francis spent over 9 years stationed in India. The document also mentions his eldest sister Mary as his next of kin and also her address in Longton. Francis’s medical sheet mentioned that he suffered from a lot of fevers and other ailments, but that might have been a usual occurrence for soldiers when relocated to a tropical climate.

One Quarter Master Sergeant wrote home in 1916 of the effects of the Indian climate, ‘Now the intense heat of the sun is draining the moisture out of the earth with the result that it is like living in the moist fern house at Kew Gardens, only worse, and many men are being bowled over with fever’.[i]

Francis was admitted to Stafford asylum on 2nd Apr 1895, and his notes refer to his 9-year service in India. He had been ill for 3 days: “delusions, fear and suspicions. Health fair. Tall, thinly nourished, weight 10st. Heart and lungs not satisfactory. Appeared to be suffering from heavy drinking bout. No marks of violence.” The diagnosis was acute mania caused by intemperance. He was discharged again on 21st May 1895, and the medical staff were satisfied that he was recovered.

The date of his admission tallies with his military record, having reached home on 16th March 1895. This record, however, states that he was only at home for 5 days. This is a discrepancy which needs further investigation. Some of the dates on this record form appear to be inaccurate however, as his next leave in England is recorded as 21st March to 31st May 1897 – it could be that this is the period which he spent at home in Stafford asylum, but with the wrong year recorded. The length of this time in Britain is also recorded as 2 years and 62 days. It is probable that he was sent home on 21st March 1895, and returned to India on 31st May 1897. These adjusted dates make sense of the asylum records, and of parts of the dates on his military record.

The causes of his illness could well have been a conjunction of habitual hard drinking which was common in the army, as well as fever and illness caused by India’s climate. We cannot be sure, but these explanations would seem to make sense if we put the whole case in its historical context.

The next record we have for Francis is on the 1901 census, at an address in Longton. He was a boarder, and it was 4 years since he was demobbed, fitting with his military record papers. Richard and Annie Baker, a railway porter and a potter’s transferrer in their mid-twenties have taken in two lodgers – Francis, who is working as a bricklayer, and Elizabeth Boylan, a potter’s warehouse woman.

As Francis’s fate appears to have deteriorated, two of his sisters seem to still be together – the last of the nuclear family to be under the same roof, although by 1901 the roof belongs to someone else and they are boarders at another address in Longton.

From here, sadly, it appears that Francis’s condition in life did not improve. In 1911 he was living in a building as one of 24 lodgers – possibly a common lodging house. Three years later in 1914 Francis died.

Francis seems to have had a good start in life in a typical family of the time – but he quickly lost members of his family including his parents, and siblings, some of whom disappear from the record without explanation, and that might have influenced his decision to escape to the Army.

His experiences and health problems in India may have contributed to his mental breakdown, but his recorded history of excessive drinking is likely to have been the immediate cause of his admission to the asylum. Drink was commonplace for many soldiers, and a means of coping with the stresses of military life. It may be that being in the Asylum and the enforced alcohol-free environment may have helped Francis to recover and continue what was left of his Army career. Short stays in the asylum were not uncommon for those with what was termed ‘mania a potu’, which was characterised by violent behaviour and delirium tremens. A sort stay in the asylum ‘drying out’ often led to the relatively quick discharge of such individuals. Francis’s story is not unusual, and serves as a reminder of the extreme harshness of army life in the later nineteenth century, and the mental toll which it must have taken on many soldiers who saw and experienced terrible things, turning to drink for comfort.

[i] Harry Beaumont’s letter home from Rawalpindi, 1916