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.