Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ancestors in Asylums- Were they Lunatics?

Ancestors in Asylums - Were They Lunatics?

' I have terrible news,' my husband declared with a grim face recently. 'I have just found out that my great grandfather died in Callan Park Mental Hospital.''Watch out for mental illness in the family, ' warned a cousin some years ago. 'So many of our Weston ancestors died in asylums!

Whilst it is true that my husband's great grandfather did spend time in Callan Park, and certainly at least six members of my Weston branch of the family tree, did indeed die in mental hospitals, my research into the reasons for which they were placed in these institutions has produced some interesting results. I have found during the course of many years of research that there are a surprisingly diverse number of reasons for which our ancestors were placed in asylums (besides the obvious; being mentally unstable). When you find an ancestor in an asylum, do not immediately assume that they were insane or as the mentally ill were once known -lunatics. Keep in mind, of course, that as a family historian, one does need to be prepared to find some skeletons in the family closet! It is important, however, to have the facts correct before you 'out' your family skeletons to the rest of the family. In other words, it is perhaps wiser to check for more information before you declare great great grandpa 'a lunatic' to your relatives. He just might not have been.

My first experience of mental illness in my family was at the age of 14. Whilst driving me home from a ballet lesson one day, my mother said to me unexpectedly, , ' You know your great uncle Alec is in a mental asylum. Without further ado, Mother added, 'He went mad when his wife and child burned to death in a house fire. He became a lunatic, she added.' And that was that! Uncle Alec was never spoken of again!

Looking back, it now seems difficult to understand why I did not ask my mother to expand on this blunt announcement. She might as well have declared that Uncle Alec became a postman, for all the attention I gave the news. Aged in my early teens, and with other things obviously of much more interest to me than an uncle, who was possibly mad, this seemed explanation enough!

Above Right: Goodna Mental Hospital
Because my mother died before I ventured into the fascinating journey into my ancestral past, I have no one to tell me the details of Uncle Alex's demise or to explain why he was a patient at the Brisbane Mental Hospital at Goodna. ( I am currently pursuing this line of research). What I did discover, to my surprise, was that Alec was not, in fact my great uncle, the youngest brother of my grandfather, Colin Hamilton McDade, as I was brought up to believe. Alexander Gilmour McDade was actually the son of my grandfather's youngest sister, Mary and therefore the nephew of my grandfather, not his brother.  Nine months after the birth of baby Alexander, the family left Scotland to make a new life in Australia with young Alexander being brought up to believe that his grandparents, John and Elizabeth McDade were his parents. Mary fled the family on arrival in Australia and sadly, was not heard from again. John and Elizabeth died, leaving grandson, Alexander, orphaned at the age of almost 13. This tangled web of deception about his parentage, I reasoned, coupled with the untimely death of both his wife and son, was more than enough reason for my poor uncle(2nd cousin) to suffer a mental breakdown. That was my profound theory - until I discovered that Alec's wife did not die in a house fire at all!

Reliability is not one of the 'family anecdote's' most trustworthy qualities, as most family historians very quickly discover. I found Alexander's wife alive and well, divorced from Alec and remarried. Their son, Trevor Andrew had, however, died in December, 1954. So, the question remained - Did Uncle Alec suffer some sort of mental breakdown after the death of his son? Or was there another reason that he might have been admitted to the Goodna Mental Hospital? I apologise to anyone reading this blog that I cannot answer this question with certainty, just yet. As soon as I know myself, I will let you know. I am making use of this 'yet to be confirmed' example, in my own family history to illustrate the importance of checking the facts before writing your ancestor off as a 'lunatic' or as mentally insane.

Further research into Uncle Alec's background led me to be consider the possibility that he may not have had a breakdown following the tragic death of a young son, but that he may have in fact, inherited some form of mental illness. His biological father, ( who was also his uncle - confusing, I know and almost enough to make me go quite mad myself) had a father who had died as a patient in a mental hospital called Hartwood Asylum in Scotland. 

Right: Hartwood Mental Asylum where Alec's grandfather died.

Now, at this point in time, I could easily have written dear old Uncle/Cousin Alec as having been destined to end up a lunatic, having as it appeared, inherited a mental illness from his grandfather. This seemed a perfectly logical explanation and one I could have been content with, except for one curious thing. It was becoming apparent that I was discovering an alarming number of my ancestors popping up in asylums all over England as well as in Australia, and more significantly, in completely different branches of my family tree.

'Curiouser and curiouser'... I felt that the incident of finding multiple ancestors in an asylums needed further investigation. When my great grandfather, Leonard Cuthbert Reece-Hoyes, reported to have drowned in a river at Ballina, NSW in 1930, miraculously turned up in an Asylum in Sydney some hundreds of kilometres away and some nine years later, I decided that this research was urgent. I was quietly confident that great grandad was not THAT good a swimmer! And if there was an genetic predisposition toward mental illness in a number of family lines, I wanted to know.

It did not take me long to discover that our understanding of mental disorders has undertaken a long journey via trial and error. Societal attitudes towards, and medical understanding of, mental illnesses, have moved thruogh a pcontinual process of change since the the first mental hospital was built in London in 1247 (Bethlehem Royal Hospital). Patients were placed in asylums for a number of different reasons, and though many of these people had genuine medical conditions such as epilepsy or were alcoholics, they were placed in the same hospital, the same clothing and treated the same way (inhumanely in many cases) as patients who suffered from mental conditions. Even women suffering from post natal depression were locked away in prison like conditions and often never released or their state of mind never reviewed. In Catholic countries such as Ireland, a man who wished to remarry and who could not divorce for religious reasons, was sadly, able have a wife placed in a mental institution for the rest of her life. This was viewed as reason for an annulment of the marriage, allowing a man to remarry.

I do not profess to be an expert on Asylums, and I am certain that others might benefit from their own research, however, I have discovered from my own study of this subject, that not all ancestors who were in mental hospitals suffered from mental afflictions. Great grandfather Leonard Cuthbert Reece-Hoyes, for one, (who the family is quite satisfied did not attempt a long swim to Sydney) died in the Liverpool Asylum because he was dying from cancer of the tongue and had no one to care for him. He had deserted his family in Ballina, leaving his poor wife placing advertisements in newspapers desperately seeking information about his unexplained disappearance.

One of my Weston ancestors who died in an asylum in London, did so as a respected member of staff at the hospital. Several other members of a later generation of this same family entered asylums as alcoholics, which was an extremely common reason for ancestors appearing on asylum records.

As for Uncle/Cousin Alexander,I am looking forward to finding out the reason that both he and his grandfather died in mental hospitals, one in Scotland and the other in Australia. So far non of my ancestors who I have discovered in Asylums have actually been lunatics. But you just never know....


  1. Great, thought provoking post. I'm even keener to get a look at the hospital records for some of my family now. All the best, Sally

  2. Fascinating stuff!

    I too, have a few ancestors who died in asylums, mainly in Sydney. One was a convict, sentenced to life in Australia at the tender age of 16 for a very minor offence. His mother wrote long pleading letters to let him go, as he came from a large and loving family. He became depressed at the thought of never seeing his family again, and died at the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum in 1849; admitted by his assigned employer as he could no longer carry out his duties to the standard required. This is the same building as the Parramatta Female Factory

    I am unsure as to how you obtained your records, and would love to carry out my own research as the above story came from another family member who had copies of the mothers letters.

    If you could let us know how you go about obtaining such records, I would be very grateful, and know it will help greatly in my attempt at finding information on others from my family who ended up in a similar situation.

    Many thanks from Linda

  3. Thanks for your comments Linda, some of my information came from death certificates and family documents I was fortunate to have. The NSW State Archives has some great information on how to assess their asylum records (unfortunately not online). On some NSW records there is a 110 closure period. In Qld it is 75 years but the Qld State archives do allow you to apply to see asylum records up to 1945 ( again not online). As most of my family referred to in the blog were in the same hospital (Goodna.. also known by other names eg Woolston Park), some prior to 1945 have been accessible. I have not yet attempted to find my husband's g grandfather's Callan Park records but will be doing that soon at the NSW State Archives. The Liverpool Asylum records are held at the Western Sydney repository for the NSW State Archives. As my uncle Alec was in the Goodna mental hospital after 1954, I have not yet found records for him. The information for Mathorgus Ustila who died in the Hartwood Asylum in Scotland came from his death certificate and family letters. (not that one can always believe those!). Hopefully someone may read your comment here and be able to offer you some more advice. regards Sharn

  4. Fascinating reading Sharn.

    I haven't found any ancestors in asylums, (yet), but what you've shown is that you can never make assumptions about people until you have dug a little deeper.


  5. I worked in the field of mental health in England for nearly nine years, and you are correct in saying that historically a person could be locked up in an asylum for virtually no reason, and the key effectively thrown away.

    A pregnancy outside of wedlock was a common reason, as well as those which you have given, not to mention eccentricity, and anything which was considered to be socially unacceptable. Basically any on-going behaviour which was considered to be either unethical or antisocial could be construed as grounds for admission.

    Incidentally, I came across a case in the 1990s where a man had been committed to an asylum, not many years previous, by his wife whilst divorce proceedings were taking place!!

  6. Great post! Another quite common reason for someone to be in an asylum was that there was not enough room at time of admission to another care facility such as Eventide for aged care in Brisbane.

    Of course entry because of post-natal depression were also common, alcoholicism as you mentioned, epilepsy and other conditions which are able to be diagnosed and treated today.

  7. Reasons for the onset of mental illness include (I quote) childbirth, epilepsy, head injury, alcohol, syphilis, congenital defect, 'domestic troubles', bereavement, 'deserted by the father of her child', and jealousy! Many people spent only a short time in an asylum, and their descendants are probably unaware of that.

    I have spent thousands of hours working with (and indexing) mental asylum records in Queensland. There are two main series: Public Curator insanity files and Goodna Asylum case books. Information about asylum patients may also appear in many other records, including Supreme Court insanity files, Police Gazettes, Premier's Department undertaking files, Justice Department inquest files, Supreme Court equity files, CPS and Police Station records, Col.Sec. correspondence etc. For some patients there is an insanity file and inquest file but no official death registration.

    Thousands of names from my indexes to asylum records - and some tips and advice - are on my Web site,

  8. I found my husbands g-g-grandmother past away in an asylum. The death certificate stated she died of depression. Very sad. Her husband had left her. Her death cert. stated husband unknown and just listed her parents.
    On a lighter note - I found one patient that was admitted for 'refusing to do housework'...uh oh I better be careful!
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  9. My g grandmother died in an asylum in Sunbury, Victoria - cause of death was a septic uterus, very sad :-(

  10. I would like to say thanks for your sharing this useful information. Nice post keep it up. Hope to see you next post again soon.
    With Regards,
    RSA Certificate Parramatta | RSA Training Courses in Sydney

  11. Great post. My great great aunt was in both Callan park & Stockton mental institutions over a period of 40 years as she had epilepsy. She finally passed away in 1973 (before I was born). It makes me so sad to think of all their suffering

  12. Really enjoyed this post. I have a great grand aunt that died in an asylum. According to relatives, she was in there for postpartum depression.

  13. Very interesting post and observations - it would be difficult to find any family without 'insanity' in there somewhere. I am now looking for more information about my grandmother, having just purchased her 'historic death image' online. Una Bragg died at Goodna Hospital for the Insane on 19 December 1918, of 'melancholia, exhaustion and hypostatic pneumonia'. Perhaps Queensland State Archives would be the place to start? All I knew previously was that she probably suffered from postnatal depression after giving birth to twins, one of whom was my father. The twins were 2 years of age when she died. My father was told she 'died of nerves'. It was a shock to discover she died at Goodna Hospital for the Insane as I was aware it has a horrifying history.