Finding Children with Learning Difficulties Within Your Family Tree in the late 1800s

Today it is the norm for people with learning disabilities to live in the community but this has not always been the case. Prior to industrialization in the UK those who survived birth would have remained, where possible, with their families but as people moved into the growing towns and cities for work they had less time to look after their learning disabled children. As a result, many were admitted to local mental institutions as the workhouse was deemed unsuitable and there was no specialized care. Once admitted it was unlikely that these children would ever be released.

The early 1990s saw the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher shut down the large mental institutions in England, under Care in the Community Legislation. Patients were discharged into the community and the Victorian institutions were demolished and housing estates took their place. So, what happened to the records of those that had lived there before and what details can be found about these ancestors?In my area of Kent there were two large mental institutions. The first to be built was the Kent Lunatic Asylum, Barming Health near Maidstone, in 1833. (It is highly likely that this is where the term 'barmy' originated.) This was to be renamed Oakwood Hospital. As demand outstripped available beds at Barming, another hospital was built. This was the East Kent Lunatic Asylum, built in 1875 at Chartham, near Canterbury, and later to be renamed St Augustine's Hospital. These hospitals were a community within their own rights. Alongside the wards there were gardens and farmland. Patients who were able were expected to work as part of their treatment and records show able patients working in the kitchens, laundries, shoe shops, dining areas, gardens, on building maintenance, on the farm (both arable and livestock) the sewing rooms and cleaning the wards. Records also show that wards were well furnished, with open fires, patients were well fed, well clothed and had entertainment put on. Sports days were held and cricket was a popular sport. These more able patients would have arguably had a much better life than those who were having to live in the workhouse. So where can these records be accessed?Your first port of call should be the county archives for the area in which the hospital stood. In Kent they are held by the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone. Their catalogue is searchable online and records can be pre-ordered and a table booked prior to visiting. A search for St Augustine's Hospital reveals just how extensive the saved records are. Under the collection MH-T3 there are records for the administration of the hospital, finance and the upkeep of buildings and estates. Yet delve into the records of patients and their medical care and some fascinating and detailed information opens up our eyes to the world within the hospital. There include:

  • The patient admission registers
  • Registers of patients
  • Removals (transfers to other hospitals), discharges and deaths records
  • Death registers
  • Post mortem records (carried out at the hospital)

Be warned, the language used in these records is not the language that is considered acceptable today. You will see words such as 'lunatic', 'idiot' and 'imbecile' and phrases such as 'useless idiot' and '˜imbecilic with little intelligence'. These words will be familiar if you regularly examine census records. Daily entries were not completed unless the condition of a patient changed. Mostly they were updated twice a year and might include a comment on an occurrence that took place after the last entry. I read one entry for a male patient that commented "he managed to escape two months ago but was found at Elham three days later". What does shine through is that these patients were not imprisoned on their wards, were able to work if physically capable and received care and extra nutrition if they were unwell. The real surprise happens when you turn a page in the later records and find a picture of the patient. This might well be the only picture that was taken of your ancestor and can become a fascinating addition to your family tree. For those that died within the institution there last hours are documented and cause of death given. The biggest killer, unsurprisingly was phthisis (tuberculosis).So when should you think to look at records within mental hospital collections? With the development of the Eugenic Movement from the late 1800s people with learning disabilities were undesired relatives for many people and, like the illegitimate child, were not often talked about in families, so it is unlikely you will have previous knowledge that this ancestor exists. So where could you find a clue when the family have remained within the same area?

  • Looking at a census record is there a mention of 'idiot', 'imbecile', 'epileptic', 'deaf' or 'dumb'?
  • Does that person not show on the next census living with the family?
  • Does a child just disappear from the records?
  • Are you unable to find a death record between the two censuses?
  • Finding a birth record for a child, with no death record, between the dates of two censuses, with the child not appearing on a further census
  • Where you find the correct name on a death record at a later time and not in the correct area with no record to show a life in the area where the death took place - patients were often transferred to out of area asylums due to pressure on making beds available

So if you suspect you might have a missing ancestor, search the archives for institutional records and firstly check the admission registers. Should you find an ancestor then move on to the patient records and hopefully you will find clinical and nursing records alongside a photograph. Just remember at all times that terminology relating to disability was very different back then and does not mean that these patients were stigmatized and poorly cared for.Click here to receive help from an expert with your English genealogy research.

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February 22, 2018
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