This photograph was taken of my grandmother, Annie, following admission to the Talgarth Mental Asylum, Wales,1930. She was forty years old.
My family history, like all history, is liberally sprinkled with women whose lives were blighted; by the inequalities of society, and through the neglect, stupidity or downright cruelty of others. Most of what I know of Annie comes from the stories of other people who knew her, and from the medical records of the asylum. The medical records state bald facts, which in the light of all else I know, are all the more distressing.
My granny had beautiful black hair of which she was very proud. By day, she wore it plaited and rolled into a bun at the nape of her neck. At night, she undid that plait and let her hair fall down. It was so long, she could sit on it and with the help of her little girls, it was given 100 brush strokes, every night before bed.
When she was carted away to the asylum, she believed she was going to have a short rest. Her nightmare began on arrival. The first thing they did was to chop off her hair, her beautiful long mane of glossy, black hair. It was a standard procedure; head lice being rife in such institutions, long hair would pick them up and spread them like wild fire. They then took a photograph of her (see above). Her face presents the abject misery that she must have been feeling at the time. Further indignity followed with an intimate and detailed examination of every part of her anatomy, faithfully recorded in the ledger.
She must have been a stunner, Annie, before hard toil, nine children, and a poor diet ravaged her. It was noted in their ledger that she had grey eyes; a stunning combination with that long black hair. She was underweight and undernourished and had an overactive thyroid. She was on her last legs when she entered that place and they all but knocked her legs from beneath her.
What hellish place must she have thought she’d been brought to? This was no rest home, no holiday, this was hell itself. What had she done to deserve such treatment, to be pushed and prodded and twisted and turned like a carcass of meat? She tells them that a mistake has been made and they must let her go immediately; home to her children who would be worrying where their Mam had gone.
She tells them why she has been unable to cease crying (the reason given for her admission); that her husband knocked her about and threatened to kill her. The following are some of the comments written in their ledger, repeated year after year.
“She is suffering from delusional psychosis. States that prior to admission, her husband desired to get rid of her and had made several attempts on her life.”
“Her delusions change little as time goes on. She still believes her husband was trying to get rid of her and made serious attempts on her life.”
“She remains much the same mentally. She gives a very poor account of herself. She continues to state that her husband used to knock her about a great deal and several times threatened to kill her.”
“No mental change since last note. Demented with delusions of persecution.”
The last comment was written only three months before her release in 1948. For eighteen years, every time she was interviewed by a psychiatrist, Annie told them the same story about her husband. Every time she told it, it was seen as evidence of her delusional madness.
The tragedy is that she spoke the truth. Her husband was a brutal man and he had, indeed, knocked her about for years, and attempted to murder her, strangling her by the throat in one of his rages. He would have succeeded if he had not been dragged off by his oldest daughter and two sons.
It was her husband who was the lunatic, and he had succeeded in carrying out his threat to get rid of her, not by killing her but by having her incarcerated in the asylum he should have been in, himself. The reason for her committal was that the poor woman was continuously crying. One of the psychiatrists described her, unsympathetically, as emotionally unstable, confused, silly and lachrymose. I’m sure if he had been in her shoes, he would have been all those things himself, would not have diagnosed himself as insane but as showing a normal response to the irrational and abusive treatment meted out by her husband.
Annie suffered a most terrible injustice. She should have been protected but instead she was locked up in the asylum in 1930 and did not get out until 1948. Cold blooded murderers do less time. Annie suffered what she did, for as long as she did, because she spoke her truth. She had no idea that in speaking the truth, she was providing them with the ‘evidence’ to back up their misguided theories as to her mental state.
I would like to say that such injustices were few and far between, but in truth they were all too common. As recently as 2007, a lady of 85 years of age was finally traced by her family, 70 years after being committed to an asylum in 1937, under the 1890 Lunacy Act. She was 15 when she was committed for the ‘crime’ of stealing half a crown from the doctor’s surgery where she worked as a cleaner. The money was later found, but too late for this poor girl. She spent the rest of her life being shunted from one mental institution to another, until she was moved to a care home in her old age.
Many of these dreadful places were closed down towards the end of the 20th century. Stories abound of how these elderly ladies then being released had been placed there as young girls of fourteen or fifteen, for the ‘crime’ of having illegitimate babies. Yet, no man was ever imprisoned for having fathered one.
So many lives were never lived. Such cruelties were commonplace. Before her death in 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft was writing a novel entitled Maria; The Wrongs of Woman. The novel’s heroine, Maria, has been placed in a madhouse by an abusive husband who seeks to control her money and her liberty for his own ends. In those days, it was only too easy for a man with money to have his unwanted wife committed to a privately paid asylum.
So common was the practise of locking away people in asylums for profit or out of spite, that parliament created The Madhouse Act of 1828. The act stipulated that the signatures of two medical men were required before a person could be admitted to a private asylum. But in a time when the definition of ‘insanity’ was so broad as to include such things as petty theft or the ‘immoral’ behaviour of being pregnant and unmarried, women continued to be committed to both public and private asylums by their husbands or families, for the sake of expediency.
The parallels between Annie’s story and Wollstonecraft’s heroine, Maria, are obvious. Both were sent to the madhouse by duplicitous husbands and for spurious reasons. I’m sure Mary Wollstonecraft must have hoped that one hundred and fifty years after her death such things would not still be happening. In Annie’s case, it seems that her continued incarceration for so many years was due to laziness on the part of those who could have properly helped her; they chose not to investigate whether what she was saying was true, and chose instead to reaffirm their own misguided beliefs.
There is no changing the past. What is done cannot be undone. But I hope that in the telling of Annie’s story, some small piece of justice will finally be hers.
I am the author of the acclaimed historical novel, Leap the Wild Water, inspired by another true story, that of Annie’s grandmother.
It is available from Amazon for download or in paperback.