My ancestors were farmers, labourers and miners in Wales. None were known far beyond their immediate family and none appear in the history books. But there is a partial paper trail where a few of these unremarkable people left intermittent marks allowing us to piece together details of their lives.
Hannah John was my great-great-grandmother. She was born around 1837 in Granston, Pembrokeshire, a small village in West Wales. She was the third of nine children and was named Hannah after her mother.
We know nothing of Hannah’s early life. West Wales is still a quiet, rural place today, despite the summer influx of tourists heading for the beautiful beaches, coastal walks and peaceful villages. In the mid-1800s it would have been far quieter, the economy relying on agriculture and fishing.
Hannah grew up and met Gwynne Thomas, a labourer from St Nicholas, a village a mile or so away. We don’t know how long they knew each other and at what date Gwynne moved away from the area. Perhaps he moved to get work. At some point Hannah followed him and they were married in Aberdare on 13 October 1867 when Hannah was about 30 years old.
Hannah and Gwynne’s first child, named Thomas, was born almost exactly a year later and their second, Hannah Jane, was born two years after her brother. By this time the family were back in West Wales, living with Gwynne’s parents at Goodwick on the coast just five miles from where Hannah was born.
Hannah and Gwynne’s third child, Mary Ann, was born on 27 May 1872 in the Glamorgan County Lunatic Asylum, in Bridgend.
Hannah had been committed to the asylum the previous autumn, in October 1871. From that date we not only know where she was but we have details of her life and her mental state, recorded by the staff. The first page of notes tells us the core of Hannah’s story:
“Hannah Thomas, 33, Admitted 12th Oct 1871. From Aberdare, wife of a Collier. Has been more or less insane ever since her first confinement about 3 years ago but has been gradually getting worse during the past 6 months. Is neither epileptic, nor suicidal, but is dangerous. No H.P. [no hereditary propensity to insanity].”
“Believing that her children have been exchanged for others, that her husband is not the man whom she married – threatening husband and throwing articles of furniture at him, neglecting her children, and going to a neighbour’s house to dress her children under the belief that they are her own…”
“A respectable looking woman but thin and delicate. Repeats delusions as to her children etc freely.”
Serious research into psychiatry was still in the future. Hannah’s delusions and unreasonable behaviour were more than enough for a doctor to have her sent to the asylum, presumably without her willing agreement. Her family must have been desperate. There was no meaningful diagnosis for Hannah’s mental problems, the family were unable to cope, no medication or other treatments were available so incarceration was the only answer.
So what caused Hannah’s problems? No doctor would be able to diagnose a patient they had not met and certainly not on the basis of a few pages of notes from over a century ago. In the interests of full disclosure I should state that not only am I not a doctor, I am neither a woman nor a parent, so I have no personal experience to bring to this story. However, it is not unreasonable to say that Hannah may have had one of a range of mental conditions which might be treatable today. One of the possibilities is what we now call post-natal depression.
Today, one in ten women suffer some degree of post-natal depression, as distinct from ‘baby blues’ which, according to the NHS Choices web site is ‘so common that it’s considered normal’. These days if a mother does experience post-natal depression, in the UK we have the NHS, post-natal health visits, free GP appointments and a wider understanding of a range of mental health problems.
For now, let’s assume Hannah was suffering from severe post-natal depression. She lived in a time before the serious study of psychiatry, before the NHS, in a rural community, at a time when mental health problems carried even more stigma than they do today. Once incarcerated in the asylum, perhaps with time and rest, maybe the delusions might have eased and maybe Hannah could have recovered a little. However, the notes talk of melancholia, delusions, and that
“she still weeps whenever the subject [of her children] is mentioned”.
In the spring of 1872 another fact comes to light:
“Her pregnancy, which has been suspected for some time, seems now certain.”
When Hannah entered the asylum, she was already two months pregnant. The asylum was not aware of this until much later. Perhaps even Hannah and her family did not know. In addition to the delusions already affecting Hannah, she may have suffered from pre-natal depression. The hormonal changes from this third pregnancy could have exacerbated her condition, and encouraged the family and doctors to have her committed.
On 27 May 1872 the notes state:
“Confined of a female child this morning and doing well. Mentally the same.”
Two days later they confirm:
“Both mother and child doing well”.
In June the notes mention a visit from Gwynne:
“Her husband visited her today. She will not acknowledge him as her husband but only as the person who brought her here: Will not speak of the children at home as hers and says she will never make a home for them. Is making a good recovery from the confinement and the baby is thriving.”
Despite Hannah’s continuing delusions and inability to recognise her husband, the comment that the baby is ‘thriving’ at least gives us hope that Hannah had something to occupy her, someone to dote on and perhaps some possibility of improvement. But late in the summer that distraction is taken from her. The notes didn’t even record it on the day itself, but a couple of weeks later:
“9 Sept: Baby was removed by the husband about a fortnight ago, much to her sorrow as she has latterly had all the care of it. At first she doubted if it was her own child. Her grief was not only that it was away but especially that the person who had taken it was not its father. She has now got over its loss but is thin and weak and her mind is not really any better.”
I can hardly bring myself to picture the grim scene when Mary Ann was taken away, apparently by a stranger. Hannah is left alone with her delusions and depression. Still locked up, away from family, still believing that “evil has befallen…” her children.
By the time another two years have passed the notes describe Hannah thus:
“Melancholia passing into dementia with delusions. Is sometimes very irritable and smashes a pane of glass.”
By 1878, when Hannah has been in the asylum for nearly seven years, she is described as having tuberculosis:
“24 July 1878: Gradually getting weaker and is very ill, but is as obstinate, self-willed and insane as ever.
“8 Aug: Slowly sinking and cannot live long.
“9 Aug: Sank and died at 6pm.”
Dr H Pringle, the Medical Superintendent of the asylum sent a report to the Coroner saying:
“I hereby certify that Hannah Thomas died here on August 9th 1878, that the apparent cause of death was Phthisis Pulmonalis [pulmonary tuberculosis] and that the illness had lasted several months.”
Having written out these details I am not even sure what lessons we can draw from Hannah’s experience. Mental health issues can affect anyone, but post-natal depression is a known problem which, left untreated, can be all-consuming. Hannah and her family lived before any real understanding of mental health problems and their causes and before any useful treatments were developed. Her treatment appears to us to be harsh and uncaring, but it was normal for the day and the Bridgend asylum was considered modern and forward thinking.
We can look back at past times and see only the glow of lazy summer sunsets in rustic settings and pastoral calm. But they could be brutal times too. Families suffered massive infant mortality and peri-natal death for the mother, or death from simple infections and common diseases which today barely merit a day or two off work. There was no state help in times of need or illness and no understanding of the mind and the ways it can randomly and unpredictably lead to grief.
Today, Hannah might have talked to her GP, got help from local psychiatric services, had support from mental health charities or on-line forums and could have come through the experience intact. She almost certainly would have been able to stay with her children and husband and to live a fulfilling life.
We can only look at these partial details of a distant life and say, ‘there but for the grace of…’. Well, there but for 145 years of time passed, it could be the story of any of us.
Postscript: Time passes and other people’s lives continue. Hannah’s first child, Thomas, was my great-grandfather. He had a son (my grandfather) who fought in, and survived, the first world war. Hannah’s youngest, born in the asylum, was called Mary Ann. Her daughter Nellie is still remembered by a couple of my relatives.
After Hannah died, Gwynne Thomas married again and had a further six children. The first of these was born and the second was on the way while Hannah was still alive in the asylum. Clearly nobody expected Hannah to either recover or ever be released.
Gwynne carried on working as a miner. He was injured when, aged 54, working underground in the Lower Pit in Ferndale, part of the roof of the 5-foot seam of coal collapsed on him. He died the following day.
Gwynne’s coffin and funeral cost £4, 13 shillings and sixpence. The owners of the mine contributed £2 towards the costs.