Discovering a family history of mental illness

By Editor, 19 March 2015 - 12:41pm

The release of Bethlem Hospital's staff and patient records will open up new avenues of research for family historians, says Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 19 March 2015
Sarah Williams, editor
Read more blogs from the magazine team
 
 

 

24 Hours in the Past

Bethlem Hospital has put its records online (copyright Wellcome Library, London)

Mental illness, even now, is a subject we tend to shy away from. But this was even more so in the past. The very first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? took Bill Oddie on a journey that explored his mother’s depression and it showed the secrecy surrounding her illness.

TV chef Gregg Wallace found his great great grandmother, Selina Leythorn, spent the last years of her life in the Devon County Lunatic Asylum at Exminster and Irish actor Dervla Kirwan’s paternal grandfather, Harry Kahn, ended up dying penniless in the Richmond District Lunatic Asylum.

Discovering stories like these in your own family history has been greatly aided today by the release of a large selection of records from Bethlem Hospital, commonly referred to as Bedlam. But there are a lot more records on their way when the Wellcome Library’s current digitisation project is completed.

Within the next two years, family historians will have a much better idea of whether they have family members who spent time at one of these Victorian institutions. Hopefully, people will take the time to explore the reasons behind the incarceration and the effects it had on the immediate family.  

It’s this kind of knowledge that really makes family history fascinating for me, although I’m strangely torn. Finding out more about your ancestors is one thing, discovering a harsh truth can be something else…

 

You can access Bethlem Hospital data via Findmypast (subscription necessary) 

You can read more about Asylum records here

Rats, poo and rotting meat
previous blog Article
Five best resources to boost your pre-1837 research
next blog Article
Rats, poo and rotting meat
previous blog Article
Five best resources to boost your pre-1837 research
next blog Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here