Saturday, 14 January 2012

Skeleton in the Cupboard or Dark Secret?

I've been inspired by inspirational fellow blogger Jarmara to write about a family secret I found a few years ago whilst doing my family history. It doesn't involve millions of pounds in treasure or illicit affairs with princesses, just a very sad secret that prevented a family knowing the simple truth about a loved one. 

John William Mayes (pictured above) was my great grandfather. He had eight children including my grandmother, now deceased, Connie. Born in Hull, I've never really found out what John did for a living but when I started my family history many years ago, I asked my grandmother about the family to set me off and she told me that her father John had been killed in an accident on the railway on Hull docks around 1925. He had been hit on the head by something falling off a load being carried by a crane.

Quite specific information about John and when the time came to do some serious research, I started the quest to find out something about him in order to fit him into the tree. No computers to speak of in those days, so letters were written to the docks company and to British Rail and trips to the local history library to check the local newspapers were certain to have covered the bases and information would be forthcoming in short time. Or so I thought. In fact all the enquiries I made drew a blank. The family confirmed the story of a death by accident on the docks.

John's home was on Hessle Road in Hull, in an era which was a difficult time for the country and for the hard working but relatively poor close knit community close to the docks, the heart of the city's enterprise in those days. Many of the husbands and sons were away on trawlers or worked on the docks and the wives ran the home and were the real power in the family if truth were told. 

No dole, if you didn't work, you struggled - money was tight but grandmother always said how happy she had been with her brothers and sisters in their two bedroomed terraced house. House's were left unlocked at night because people were trusted and everyone knew each other's business, so not a lot happened without the female population knowing about it. 

1925 - a pint of milk cost 3d (about 1.5 new pence today) and King George V was on the throne. The average weekly male wage was £5.

Despite looking at death records and any and all sources that were available in those days, there was no luck in finding John and as a consequence, I could do no more on that side of the family. 

Hull had and still has its own register office and registration area known as Kingston upon Hull to use its Sunday name.  I was pottering around the Hull City Council archives helping my brother-in-law do his family history when I thought I'd have a look at some index cards during a break from reading old court records.
There was a Mayes - William John - names the wrong way around but it didn't matter. The reference was to a a place called Willerby Asylum which was situated outside of the Hull boundary in the East Riding of Yorkshire which has its own separate registration district. I asked the archivist for the relevant book indicated by the index card.

A large red leather bound book was brought to me with hundreds of entries of deaths. There - in 1925 was the death of William John Mayes - cerebral softening. John had died in a mental asylum, aged 35 with his youngest child just 8 months old at his former home being looked after with all the other children. The registration of his death was in another area and clearly the incident on the docks was a fabrication. Other records indicated that he had been in a workhouse elsewhere in Hull in the months before his death, often doubled as a hospital in those days.

The reason the book was in the Hull City Council archives is because the Council owned the asylum as most of the patients were from Hull even though it was in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

On the one hand, (and family historians will know what I mean) there was a sense of triumph, a sense of achievement in finding this elusive man. On the other hand, an ancestor had died in a mental asylum which, when linked to the status of his family and the economic situation at the time was so desperately sad. 

Clearly, the stigma of the workhouse and mental illness was too much to bear for the family and therefore their embarassment or perhaps shame even, was hidden from the world including John's own family.

Here's the thing. My grandmother, his daughter was still alive at the time as was (and still is) many descendents of John. Do I tell them or do I not? My grandmother was elderly and not in good health. What would be the point - what would it achieve? I wasn't a spiritualist in those days, but I do recall thinking that she would find out when she meets him in whatever place dead spirits go to. I didn't tell her and I didn't tell my dad for many years.

Today Willerby Asylum no longer exists in the same guise with all the old buildings gone. What survives is a small church which belonged to the asylum (now the Haltemprice Crematorium) and a tiny overgrown graveyard. A secure centre for the mentally ill is nearby, a modern building of no great architectural value.
Grandmother was brought up without her father as a teenager but she said that her mother made do. She did odd jobs, took in some net mending in the back yard and there was always food on the table.

I hope you found that interesting - it was a long standing and sometimes frustrating search for me, but I'm glad he's now part of the family in the tree.
Chat soon



  1. By Willerby Asylum I assume you mean De La Pole Hospital? Very few people realise there was an orthopaedic unit housed in the grounds from the 1960s. It specialised in the treatment of spinal deformities (among other things) and I spent a lot of time there between the ages of nine and fourteen.

    It's shame that some members of the family might be disturbed by the idea that he died there. But I understand the reaction because I saw it sometimes when I told people 'in the know' where I was going for my treatment. There undoubtedly was a stigma attached to the name.

  2. Hi MorningAJ
    You are absolutely right - 'De la Pole hospital' was a more modern and acceptable name I guess and when I was a kid growing up not two miles from the asylum as the crow flies, it was always a threat that if you played up, you would be sent to 'De la Pole'. I had no idea the orthopaedic unit was there - you learn something new every day!
    Thanks for the information

  3. As a family historian myself (I began in 1987)this strikes many chords, but I was reminded of my maternal grandfather who died in a mental asylum, but I was told that it was almost certainly unnecessary because, as his youngest daughter said (with what was meant to be reassurance) "He was as sane as you or I" He was also tending towards an alcoholic. That said, there are many tales of how women were incarcerated in mental asylums for such misdemeanours as unmarried pregnancy, but I haven't heard of any male equivalent, which isn't to say there weren't any.
    As to whether or not to tell remaining relatives - I suppose you could say you've found something, do they want to know?

  4. Struck a chord with me too.

    I discovered a long history of mental illness on one side of the family, variously described as 'eccentric' 'shell shock' 'deserter', and all the implications behind such phrases - which are pretty descriptive of the era. Plus I have modern knowledge of course.

    My first reactions were concerns of their quality of life - I had been shown pictures of unusually tall dapper young men with slicked-back hair in posh suits going back 150 years, who had short life spans (40's and 50's)

    But d'y'now, I've found that though in asylums, they were well clothed and looked after, and had lots of freedom - a lot of 'day release' if you like, often better kept than the parents and siblings they visited, and free of their relatives poverty.

    Asylum may not have had the negative implications we perceive in a modern context.

  5. Oh, soz, Jarmara is having trouble reading here

  6. Hi Sandra
    Many thanks for popping in, welcome. You make a good point about the pregnant girls and the cruelty of relatives and parents was immense in certain parts of our society. I guess the younger generation could cope with it - perhaps the older generation retain a cultural stigma and perhaps would rather not know.

    Hi Whhelie
    Thanks for the message re Jarmara. Mental illness as we have discussed before is more common that generally recognised. I also think that conditions improved as medical science and the caring profession were brought into the modern age. Dickens descriptions of the workhouse I believe to fairly accurate hence short life expectancy.

  7. Ah yes the De La Pole hospital. I remember in 1970 visiting it as a student volunteer to talk to the patients. Many patients were elderly people who had no one to visit them. On one occasion one old lady told me all about the WW2 bombing of Hull.

  8. My grandfather was a patient at Delapole from around 1925 until his death in 1953. I have often wondered what his life would have been like. He was traumatised at Gallipoli in the First World War and had what would now been known as post truamatic stress syndrome.7