Tuesday 5 July 2016

Searching Online for Early Asylum Ancestors

Ancestry offers an online database “UK, Lunacy Patient’s Admission Registers, 1846 – 1912”, available by subscription, which is based on mandatory returns made by every institution housing lunatics to the Commissioners in Lunacy from 1st January 1846. Throughout the case notes of the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum reference is made to these returns which appear to have been accomplished through the simple expedient of forwarding a handwritten copy of the reception order received by the Asylum. The records are quite simple, providing name, whether a private or pauper patient, gender, date of admission, place of asylum, whether the patient was discharged or died, a date for that event and if died, cause of death if known.

I have assessed Ancestry’s database by the simple method of searching for 40 patients who I know with absolute certainty were admitted to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum between 1850 and 1859, all of them featuring in my book Proper People. Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There. This gave me the advantage of knowing that they should appear in the Ancestry database. Someone doing a general search for an individual might not have that knowledge.

The results reflect my experience of using online sources on Ancestry and the other genealogical websites over many years.

The admissions of 37 of the 40 patients were correctly recorded.  

Probably through a clerical error in 1850, George FLOCKTON had been incorrectly recorded as George FLOCKINGTON and correctly transcribed as such but he took some finding.
William ROBERTS. Courtesy  WYAS. 
William ROBERTS, admitted in 1852, was in the records as Wm ROBERTS so also took a bit of finding. He was removed to the South Yorkshire Asylum in 1872 and that too was correctly recorded.

Charles WILCOX. Courtesy WYAS.

Charles WILCOX was correctly recorded on admission to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in 1857 but his later removal and admission to the South Yorkshire Asylum in 1890 could not be found.

Thomas FORREST. Courtesy WYAS.

There was no sign at all of Thomas FORREST, admitted in 1857, in the records. If his record is there I could not find it.

Curiously the dates for both Matthew NIXON’s admission, 1858, and death, 1861, had been transcribed as being exactly a year earlier than those shown in the record image.
Extract from UK, Lunacy Patient’s Admission Registers, 1846 – 1912. Courtesy Ancestry

George NORMINGTON admitted in 1859 cannot be found in the records.
While Stephen BENTHAM’s admission to Wakefield in 1859 is correctly recorded, what happened afterwards is not made clear in the record image as there is no mark in any of the discharge categories - recovered, relieved, not improved - or death.

Extract from UK, Lunacy Patient’s Admission Registers, 1846 – 1912. Courtesy Ancestry.

 My research and the following concise extract from his case notes tells us what happened.

Made his escape on the 9th April, 1860 and was not retaken within the time prescribed by law.

So finding a patient with no marks in “discharged” or “died” suggests that they may well have escaped.
The entry for David REYNARD correctly records his admission in February, 1858 but the transcription incorrectly records his death on 17th March that same year. He did not die, but was released as my research tells us that he had been wrongly committed.
Extract from UK, Lunacy Patient’s Admission Registers, 1846 – 1912. Courtesy Ancestry.

The comment shown in the image "removed by order of C L" does not tell the whole story but it is certainly not recording his death.

This brief study reminds us that in any online database there will be contemporary clerical errors, modern transcription errors and flaws in interpretation so always check the image of the original source if available.

If your ancestor is found to have spent time in an asylum I do hope that the asylum records have survived in a local archive for you to review as you should find a wealth of additional information, clues to other family members and perhaps even photographs.
Good luck.