Catherine Downing: The life of a lunatic

Catherine Downing 1843-1922

Housemaid of Southminster and London, and my fourth great aunt

Catherine was the older sister of my ancestor Henry Downing. Like many young women of her time, she went into service at a very young age. At the age of fourteen, she spent five months in Surrey Lunatic Asylum. On her discharge, she found another position as housemaid with a family near Chelmsford. Her next employer, however, was a step up. Horace Lloyd was a wealthy barrister and counsel, living in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. Horace Lloyd was so posh that he even has a Wikipedia entry. This environment must have been very unnerving for a poor girl from rural Essex and could have tipped her fragile mental health over the edge.

In 1868, twenty-six year old Catherine found herself indicted for stealing from her employer. A full account appeared in the Evening Standard. Catherine had been caught stealing a silk dress, an opera robe and a table cover from Mr Lloyd. When a police officer had been called to investigate, he found 100 items of duplicate, stolen clothing in her room. Catherine had given a statement as some attempt at explanation, which the Standard describes as “a most extraordinary document, a jumble about spirits, gipsies, and young men and fast young women”. The statement goes on to blame her “friend” Emily (I think maybe this refers to Emily Gough, Horace Lloyd’s kitchen maid) for stealing some money Catherine had raised for a new church and constantly begging her for clothes and money, and that she had also given money to gypsies who had promised to get her a new job in return.

A physician at the Surrey Lunatic Asylum had also given a statement, which included the following:

I have felt deeply for her relations, for she has been an immense expense to them, which they can ill afford. The poor thing is industrious, and I have been the means of procuring her several situations, always pointing out that she has been peculiar in her habits. This has soon been discovered, and she has been dismissed. The things she has done no sane person would do, and this has been her only fault. I feel convinced she is not fit to be left to her own guidance but if possible ought to be place in some place where she would be under proper treatment.

The judge considered this statement, and promptly sentenced Catherine to a year’s imprisonment with hard labour.

Unbelievably, when Catherine came out of prison, her family did not take her home to look after her. She went straight into another service job, this time with Coghlan McHardy, another wealthy man in the Royal Navy. Evidently, this did not work out any better than her previous employment. In July 1972, Catherine was admitted to the Essex County Lunatic Asylum (later the Warley Hospital). She was released just over a year later, apparently recovered, but in 1879 she was readmitted to the Surrey asylum, in Banstead, where she spent three months before being transferred back to Essex.

This time, she was never to be released.

Essex County Asylum

Catherine’s life was a long one. She outlived all but one of her siblings. In 1913, she was transferred to the new Severalls Mental Hospital. She can be found on the census every year, known just by her initials – C.D. of Southminster, lunatic. Unfortunately, all her records seem to have ended up with Severalls, and they are not available to the public (in fact, it is not clear where they are at all, or even if they still exist). I hope they will turn up one day, as they would provide a fascinating, but perhaps quite horrific insight into the treatment Catherine would have received for her illness. Some of the “cures” that were inflicted on these poor patients seem quite barbaric now. Psychotic patients such as Catherine were often injected with fever-inducing drugs, as it was believed a fever would temper their symptoms (probably by making them too ill to act strangely!). Other treatments included gas therapy, restraint, electric shock treatment and even removal of parts of the brain. The first antipsychotic drug was not introduced until 1950, long after Catherine’s death. There was no NHS in those days, and Catherine’s family in Southminster had to pay for her treatment. Joseph, her father, was obviously not happy about this, and in 1879 he appeared in court, having failed to keep up with his payments.

Severalls hospital, then and now.

In 1922, after the best part of 50 years in an institution, Catherine finally passed away from a heart related complaint. Her death certificate describes her as a needlewoman, of Southminster, though I wonder how long it had been since she set foot in the town.

Catherine was not the only member of my family to suffer from mental illness and in future entries I will bring you some more stories of their lives. The conclusion I have reached it that while today’s mentally ill people are often stigmatised and fail to receive sufficient help, things are so much better for them than for the 19th century lunatic, who was shut away, tortured and disowned.

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