I’m currently taking part in the MIND initiative, RED January – the purpose of which is to do some form of exercise every day to raise awareness of mental health issues and how exercise affects the mental health.

While I’m doing that, I’m also going to take a look at some ancestors whose mental health was clearly suffering, and how they were treated many years ago.  I’ve already written about my 3x great aunt, Catherine Downing, who suffered from some kind of psychotic illness, my great great grandmother, Annie Downing, who committed suicide, and my grandmother Jean Olorenshaw, who also committed suicide but for very different reasons.

Today, I’m going to introduce you to William Arch Bishop.   (That was his actual name.  Let’s face it, he’s already off to a bad start). William was the nephew of the husband of my fifth great aunt, which I appreciate is a bit of a tenuous relationship, but he was also a resident of Southminster and therefore a friend and neighbour to many of my relations.  He was born in 1836, the son of 23-year-old unmarried Eliza Bishop and an unspecified man.  His mother married a man named Barker two years later, and William was set to live with his grandparents.  By 1851, he was working as a servant.  In 1858 he married Harriet Duce, and they went on to have four children.  He worked as a carpenter and then a grocer, and the Chelmsford Chronicle described him as a “respected tradesman”.

Photo: The National Archives

On August 30th 1893, 58-year-old William tried to take his own life by swallowing a bottle of “Battle’s Vermin Killer”, a rat poison containing strychnine, mixed with beer.  He was found by his wife, who rushed to a neighbour’s house for assistance.  William was lying on the bed and proclaimed that he had taken poison and believed he was dying.  Mrs Bishop and the neighbour sent for the doctor, who administered emetics to William.   William told the doctor that he had been suffering from so much pain and mental anxiety that he could not resist doing something to end the misery.  The doctor judged that had he not been called at the point he was, William would have succeeded.  As it was, William made a full recovery.  The doctor visited daily, and remarked that he was still having trouble sleeping, but otherwise appeared much better.

But there was another reason William may have been having trouble sleeping.  Suicide was a criminal offence in those days, and those who tried and did not succeed found themselves in court.  And so it was, a month later, William appeared at the Latchingdon Petty Sessions.  The neighbour, the doctor and the shopkeeper who sold him the bottle of Battle’s Vermin Killer all gave evidence.  The doctor mentioned that he had been seeing William for seven years for episodes of “melancholia and mental disturbance”.  He also mentioned that “melancholia” had prevaled in the Bishop family previously.

William found himself issuing a grovelling apology to the court.  “I should not have done such an act but I was taken with such a shaking of the nerves that I could not contain myself anywhere.  I will never do such an act again” he implored.  How awful that William should have feel so much guilt for wanting to end his own suffering, and that instead of getting help from the authorities, he was treated like a criminal.

The chairman said that he wish he could set William free at once, but that it was “not in his power” and he was committed for trial.  The newspaper mentions that there was much local sympathy for William’s plight – and that they hoped that this support would encourage him to see his troubles through to the end.

When William returned to court a month later, both imprisonment and a hefty fine were possible punishments.  But it seems the court had taken pity on  William.  They were satisfied that he had seen the error of his ways.  They discharged him, warning him that he must bear his troubles with fortitude from now on, handed him his hat and umbrella, and he was free to go.

William Arch Bishop died of natural causes in 1910, aged 75.

Suicide remained illegal in the UK until 1961.

One thought on “

  1. I didn’t know failed suicide attempts could be followed by imprisonment! And it’s also fucked up how the judge could change his mind, depending on how he judged the person’s character, etc. Terrible times.


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