I realised a few years ago that I was the last generation of the family to have retained the oral history. The generation below me were far too interested in the big world of television to be bothered to sit and listen to grandparents talking about the past. As I have no children, I have no one to pass it on to. So I set about writing down as much as I could remember in the hope that one day it would be appreciated.
As many of you history lovers will know there is nothing simple about family history as once you show an interest it completely draws you in. For some people there were just sketchy reminiscences and one could not be sure how much truth there was in them. So I set about trying to fill in the details. One that totally absorbed me and has now run to 25,000 words concerned my great great aunt, Elizabeth. All I knew was that she had spent her days in the Cheshire Asylum, Parkside, Macclesfield, dying there in 1943. I feared the worst in unearthing this story.
The first gem came from the census record for 1901 where I found her and her five-year-old daughter as lodgers in a house in Hyde and the note “suffers epileptic fits”. I now started to find records for her daughter and discovered she was the only one of nine babies to survive. Obtaining the death certificates began to unravel an interesting yet heartbreaking story. Most of the babies had died in the first few months of “inanition” what might now be termed “failure to thrive”. I was able to get the reports of three inquests from the Ashton Under Lyne Reporter where they had been reported on at the time. One such report absolved the mother from any neglect and in the words of the Doctor attending at the time of death “The mother had been very attentive to it. Although in poor circumstances, she had carried out his instructions.” And. “She had done all she possibly could for the infant.” Another child did thrive but at about one-year-old his mother fell on him during a fit and he suffocated.
Her husband stood beside her and worked to keep the family but in 1906 he decided to follow his wife’s sister and family to Boston, Mass. where he had heard they had good jobs and an excellent standard of living. He promised to send for his wife and their last surviving child when he arrived.
My next piece of oral history to build on was that Elizabeth and her daughter went missing and were gone for a few weeks, leaving the house just as she had been living in it. No one knew where she had gone or why. Her brother and his wife travelled into Manchester looking for her. She had spent her youth in Ancoats and Miles Platting. Census records showed that as a girl of twelve she was working as a children’s nurse to a local draper’s family in Great Ancoats Street.
There was no sign of Elizabeth or her daughter Alice. A snippet from a letter my mother wrote to me when I first started to take an interest in the family history tells the story. Elizabeth waited and waited for word from her husband, became very poor in health and no money. The worry sent her off her mind. The family lost touch some way. I suppose, as she got poorer she moved from one place to another until her health, money and mind gave out and she must have ended up in the workhouse. That was found out because on Saturday her brother Ned and his wife Mary went down Manchester and coming back sat on the top deck of a tramcar. They saw some beggars of which there were many in those days. It was just like Fagin, you could go to the poorhouse and get a child for anything. For a little skivvy, down the pit, any dirty job in a mill, factory, hostel, anything. Now among these beggars one man had something musical, barrel organ, violin, flute, don’t know what, but he had a dirty urchin with him. God only knew if it was a girl or a boy, but it was dressed in the dirtiest clothes you could imagine. A mans cap and men’s shoes, miles too big. For some reason Mary couldn’t get the picture out of her mind. It worried her and something kept reminding her of Alice. She didn’t know why, but they talked it over, even with the children and decided to go back and try to find this child. It turned out to be Alice. Then the story unfolded. The man claimed he was her uncle on her father’s side and he was looking after her, which was doubtful. A few shilling changed hands and Alice came home to her rightful place with the family. Alice was taken home where she had all her clothes and most of her hair cut off in the back yard, and burned. She was so dirty and ‘wick’. Elizabeth was found in the Workhouse than moved to Parkside.
*local dialect – ‘alive’ as in crawling with lice.
I then managed to track down Elizabeth’s medical records from Parkside. They told the story of how in 1908 she had been committed to the asylum from the workhouse. Due to the deaths of her children the Doctor at Manchester Workhouse had declared her “dangerous but with harmless causes” and in line with regulations at the time, the Hyde Board of Guardians had been obliged to commit her as an “insane pauper.” They recorded the fact that her epilepsy had started when she was about 14.
As tragic as commitment might have seemed it was the first stroke of luck for Elizabeth. Parkside was one of the foremost medical institutions of its time and the first to have a specialist epilepsy unit. The records over the next 35 years recorded her severe fits and the physical damage she suffered after them. She also received prompt medical attention and treatment, something which would have been very scarce in the community pre National Health. For anyone who may have been embarrassed by the stigma of having a relative spend her days in the asylum. She was described as “gentle in manner, well behaved and a good worker in the laundry”. The year before she died of carcinoma of the liver she had been one of the first people to receive new anti-epilepsy medication that was just on the market.
The strange twist to the tale was that whilst initially knowing nothing about her condition I have worked as a volunteer supporting an epilepsy charity for the past 15 years. It was through that connection that I was able to find out about the history of the treatment of ‘epileptics’. When Elizabeth was a young woman the main treatment was Bromide Salts. Bromism, an effect of prolonged ingestion of bromide, is characterized by mental dullness, memory loss, slurred speech, tremors, ataxia and muscular weakness, and a transitory state resembling paranoid schizophrenia. The side effects of ‘bromism’, not only affected the patient, neonatal bromism resulted in babies with poor suck, weak cry, diminished reflexes, lethargy, and poor muscle tone.
Her husband never did get in touch. My great grandfather met a man who had served in France in WW1 who had served with him and met his “French wife”. In the early 1940’s great granddad also received a letter from the man’s wife and child in Boston, Mass. trying to trace their “English cousins”. He had even had the gall to name his daughter in America Alice after the one he had abandoned in Hyde.
At the Sportsman Hotel, Mottram Road Hyde, on Monday morning. Mr Francis Newton, the district coroner, held an enquiry touching the death of Gladys Perdue, the five months old, daughter of Elizabeth and Ann Henry Robert Perdue, which occurred at Lumn Court on the sixth instant. Mr John Firth was the foreman of the jury. Dr Stephen Infield said that he had been attending the deceased for about five months. It was an eight months old child and had been in delicate health since birth. He last saw her on the 26th of October. The mother had been very attentive to it. Although in poor circumstances, she had carried out his instructions. He saw the child a few minutes after death, but did not see any signs of convulsions. It really died from inanition. Elizabeth Ann Perdue wife of Henry Robert Perdue, a labourer employed by the great Central Railway Company, an ex-soldier second Manchester regiment served in the South African War, said she lived at 1 Lumn Court hide. Gladys Perdue was her daughter and was five months old. Deceased had been weak and delicate since birth and had been attended by Dr Infield. On Friday morning, about eight o'clock, she was nursing the deceased and after watching her, she commenced sighing and moaning and died about five minutes past nine. She sent to Dr infield but the child died before his arrival. She had done all she possibly could for her.
A verdict to the effect that death was due to inanition was recorded.
Thanks for sharing this very interesting piece of family history with us, Dave. :)
Much appreciated !