There was much less understanding of mental health in the Victorian period than there is today. Public asylums were largely used as dustbins for the unwanted mentally ill poor, while private ones attempted to treat the ‘mad’ relatives of the better off. Some families simply locked their disturbed relatives away in the attic, too embarrassed to be seen to have insanity ‘in the family’.
But of course there was probably just as much mental illness in the 1800s as there is today, but while modern society has slowly become more accepting of it our ancestors saw sufferers as objects of pity, danger or ridicule. Just as casual racism is evident in reading the Victorian press, so are jokes at the expense of the mentally ill.
Jane Roderick (also known as Jane Waddy) was brought up before the Marlborough Street police magistrate charged with being drunk and disorderly. She had been arrested in Leicester Square a few nights before, proclaiming the health of the Queen and Royal family loudly to anyone in the vicinity.
She was still quite loud when she stood in the dock as she explained her behaviour to him. Jane told the justice that the reason she had undertaken her own public celebration was because she had heard the good news that the sons of Her Majesty ‘had been admitted into the House of Parliament to assume their rights as the Royal family without the consent of Parliament’, which she deemed a good thing.
It was such a good thing, she continued, that she felt duty bound to drink a toast (or two) in port wine.
She then entered into an elaborate story: she was, she said, born in Kent and was a ‘woman of Kent’. Her uncle worked in the Queen’s gardens, she claimed, and so she had brought a rose for him to plant for the Queen. Her father had made a communion table at Chislehurst, and now she heard the Queen was ‘ready to support her sons’. Finally she added that she was widowed and one of her sons lived in a vicarage at Greenwich under the Queen’s care.
It was probably a mix of fact and fantasy, but it was delivered in a chaotic manner that suggested that the poor woman was not in full control of herself. That is certainly how the press depicted her.
Mr Vine, the court’s gaoler, now appeared to give evidence to the fact that the same woman had been up in court on the same charge four months earlier, and had given exactly the same story in her defence.
At this Jane either affected deafness or really was unable to hear what the man said. On it being repeated to her she admitted to having been drinking: ‘I had a “little drop” then, of course, and unfortunately I have been given to it since my husband’s death’.
Mr Cooke, the magistrate, turned to her and asked her if she had any friends locally. She had claimed to have been born in Poland Street (which prompted titters of laughter in court, but why is not clear). In the 1880s it was quite a respectable place in Soho with a number of artisans and tradesmen living there. Jane replied that her sister-in-law lived nearby, and then told him (somewhat randomly) that she was the daughter of a carpenter, and that one of the guardians of the poor in Lambeth had a mortgage on her fathers house.
Again, this may well all have been true but it didn’t really answer the magistrate’s questions.
He declared: ‘I think you are not right in your mind. You will be sent down to..’
‘Sent down! Where?’ interrupted Jane.
‘To the House of Detention for a week; but they will not put you in the cell’.
She thanked him and added, ‘I shall charge you 13s for this; and if you have not money to pay, why, spout your ticker!’
This last remark brought the house down in laughter, clearly amusing the court reporter who added that she then left ‘with a jaunty air’, calling the gaoler to ‘order her brougham [her carriage] to drive her to Hanwell’.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 21, 1885]
Happy solstice everyone!