St John’s Church, Holloway
Not for the first time I’m struck by how frequently the police courts of the metropolis (the forerunners of modern magistrates courts) prosecuted individuals who exhibited clear sign of mental ill health. Victorian society not only lacked the resources to care for the mentally ill, they also had a much less well-developed understanding of them.
As a result the ‘mad’ and ‘insane’ were locked up in institutions like Bedlam (which gives us a popular term for chaos), small private asylums, or, later in the century, larger public ones such as Colney Hatch. The treatment individuals received in such institutions varied but it very far from being ‘caring’.
This was probably the sort of place that John Hassalt ended up in after his brush with Mr Laing, the sitting magistrate at Hatton Garden, in May 1837. At the start of Victoria’s reign John may have been sent to Hanwell in Middlesex, which opened in May 1831. But he might equally simply have been housed in one of the capital’s many workhouses, especially if he was poor. There he would have had virtually nothing that might be described today as ‘specialist mental health care’.
So what had John Hassalt done to earn his appearance in court and a possible relocation to an asylum or workhouse?
John was a bricklayer – or so he was described in court – and he was charged, by the churchwarden of St. John’s in Holloway, with ‘having disturbed the congregation in church on Sunday’.
Mr Povey, the churchwarden, explained that on that morning he’d entered the church just as the curate was reading prayers. Hassalt had approached the pulpit and was about to enter it and take over the service when Povey and several other parishioners seized him and led him away. It was not the first time John had tried to interrupt proceedings he added, but enough was clearly enough for the exasperated churchman.
Apparently all John Hassalt wanted to do was ‘expound the holy truths of religion’ to the gathered audience. When questioned by the magistrate he said nothing other than this in defence and clearly thought he was entitled to do just that. He had written to the curate to express his wish and determination to preach and thought that would or should suffice as explanation.
Povey piped up to say that Hassalt was clearly ‘touched in his intellect’ (in other words he was ‘mad’).
‘No, I am right enough’ countered the bricklayer.
To which the justice declared that:
‘his notions of religion could not be very correct or he would not disturb a Minister of the Gospel in the performance of his duty’. He must promise not to do so again.
Hassalt would make no such promise. Indeed he solemnly swore notto! At this the magistrate lectured him on his conduct at some length and warned that if he was brought before him again he would be forced to send him to prison.
I doubt that would have done much good – the warning or a prison sentence – because Hassalt was convinced of the rightness of his beliefs. I fear the only logical outcome of this was likely to be his future confinement, not to a prison, but a mental hospital, either on the command of the state or at the expense of his family, if he had any.
[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 23, 1837]
This has similarities to another tale over interruptions to church services (this one at St Paul’s) and for other stories that involve mental illness see: