“The last descendant of the Bruce”?: madness and the magistracy in mid Victorian London

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This is another example of mid-nineteenth century attitudes towards mental illness. At the time mental health was not as well understood as it is today but it seems to have been, if not as prevalent, then still quite significant as a societal problem.

Ms Wetherall (if indeed that was her real name) was quite well know to the staff and magistracy at Marlborough Street Police court. The respectably dressed middle-aged woman had appeared at the court to ask the magistrates’ advice on more than one occasion.

On her previous visit she had told the bench that she was about to be married to Earl of Carlisle and had been summoned by ‘various tradesmen’ upon she had imposed in order to get herself the necessary wedding outfit on credit, something they had declined to do.

In a separate incident  she apparently declared she was ‘the last descendent of the Bruce’ (meaning Robert the Bruce, the victor of the battle of Bannockburn and a Scottish national hero). She had made this extraordinary assertion outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and was led away by a policeman. The magistrate then had sent her to be assessed by the medical authorities in St Martin’s to see if she was quite in her right mind.

Now she appeared before Mr Hardwick (the parish officials at St Martin’s clearly not wanting anything to do with her) to make an application to retrieve some property that she claimed her former landlady was withholding from her. It was a common enough application for a magistrate to decide on but given her history Mr Hardwick chose to fob her off. He said that as she had previously applied for similar things to his colleague Mr Bingham, she would have to direct this application to him on the following Monday.

Ms Wetherell was unhappy with this decision as she said she may not be able to make Monday. She told the justice she was sailing to Australia on Monday and may well have already sailed by the time the court opened. Having stated her case she upped and left the court leaving everyone wondering what her story would be when she next appeared.  She was clearly suffering with some form of mental illness which Victorian society was unable to help. However, she was not abusive or dangerous, the nineteenth-century’s equivalent of the early modern ‘village idiot’ perhaps, so off she went, no doubt with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, 15 November, 1849]

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