If you follow this blog closely you may have noticed that I live quite close to the former Colney Hatch Asylum. Once the largest ‘lunatic’ asylum in Europe, it is now a private residential development with an onsite gym run by the Nuffield Health organization. The asylum was built in 1851 and the area I now live in grew up around it. Many of the occupants of houses in my street and those around it either worked in the asylum or its grounds, or were associated in some way with it.
In 1937 Colney Hatch asylum became plain Friern mental hospital (locals keen to lose the association with mental illness that the institution’s presence had implanted). A couple of decades later it was renamed Friern Hospital and in 1993 it closed its doors for good, and the developers moved in.
In 1865 the asylum was ‘home’ to the wife of John Nicholls, a Bromley based boilermaker. While his wife was confined in Colney Hatch John had to provide 4s a week for her maintenance and continue to support their family. The couple had four children, and he looked to the eldest girl, Ann (17) to look after the younger ones and keep the home while he went out to work.
Unfortunately Ann didn’t seem inclined to accept her fate as a ‘housewife’ or unpaid domestic; like so many teenagers she craved adventure and independence. And this got her into trouble with her father and eventually led to an appearance at the Thames Police court.
On 29 March 1865 a reluctant John Nicholls brought charges of theft against his daughter Mary Ann before Mr Paget, the sitting magistrate. He explained that she had been stealing from him for ages and despite his efforts to stop her, and her promises to reform, nothing had changed in the last few weeks.
Mr Paget asked him if he seriously wanted to prosecute his own child. ‘Would you not save her from a prison’, he demanded. John Nicholls answered that ‘she had robbed him so often that his complete ruin would result if he passed over her delinquencies any longer’.
‘I trusted her to look after my home and property, and she has robbed me over and over again and pawned my things’, the unhappy father told the justice.
‘I cannot keep a thing in place’, he continued. ‘She goes out when she likes and comes in when she likes. She went out last night and came in at half-past 1 o’clock this morning. I don’t know where she goes to or what company she keeps’.
On one occasion she took all his weekly earnings and spent it. The family had no fuel or food as a result. He showed the magistrate a series of pawn tickets as proof of his daughter’s offending. He gave her money he said, but she took everything else and he was now at his wits end, clearly struggling to cope with the loss of his wife.
‘I have lost her dear mother, and she has neglected me and the house, and I am afraid she is going to ruin fast’, adding: ‘What am I going to do, sir?”
Mr Paget was sympathetic. It was a sad case he said and he would remand Mary Ann for a week in the hopes it brought her to her senses.
I suspect that week in custody was enough to persuade Mary Ann that her father was serious about stopping her from descending into ‘ruin’. Whether it worked or not is impossible to discover. Mary Ann is not an uncommon name in the 1800s and there are several women of that name (though not that age) in the records held within the Digital Panopticon.
We might be able to find Mrs Nicholls in the records of Colney Hatch (which are held by the London Metropolitan Archives) and discover if she ever got out and went home to John and her children. It is a terribly sad story, as many of those I write about were. Support simply did not exist in the 1800s for working class families which suffered as John Nicholls’ had. Even today mental illness can devastate families and seriously impact the lives of vulnerable young people like Mary Ann.
Who knows what she had seen and heard as her mother deteriorated and was taken away to be effectively imprisoned behind the walls of a Victorian asylum. How can we begin to understand what effect it had on her own mental health and her relationship with her father and siblings?
Today I suspect we would be able to offer some professional help both to John and Mary Ann but in 1865 that help simply didn’t exist.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday 30 March 1865]