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Tracing Your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums (Paperback)

A Guide for Family Historians

Family History P&S History Victorian Era 20th Century 18th Century 19th Century

By Michelle Higgs
Imprint: Pen & Sword Family History
Series: Tracing Your Ancestors
Pages: 208
Illustrations: 40
ISBN: 9781526744852
Published: 30th October 2019


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How can you trace forebears who were patients in lunatic asylums and find out about their lives? What sources can you consult to discover their personal histories and gain an insight into their experiences? In this concise, accessible handbook, Michelle Higgs answers these questions. She provides a fascinating introduction to the subject and gives readers the means to explore the records for themselves.

She concentrates on the period from the eighteenth century through to 1948 when the National Health Service was founded and looks in particular at the Victorian era which is the most popular period for research. Using original records, contemporary accounts, photographs, illustrations and case studies of real individuals, she brings the story of the asylums and their patients to life.

Different types of institution are described such as private madhouses, county lunatic asylums, facilities for idiots and imbeciles, and military mental hospitals. Chapters look at the admission procedures and daily routine of patients, plus different kinds of mental illness and how they were treated – for instance, those with depression or mania, criminal lunatics, mothers with puerperal insanity, epileptics and soldiers suffering from shell shock. There are sections on the systems in Scotland and Ireland, as well as England and Wales. Information is provided on all the relevant sources, from wills and the census to casebooks and admission and discharge registers.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For anyone with even a remote interest in Victorian lunatic Asylums, this is an absolutely fascinating book.

In addition to providing a wealth of information about the asylums, the treatment of mental illness, and tracing ancestors in asylums, the book provides absolutely heartbreaking case studies of actual patients. Reading how these unfortunate individuals found themselves committed for what would now be seen as totally treatable mental or emotional issues, and how many languished there till they died decades later, is horrific. These include the story of Ann Rebecca, who died in 1875, at the age of 88, having spent the previous 65 years in the asylum. There are numerous photos of asylum patients along with illustrations and photos of the asylums themselves and life within them.

For those wanting to trace their ancestors, the book provides information on useful websites and places to visit, along with information on problems you might run into, such as that such was the stigma with regard to mental illness that often the full name of the patient was not recorded in the census.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone interested in mental health, social history, asylums or geneology. An absolutely fascinating read, my favourite non fiction of 2019 so far.

NetGalley, Carolyn Farrell

A very interesting book.

NetGalley, Kirsten McEvoy

Really liked this book! It was extremely informative to a degree you don't see enough when it comes to the era of asylums!
I can't say too much because it is a historical read, so a lot just has to be left to you to read yourself. But if the subject matter interests you, you really need to check it out!

NetGalley, T.B. Caine

Higgs provides a highly readable discussion on the institutionalization of British Isles persons suffering from a variety of mental disorders.The majority of institutions discussed are in England, Scotland, or Wales. Higgs shows how attitudes toward the mentally ill evolved over time. The narrative includes several case studies of individuals, providing a list of sources used in each sketch. Near the end she discusses record availability, providing a few examples. As a genealogist, I wish this section had been expanded to include additional record images. Genealogists with family members spending time in an asylum in the United Kingdom will find this book helpful to their research.

NetGalley, Lori Thornton

More than just a simple guide to finding relatives... instructive and helpful.

NetGalley, Nureeni Lem

This book will be of enormous benefit to residents of Great Britain and perhaps other European nation's.

NetGalley, Julia Smith

This is a very informative, straight forward book which explores the history of mental asylums and many of the people who were held in them... All in all, this is a pretty good guide if you would like to learn more about lunatic asylums.

NetGalley, Amanda Lily
 Michelle Higgs
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