Why were my ancestors in asylums – part 2 of ‘Ancestors in the Asylums’

This week I have spent 2 afternoons in the National Records of Scotland and one afternoon in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Archive trying to find out exactly why my ancestors were placed in asylums.  In this blog post, I’m going to share with you the reasons for John Milne Hunter, Jane Mann and John Stevens going into asylums.

I’ve spent the week on the verge of tears many times at the thought of how mentally ill my ancestors were so I am interested in your reactions.

Along the way this week I’ve discovered yet another ancestor who was in an asylum.  A questionnaire was completed on entrance to the asylum and one question was ‘was anyone else in the family insane’. And another name joined the list of ‘lunatics’ …

John Milne Hunter

As a reminder, John was the brother of my great, great grandfather and was in the Govan Parochial Asylum also known as Merryflats for 5 months in 1884, was transferred from Merryflats to the Barony Parochial Asylum also known as Woodilee for 5 months from 1884 to 1885 and then back to Merryflats from 1896 until his death in 1925.

This is Merryflats:


When John first went into an asylum in 1884, he had been discharged from the army as insane 14 days beforehand and it was believed his insanity derived from a head injury.  John was noted as being dangerous to others.

The first doctor that examined him said of him: ‘Very excitable and delusive. Talks incoherently. Has a wild looking appearance and conducts himself strangely. His mother states that he is restless and that she has to watch and humour him.’

The second doctor that examined him said of him: ‘Is very excited looking and incoherent. Mutters to himself about going under. Keeps constantly expectorating and turning on the water tap. His mother states that he was discharged from the army as insane on the 1st July and that he has threatened his brother and sister with a poker.’ Expectorating meaning coughing up phlegm.

When John is readmitted in 1896, his mental health has clearly taken a turn for the worse.

The first doctor that examined him said of him: ‘ Lies in bed quite naked, refuses to speak or answer questions. His mother states that he has been strange in his manner for some time, is sometimes violent, is refusing his food and has been in the asylum before’.

The second doctor that examined him said of him: ‘Found him in bed but when questioned would not answer but covered his head and behaved in an insane manner.  His mother states that he has been strange since October and that he has ben getting worse and was found by the police wandering about and behaving strangely.’

I am now beginning to access John’s medical notes which I will share in a future blog post.

Jane Mann

As a reminder Jane was the first cousin of my great, great-grandmother.  Jane was in Inverness asylum for 7 months between 1896 and 1897 and then in the same asylum for 40 years and 2 months from 1901 until her death in 1941.

This is Inverness asylum:


When Jane was admitted the first time, she was said to be rather dangerous to others!

The first doctor that examined her said of her: ‘ Talks incessantly in an incoherent manner, has seen visions and heard voices from the sky. Talks of people whom she does not know as passing under various aliases and being friends of hers. Her mother informs me that she has threatened to strike her without any reason and has told her she has seen her father who is dead and continually talks nonsense.’

The second doctor that saw her said of her: ‘Continually talking incoherently, has seen visions of several persons constantly in the room. Has an idea that one or two people wish to harm and injure her, has the appearance of an insane person.  Her sister mentions that during the past 5 or 7 weeks she has had violent attacks of excitement and has threatened to strike both she and her mother.’

Unfortunately by the time Jane was readmitted she was now suicidal.

When Jane was readmitted, the first doctor said of her: ‘She talks of seeing and hearing people at night who do not exist and thinks she is in danger and she talks of drowning herself.   Her sister Bella Mann informs me that she has repeatedly threatened to do away with herself and is constantly seeing people and hearing voices who do not exist.’


The second doctor that saw her when she was readmitted said: ‘Has an odd melancholy look, has a delusion that people went about her house and were going to take her to prison because she had done something wrong.  Has a feeling that she is to harm her mother and sister. Mr John MacBean, Assistant Inspector of Poor, Inverness says that she imagines that people come into the house by the window to do her harm. Wants to drown herself because she imagines she has done harm to her sister and mother.’

I am looking forward with interest to seeing what records for Jane’s stay have survived in Inverness Archives.

John Stevens

As a reminder John was my great, great grandfather and was in Hartwood Asylum near Shotts for a year from March 1904 until his death in February 1905.

This is Hartwood Asylum:



I have always been curious as to why John died in Shotts when his wife and children were in Belfast.  I have discovered that some of his family were living in Rutherglen (21 miles from Shotts) and I suspect that, going by how much his mental health had deteriorated (see below), I now believe that his wife was concerned about the effect his behaviour would have on their young children (aged 7, 5 and 1 at the time of his admission).

When John was admitted he was said to be a danger to others.

The first doctor that examined John on admission to the asylum said of him: ‘He lies in bed and is dull and apathetic and refuses to rise. He says he was employed with Robinson and Charon in New York (he was employed with the firm in Belfast). He keeps on saying that ‘it is down’ constantly referring to his rupture, he states it is not rupture and that his testicles are down. Patient’s mother states that he exposes himself indecently in the house and that he is sometimes afraid to sit down in case of breaking his testicle. James Stevens (his brother) states that patient blamed his mother for bring down the rupture and was going to strike her and that he walks around the house with his trousers down.’

The second doctor that saw John was of the following opinion: ‘He is considerably demented, his memory is very poor, he is also very irritable, his speech is quite incoherent and he cannot give a rational account of his doings.  James Stevens his brother says he is very depressed and that at times he becomes excited and violent. He is guilty of indecent exposure of his person.’

In a few weeks I am going to investigate what records have survived for John’s stay in Hartwood Asylum at North Lanarkshire Archives

My gut instinct, when I realised how many ancestors I my family tree were in asylums, was that it was not going to be good news and not simply menopause or depression.  However I am still quite shocked.  Besides seeking further records for these poor souls, I am now interested in researching what their living conditions were like at these particular ancestors and how well they were cared for.

(Source of the information in this blog post: Notices of the Admissions by the Superintendents of the Mental Institutions, series MC2, National Records of Scotland).




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