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).




Ancestors in the asylum – part 1

5 of my relatively close ancestors died in asylums between the 1870s and the 1940s and I have decided this summer to trace the details of their time in the asylum. 4 were in public asylums and 1 was in a private asylum. Their asylum stays ranged from 1 year to 40 years. 3 were related, a grandfather and 2 grandchildren. I’m particularly interested in why they were admitted to the asylum. This blogpost is intended to serve as an introduction to my asylum research.


John was my 2 times great grandfather. He was born in 1861 in Ettrick, Selkirkshire to John Stevens and Elizabeth Tullie and married Elizabeth Gamble in Ballymoney in 1895.

The General Register of Lunatics in Asylums tells me that John was admitted as a pauper (ie under the poor law system) to Hartwood Asylum, Shotts and he was there for 12 months until his death in February 1905. He died from acromegaly (a hormonal disorder causing bones to increase in size) and acute endocarditis (a heart infection).

This is Hartwood Asylum:


I intend searching for John in the Hartwood Asylum records and the North Lanarkshire poor law records ay North Lanarkshire archives and in the national asylum records at National Records of Scotland.


Allan McDonald was my 4 times great grandfather. 2 of his grandchildren were also in asylums. Allan was born in the parish of Southend in Argyllshire in 1795 to John McDonald and Mary McLachlan. He married Mary Ann Cameron in the same parish in 1827.

I know that Allan was in the private asylum, Sir Gabriel Wood’s Mariners Asylum in Greenock in 1861 and he died there in 1870 after a stay of at least 9 years. He died from asthma and chronic bronchitis.

This is Allan:


This is Sir Gabriel Wood’s Mariners Asylum:


This is a private asylum and its records have not been deposited in any archive. The trustees don’t have the historical records. However the asylum still exists as a care home and I am waiting to hear if the home has retained its historical records. Otherwise I intend researching this private asylum in newspapers and libraries.


Mary Ann was the sister of my 2 times great grandfather and the granddaughter of Allan McDonald mentioned above. Mary Ann was born in 1860 in Arbroath to Alexander Hunter and Mary Ann McDonald.

The General Register of Lunatics in Asylums tells me that Mary Ann was admitted to Kirklands Asylum in May 1910 as a pauper and was transferred 16 months later to Govan Asylum which was at Leverndale Hospital, Renfrewshire. She died there in August 1923 after 12 years and 1 month at Leverndale. She died from cholecystitis (inflammation of gall bladder) and gall stones.

This is Leverndale Hospital:


I intend researching Mary Ann in the national asylum records at the National Records of Scotland, in the poor law records at the Glasgow City Archives and in the Govan and Kirklands asylum records at the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives.


John was the brother of my 2 times great grandfather, the brother of Mary Ann Hunter and the grandson of Allan McDonald (both mentioned above).

John was born in Arbroath to Alexander Hunter and Mary Ann McDonald.

The General Register of Lunatics in Asylums tells me that John had 2 spells in asylums. John was admitted to Govan asylum as a pauper in July 1884 and was transferred 5 months later to Barony Asylum (also known as Woodilee, Lenzie) from which he was discharged as recovered another 5 months later in March 1885. John was readmitted to Govan Asylum in July 1896 where he was to die 28 years and 8 months later in February 1925. John died of a stroke.

This is Woodilee:


I intend researching John in the national asylum records in the National Records of Scotland, in the asylum records at the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives and in the poor law records at the Glasgow City Archives.


Jane was the 1st cousin of my 2 times great grandmother. She was born in the parish of Daviot and Dunlichity in Inverness-shire in 1870 to James Mann and Ann McCulloch.

The General Register of Lunatics in Asylums tells me that Jane was admitted to Inverness Asylum as a pauper in January 1901 and she was to die there after 40 years and 2 months in Inverness Asylum in February 1941. Jane died from senile dementia.

This is Inverness Asylum:


Unfortunately I know from previous research that the relevant poor law records haven’t survived. However I intend researching Jane in the Inverness Asylum records in the Highland Archives and in the national asylum records in the National Records of Scotland.

My next blogpost will be published in June with an update on my asylum research.

Searching for an emigrant for 15 years

This is the story of how I helped a distant cousin, Kate in Maryland, USA to find out about her great, great grandfather, whose origins she had been trying to trace for 15 years, using a combination of DNA family history research and traditional paper based family history research.

For those who haven’t tried it yet, there are 3 types of DNA tests used in family history research (Y DNA, mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA) all of which can be used to connect with cousins and investigate ethnicity.


In this case my autosomal DNA had matched with that of Kate in Maryland, USA and Kate had a tree on the My Heritage website where I spotted her great, great grandfather John Lees Barr born in Scotland around 1860. Now this caught my attention because I have ancestors with the surnames of Lees and Barr on my maternal line.

Now it should have been simply a case of looking for a John Lees Barr born in Scotland around 1860 and such an unusual name should have been easy. However I know from years of researching my Barr family that Lees is often used as a middle name but never in the official records. Therefore unsurprisingly there was no John Lees Barr and lots of John Barrs born in Scotland around 1860.

As a result my next step was to find John Lees Barr in the USA records and work backwards. I found John’s death certificate on the Ancestry website. He had died in Pennsylvania in 1928 and his death certificate named his Scottish parents. From there I traced back 118 years to the birth in 1810 of his grandfather John Barr who was the son of my 4 times great grandparents, John Barr and Agnes Lees.  So I discovered that Kate in Maryland and my mum are 4th cousins with the same 3 times great grandparents.

This is Annie Barr, the daughter of John Barr who emigrated to the USA and the grandmother of Kate in Maryland:

Anne Jones Barr Schmoll.jpg

When I contacted Kate she was absolutely thrilled as she had been searching for the Scottish roots of her great, great grandfather for 15 years but had got absolutely nowhere! I’m finishing this story with Kate’s reaction: ‘Oh I hope you can feel it because I am hugging you like crazy in my head.’


Originally published 22 December 2017:

Today I think it particularly apt to explain why I started my family history obsession as it’s the 100th anniversary today of the death of my great-grandmother Euphemia Barr.

When my grandfather died in 1990 the whole family were quite shocked that his mother, Euphemia Barr, was not buried in the family plot in St Kentigern’s cemetery, Glasgow.

I then made it my goal to find out where Euphemia was buried.

So, the lady herself ….. Euphemia was born in 1882 in Glasgow to George Barr from Pollokshaws and Margaret McIntosh from Dull, Perthshire.

Euphemia went to Oatlands School (photo attached of Euphemia dated I believe in her late teens) and then worked in the Scottish Co-Operative Wholesale Society (SCWS) factory in Shieldhall where she met and fell in love with my great-grandfather William Armour.

I believe this is Euphemia in her teens:

Euphemia (teenager)



However he is still remembered as a ‘lady’s man’ to this day. In 1903 a SCWS colleague Louisa Milne got pregnant by him but died giving birth to his son, James.

In 1914 Euphemia and William married and Euphemia had 3 children in quick succession, William (my grandfather), Frances and Elizabeth. This is my great-grandparents:

Euphemia and William

However Euphemia was not strong at the best of times and died 8 days after giving birth to Elizabeth (Actually Elizabeth was far stronger than her mother and only died 2 years ago). Euphemia died in Rottenrow Maternity Hospital and I’ve attached a photo of what remains.

My great-grandfather remarried in 1919 to his housekeeper, Elizabeth Welsh. Apparently the social pressure was such in Kelvinbridge that they were practically forced to marry!

Anyway, by the time I got this far with my family tree research, an Australian descendant of Euphemia’s brother Jack contacted me and confirmed that Euphemia was buried in the Eastern Necropolis cemetery with many Barr babies who had died tragically young. We now take Euphemia flowers twice a year and we’ve placed a small monument to the Barr family as no headstone exists:

Barr memorial

Euphemia might have died a century ago today but I’ve inherited a remarkable collection of her possessions.

I have school-books, laundry lists, favourite poems copied out in her best handwriting, 2 boxes of her postcards and letters including letters from her brother Jack pleading with her to emigrate and her brother George’s CV, newspaper clippings re medication, the last surviving piece of china hand-painted by Euphemia and finally and, most poignantly, the last letters Euphemia wrote to my grandfather during her final days of life at Rottenrow Hospital.

This is Euphemia’s hand-painted china:

Euphemia's china

Euphemia might not have survived on this earth for very long but she was a wonderful lady who inspired me to do, so far, 27 years of family history research …..