Forgotten lives commemorated

Forgotten lives commemorated

People who lived in institutions often remain ‘shut away’ after death and buried in unmarked graves. They deserve remembrance, say Helen Atherton and David O’Driscoll

Remembering the asylum dead of Yorkshire

Gone but no longer forgotten:the memorial to Broadgate psychiatric hospital residents

A local history project about a long-stay institution found little was remembered or recorded about what happened to patients who had died there – so I decided to investigate, writes Helen Atherton.

Staff from the University of Leeds and Purple Patch Arts, a West Yorkshire arts organisation, were carrying out the oral history project to collect the personal stories of those who had lived and worked at Brandesburton Hospital in East Yorkshire.

The research team interviewed around 40 people, both former staff and patients. Many varied features of hospital life were revealed but the response to death was the least well recalled, with few interviewees remembering what had happened to patients once they had died.

Traditionally, funeral arrangements were the responsibility of family members. However, patients often had no known relatives, so the hospital administration had this duty.

Investigation revealed that patients of Brandesburton Hospital were usually buried in the village graveyard and this was confirmed by the death registers in the local archives. To begin with, graves were marked with wooden crosses but, more commonly, no headstone was in place.

Given that many patients in long-stay institutions were essentially ‘put away’ and forgotten, the irony of this situation – the lack of recognition continuing in death – was not lost on the team and spurred them on to putting this right.

With the support of the local vicar and parish council, moves are afoot to erect a headstone and information board in the churchyard in memory of all those who lived and died in the hospital. A crowdfunding appeal has raised more than £1,000.

The Brandesburton Hospital memorial is not the only example of people coming together to address such past injustices.

In the East Yorkshire market town of Beverley, a commemorative stone was recently unveiled to mark the graves of some 935 patients from Broadgate psychiatric hospital who had been buried in pauper graves in the town’s cemetery.

The event was publicised but only a handful of people attended. This illustrates the problem of raising public awareness of the importance of such memorials in ensuring those who were often forgotten in life are not also forgotten in death.

Dr Helen Atherton is a learning disability nurse and a lecturer in nursing at the School of Healthcare at University of Leeds

 Why the little-known history of institutional deaths matters now

Leavesden hospital in Abbots Langley near Watford in Hertfordshire was part of the first group of hospitals for people with learning disability in this country, opening in the 1870s, writes David O’Driscoll.

This hospital, built for the population of north London, had extensive grounds with an extraordinary range of facilities including a chapel, laundry, gas works, water supply, farm, bakery, paint workshops and a Turkish bath.

It always struggled with overcrowding – designed for 1,500 people, it had filled to 2,000 in a few years. This level remained more or less the same for the next 100 years.

One unusual thing about Leavesden was that it had a couple of graveyards. The other two major hospitals in Hertfordshire Ð Harperbury and Cell Barnes – did not.

This is significant because little is known about the deaths of the tens of thousands of people with learning disabilities who were admitted to these places. Only recently has there been any curiosity.

How long did they live there before death? How did they die? At what age? How did the institutions dispose of their dead? Was there a ritual? Were staff and hospital patients invited? How were families told?

All these questions have come to the fore with the recent Learning Disability Mortality Review report. This found life expectancy for people with learning disabilities, far from improving, is getting worse in some instances, such as for women. This is why it is essential we need to research these places, to understand the context of this disturbing statistic.

I have been exploring the mostly unmarked graves at Leavesden with Dr Stuart Todd of the University of South Wales; we have discovered some depressing, shocking things. Between 1918 and 1940, 2,308 people were buried there – an average of eight per plot. They were often buried in paupers’ graves, their lives simply forgotten.

We hope to publish more soon and hope to see other researchers look into this critical hidden history.

David O’Driscoll is a psychotherapist with Hertfordshire Partnership Foundation Trust

These articles are part of a series on memorialisation.

Our last issue covered the Calderstones cemetery campaign; the next will discuss institutional deaths.