A Name to Treasure

Chapter 1

“Much madness is divinest sense

To a discerning eye”

Do not be distressed as you see them walk past. I am fine here, swinging my legs, crying from time to time. It’s why I’m here, idling away my time. I’d like to tell you – tell you what I know – but words just end up silent. I’m not bad. I can’t hear what they say, not really, but I do know. Look past my dirty dress into my eyes – let me hold you there. Be brave. I will not harm you. In my irises, like rings of a tree, you can see my years. Maybe you will see what I have seen. Can you see the child I was the day I came?


It would be a place like no other – at least that was the intention. Those who ruled the city gathered in full morning suits, solemn and well-meaning. There had been a great deal of correspondence, a great deal of care taken over the wording of the mayor’s speech. It seemed wrong to boast, wrong to use the occasion to claim any moral high ground, and yet this was one of the first asylums to be built under the new Act. It was an obligation, not a benevolent gesture of the high-minded and good whose fat bank balances could keep them safely in another part of town.


So, at 10am they gathered under a blue spring sky. The town band, used to giving concerts on Sundays in the park, was called up for an extra duty, to give the occasion a sense of ceremony and celebration. The press was there – the editor himself had left the office for this particular morning, no doubt encouraged by the prospect of a good lunch afterwards at the Queen’s Hotel. He would, of course, report the day’s activities in glowing terms. He was lucky indeed to edit the newspaper for a city whose rulers were so great and understanding. He would note every word the Mayor uttered – in fact, he had been given a copy of the speech in advance. They took no chances – every word was meant …


“The building of which the first stone is now to be laid is one which may exert an important influence upon the well being of those of our poor fellow townspeople upon whom the Providence of God has fallen with a bereaving and afflictive hand. It is impossible to conceive of any condition of humanity more calculated to excite our warmest sympathies than that which is deprived of the distinguishing characteristic of an human being – reason. One would have thought that at all periods such beings would not only have secured to them the kindly fostering care of relations, friends and neighbours, but that the legislation would have taken means to have protected them – to at any rate provided for their bodily comfort even though medical science and skill had not at all periods advanced as far as to give hope of recovery from the mental malady. Yet strange to say it was not till the reign of George II, probably about 1740, that there was any enacted paper providing for the care of lunatics and to what did that act point – not to the comfort of the sufferers, nor to their cure, but simply to the protection of others from their violence, for according to the words of the act, they were to be removed to the places provided for them – “to be there chained”. The attention of the legislation having once been directed to the subjects, several acts followed in the succeeding reigns, each having a more humane tendency than the one which preceded it, till at last it was reserved for the present reign to add another proof of the beneficent spirit which must in future pervade all legislation for the poor and which will be the most brilliant gem in the crown of our beloved Queen.”


The dignitaries stood to attention and soaked up the atmosphere of the occasion. As an afterthought, the Master of the Workhouse brought a small group of the deranged to see where, thanks to the blessings of the mayor and God, they would soon be sent. They waved their arms and babbled senselessly … a day out for them … a good walk … fresh air. The poor were hard enough work, the mad were something different. To any onlooker, the scene would have been humorous in its contrasts – black morning suits and sober words with, as a backdrop, a crowd of madmen waving coloured handkerchiefs, playing the fool. The Asylum was indeed a necessity. As Birmingham grew, so did the number of mad.


And still the mayor droned on. The City Councillors shifted from foot to foot, gentling tugging their watch chains to see if the prospect of lunch was getting nearer. The mayor loved to hear the well-crafted words he himself had written…

“In all the best regulated Asylums now, harshness has given way to kind treatment, and I need hardly say that the certainty of the poor experiencing this here will tend much to mitigate the grief which the friends of the patients cannot but feel at the necessity of placing them under restraint. With this showing, then looking at the state of things now existing and that which is proposed, will it be said that such a building was not desirable – nay necessary? I can pledge my word that no effort will be spared by those to whose care the erection of this building is confided that they will devote their best energies to the accomplishment of the benevolent intentions of Government and will not only erect the building, but carry forward a system which shall confer honour upon the town, and happiness, and with God’s blessing restoration to thousands of our afflicted fellow townsmen.”


Lunch at the Queen’s Hotel, to everyone’s delight, was indeed an excellent banquet.


I did not really matter, a fact I quickly came to understand. Father called me “the poor dumb girl” and mother never referred to me at all. She shouted when I was small. Then a nurse, then mother stayed away. Sometimes father came to find me.

“Poor dumb girl,” he said.

I cried. My brothers all had a name. We were respectable – they would grow up and do things, make changes, be men. They were called a name: Henry, James and Bartholomew, the youngest one. My name was new as the day it was given me: I could not utter it. My family ignored it, blushing with shame. Shiny and new, I treasured my name like a coin. My name would have a story to tell. But that’s for the future, not now.


I was ten when they sent me to school – the carriage passing the big houses of Edgbaston until I saw the sign “Deaf and Dumb Asylum”. I thought I was going for a while – a week or two for help, that’s all. It’s true, at home I was bored.

“No amount of money would ever get her a husband.”

Those were the words my father used, suddenly realising this fact and recognising the need to do something at once.

“She’ll cost us dear one way or the other – might as well see if she has any brain.”

I’m not bitter, but I do not understand. Not everything. Not how I never saw home again after that day, heard nothing from anyone, saw no one. It’s like they died that rainy day in spring. They buried me; I did not bury them. I do not know when they really died but they must have done one day. It’s only natural. Yet they buried me alive.


My new home was cold – supposed to sharpen the brain, get words to drop from our lips like glassy rain. I even think they cared. The Master was a good man, a sort of fuzzy warmth coming from his eyes, hiding in his whiskers. He was a man of letters, books, and a fondness for watching the young lady teachers from the corner of a room. Oh, I saw that! I liked him for it – at least he was alive. His wife cared too, but cared for money, cutting corners, making sure the plates were never full enough. Her dresses had to be bought and parties given for the worthy of the town. Why not give less to those of us who could not ask for more?


I prospered there – not stupid at all. From time to time I cried – I even tried to shout out, making the best of the noises available to me. They didn’t like that at all. Silence was good, all noise was bad – as if we were all in a church praying that God would make us better, give us ears to hear and mouths to speak.  I think we all prayed this from time to time. But what was wrong with sound? Our voices were not beautiful, but we were human, too. Children should be seen and not heard – especially us. That was the way of things.


Then one day I kicked a chair, upset a table, shouted. It was my birthday, and no one had noticed. There were no presents – oh, I was used to that – but usually I was given a smile or good wish, sometimes even a flower. But that day – nothing. Four years I had spent there, four years and now they could not remember when I was born. At home, all those years ago, I was nameless – now my existence was forgotten. I was angry. There would be no peace – I would shout and get noticed – whatever happened to me.


Extract from Admissions Book – Birmingham Lunatic Asylum


Annie Margaret Burton


Admitted 06/03/1850     14 years old       Single


She was brought from the Deaf and Dumb Asylum on account of her bad tempers - had been there 4 years. She is a girl of moderate height and bulk and sanguine temperament. Looks intelligent and shows no sign of mental aberration. Can read and write.




I came here - one of the first I was, the youngest. This time I did not consider how many weeks or months or years I would live here. It turned out to be a lifetime – and not a short one, mind. A life lived to the end, past my three score years and ten. Hidden I was, but often treated kind.

“Poor silent thing” they said, as my eyes watched them moving round the room.

And this is my story – the story of a name. I will show you what made me smile, and you will smile too. I’ll tell you about good men, and the one who kicked a man into the next life. I will talk to you about good women, and ones who killed. There were murders, yes, and suicides. Life here was like a book. I’ll turn for you the page.







Writer, teacher, historian and genealogist


Stewart M Else
Meester H F de Boerlaan 9
7417DC Deventer
The Netherlands
+31 (0)570 677126




                                              Dr Thomas GREEN - First Medical Superintendent