Private Asylum Inmates


Elsewhere on this website we have covered the big public mental facilities of the area in some depth (see, for example, The Epsom Cluster) and we have also looked at illnesses, treatments, doctors and a few specific patients. However, generally speaking, we are aware of private asylums and their patients/inmates only if we know who the doctors are and are actively looking for particular people, or if something happens to bring them to public attention, such as the tragic case of Miss Stolterfoht, who was under the care of Dr Reichardt of Ewell. In Epsom we had the Stilwells' private asylum at Silver Birches, later run by Dr William Daniel, and there were doctors who took in just one or two patients, such as Thomas John Graham at Woodcote End House and Joseph Ward at East Hill House.

In the case of Silver Birches patients were identified by initials up until 1891, although sometimes there was a first name, but the noticeable thing was that they were all women. My interest in them was sparked by another person I was researching, who appears to have had mental impairment but escaped 'institutions' for as long as she still had people to give her a normal type of home and look after her. When she eventually didn't, she was cared for by nuns in a convent facility for many years until she died.

Ironically perhaps, some of the patients were very long-standing residents of the borough, much longer than many 'normal' individuals who have articles on this website (one of those I am about to describe was in Silver Birches for almost 40 years), but they would have gone under the radar, being described on census forms as lunatics or imbeciles or sometimes just visitors or boarders (there wasn't a column for lunatic or imbecile on the earlier forms). The terminology is harsh and uncompromising, but in reality there was a whole range of impairments, which would have specific names and often medications these days.

Postcard of Silver Birches c.1904.
Postcard of Silver Birches c.1904.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The Collings sisters

Both Collings sisters were inmates of Silver Birches. They originated from India, where their father, Elias, was an officer in the 8th Madras Native Infantry of the Honourable East India Company; he died in 1818. Their mother was Euphemia Arsando (or similar), the daughter of a Spanish merchant; apparently she remarried after the death of Elias and became Mrs Thompson, but the marriage broke down. She died in India in 1828. An extraordinary tale about the sisters, Maria and Amelia Maria Hortensia, came out at a hearing of the Commission of Lunacy held at the Roebuck Tavern, Chiswick on 20 December 1847, as reported in the Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology of 1 January 1848: this hearing, before a special jury, concerned Maria, although Amelia was mentioned many times, and then a separate hearing for Amelia was held at the same venue on 4 February 1848.

The Collings family was very prominent in Guernsey and the hearings concerned whether or not the sisters were capable of managing their own affairs. Both were already in an asylum. The essence of the tale seems to be that they were delusional about their heritage, believing that they were or should be Spanish royalty, via their mother's family, and exaggerating their true financial worth; they also thought that their mother had been murdered in Guernsey. It was said that they fed off each other in compounding the delusions. There were basic truths in their story but the real facts had been embellished and changed to a ridiculous degree and the medical men called as witnesses were of the opinion that both ladies were of unsound mind. However, the jury begged to differ in the case of Maria and by a majority they decided that she was of sound mind and perfectly capable of taking care of herself and her property. By contrast, Amelia made a different impression and the jury decided the opposite in her case. The story in brief was that members of the wider Collings family had placed both ladies in an asylum in September 1847 and their only surviving sibling, Mrs Euphemia Findlater, had arrived back in England from her home in France to find them incarcerated. There were suggestions that the Collings family was after the ladies' money, but there didn't seem to be all that much money (except in the heads of Maria and Amelia themselves, where zeroes came and went from the right-hand end of the amounts involved like snowflakes in the wind) and I think the family would have known that: it was probably more a case of nobody being inclined to take them on, given their mental problems. There was also reference to the Findlaters' religious beliefs: they were said to be Irvingites (also known as members of the Catholic Apostolic Church) who, shall we say, were very specific and enthusiastic in their beliefs. It was felt by some that this would make Maria and Amelia worse.

In the 1851 census Maria was not in an asylum but was described as a visitor to a female household in Paddington. This may well have been an arrangement whereby she was placed in a private house and the householder was paid to look after her, which was fairly common back then. Amelia, still only 33, was in the private asylum at Wood End House, Hayes, Middlesex, which was run by Dr George Stilwell (this would have been Dr George Stilwell Senior, rather than George James Stilwell as named in the source material): she was identified only by her initials.

Perhaps surprisingly, Amelia was out and about in the 1861 census, living in Walcot, Somerset with Euphemia, whose husband, Francis Findlater, was a retired surgeon: she was described as 'insane' on the form. Maria was in lodgings at Hove. The Lunacy Patients Admission Registers show that both of them had been in and out of asylums since September 1847.

By 1871, both ladies were at Silver Birches, as Amelia C ('imbecile') and Maria C ('lunatic'). Maria had been admitted in August 1863 and Amelia in January 1866. One would imagine that Maria had deteriorated significantly and that the Findlaters were no longer able to cope with Amelia. It had been said at the hearings mentioned earlier that the two sisters were close to each other and opinions varied on whether it was better for them to be apart or not. Now they were together, but not for long, as Amelia died at Silver Birches on 25 February 1875 and was buried in Epsom Cemetery (Grave B19A). Maria remained in the asylum until she died on 16 February 1901, aged 89; she was buried with Amelia. Euphemia Findlater had already expired in 1885.

Honora Elizabeth Graham Wilder

It's impossible to know the real circumstances of a person's impairment unless you have something like the proceedings concerning the Collings sisters, but you can attempt to join up the dots, which I have done here.

I doubt that Honora was a 'lunatic' in the absolute sense, as she was described in the 1881 census, when at Silver Birches, and again in 1901: rather, I think she had been floored by serial misfortune and was in and out of medical care because she couldn't cope with the awful emotional aftermath. There are only two admissions recorded for her in the Lunacy Patients Admission Registers and in both instances she was released after a time. These days she would probably have been treated on an outpatient basis with psychiatric help and/or medication.

She was born Honora Elizabeth Graham Smith in Kirdford, Sussex in 1853, daughter of landed proprietor Graham Smith and his wife Elizabeth (née Tyssen). The family soon moved to Easton Grey House in Wiltshire and there was plenty of money, since they had a battalion of servants.

Easton Grey House, Wiltshire 2015.
Easton Grey House, Wiltshire 2015.
Image Ray Bird © and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The first major blow to Honora was probably the death of her older sister, Marilla Sophia Graham Smith, who was buried at Easton Grey on 15 February 1865, aged just 17. Mrs Elizabeth Smith died in 1870 and Graham Smith himself was said to have been very low and depressed about both events. Then, in November 1871, he shot himself through the head and a verdict of suicide was returned. However, life improved when Honora met and married the Reverend George Gordon Wilder, the vicar of Eling, Hampshire, early in 1874. George was a popular young clergyman and even read his own banns for the wedding. Everything seemed set fair. Two sons, Graham Marshall and Edward Gordon, were born in quick succession and then tragedy struck. On 2 November 1876, a few months after Edward's birth, George died suddenly at the vicarage, aged 31. The newspaper report of the funeral listed the mourners but Honora does not seem to have attended. Perhaps she was suffering from post-natal depression as well as cumulative grief over her losses. I would think that all this overwhelmed her and on 11 November 1880 she was admitted to Silver Birches; her sons were with their paternal grandfather, also a clergyman, in the 1881 census.

Honora was discharged on 12 August 1883; I have no idea where she went immediately, but she turned up in the 1891 census as 'Nora Wilder' at a lodging house in Eastbourne. Edward was with her, so it seems that things might have stabilised. Meanwhile, son Graham had become a boarder at Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire (a similar type of idea to the Epsom Medical College, except that it was originally for the sons of clergymen). However, Honora was back in Silver Birches on 22 April 1897 and this might have been occasioned by the fact that Edward had gone off to fight in the Boer War at about that time, or perhaps it was the other way round. In any event, he died of pneumonia at Pietermaritzburg on 17 October 1900, so Honora probably never saw him again after he embarked. The memorial tablet below is in the church at Easton Grey.

Memorial tablet to Edward Gordon Wilder.
Memorial tablet to Edward Gordon Wilder.
Image © D & M Ball via

Graham married and had his own family; he died in 1955 and is buried at Easton Grey.

Honora was released from Silver Birches on 1 August 1901 and in the 1911 census she was boarding in Worthing. She died in 1916 and was eventually reunited with her husband in the churchyard at Eling.

Grave of Honora and George Wilder in Eling Churchyard. The inscription for George is on the other side.
Grave of Honora and George Wilder in Eling Churchyard. The inscription for George is on the other side.
Image courtesy of Gravestone Photographic Resource

Philip Frederick Blessig

Philip was the son of a wealthy Russian-born Liverpool merchant and was under the care of Dr Reichardt for many years. However, he was described as feeble-minded rather than a lunatic and was allowed to go on holidays with a companion.

We would know little about him, except that there was a dispute over his will when he died on 11 July 1925 at The Corner House, Ewell, which had been the doctor's last residence. Mrs Reichardt (then Ryecart) remained in residence after the doctor's death.

Three of Philip's siblings were attempting to overturn the will on the grounds that the testator had not been of sound mind when he made it. If they were successful, Philip would have died intestate and his assets would have gone to his family. He had money from a trust fund set up by his father, although he wasn't allowed direct access to it: the Reichardts paid his bills and gave him pocket money. 'So far as money was concerned he was rather an indolent character. He would play billiards, go away for holidays, was extremely fond of birds and had considerable knowledge of the notes and songs of birds.' Apparently he also collected ashtrays. The jury found that he was of sound mind when he made the will and its terms stood.

Philip Blundell Nesbitt

Mr Nesbitt was never under wraps as a set of initials and was in the care of the surgeon Joseph Ward from 1833 until his death. He had been sent to Mr Ward by his grandfather, William Fisher, a banker living in Yarmouth (Norfolk). It would have been difficult to keep Mr Nesbitt a secret after 1847 anyway, since a Commission of Lunacy (or, as one newspaper pretentiously put it, a 'commission de lunatico inquirendo') was held at The Spread Eagle, Epsom in March of that year to determine whether or not he was of unsound mind. He was already 'committed' to Mr Ward's establishment in the sense that he had been admitted on a medical certification, but these proceedings concerned his capacity to handle his affairs. The affairs in question were of massive monetary value and, as usual, there were members of the family wrangling over the assets. Proceedings such as this were presided over by a Commissioner of Lunacy, as 'judge' if you like, and a special jury of 18 men made the decision after hearing all the evidence. In this instance the foreman of the jury was the Baron de Teissier (named 'Baron de Tessin' by the same pretentious newspaper) of Woodcote Park who, I am sure, as a land-owner and experienced magistrate, could be relied on to superintend deliberations in a sensible manner.

Joseph Ward
Joseph Ward.
Photograph by Cuthbert John Hopkins, courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

When Mr Fisher died in 1835 he provided that his property would go to Philip Nesbitt if the latter outlived his mother. We shall come to Mrs Nesbitt shortly, because her sanity was also called into question as part of the same family wrangle, but at a later date. The property in question was worth upwards of 100,000 (roughly 13 million in today's terms). As the newspaper said, 'The case excited great interest, chiefly on account of the wealth of the family'.

Once the evidence had been presented there wasn't any room for doubt that Philip was incapable of handling such enormous wealth. He was born in about 1811 in Bath, son of Captain Alexander Nesbitt RN and his wife Maria (née Fisher). Captain Nesbitt died in 1824 and Maria was well provided for, especially by her father.

The Morning Post of 19 February 1847 reported Mr Nesbitt's behaviour in detail. He had been an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge and then joined the Inniskilling Dragoons. His soldiering career did not last long as 'his conduct was so extraordinary that he was under the necessity of retiring in about six weeks'. It seems that he drank too much, associated with 'low life', made lewd remarks in the mess and was generally very unsatisfactory. He returned to Yarmouth, behaving in a childish manner, and would play billiards for days on end, taking every opportunity to cheat. In 1833 he disappeared from Yarmouth and was found in Cowes, which was when Mr Fisher had him put away. Joseph Ward said in evidence that Mr Nesbitt's existing behaviour had worsened and he had become delusional, believing that he was an accepted lover of Princess (soon to be Queen) Victoria and had the right to correspond with the Royal Family. There was a catalogue of odd behaviour, but apparently he did have a few talents - for example, he would hear one of Mr Ward's daughters playing a tune on the piano and could play it himself by ear immediately. However, Mr Ward was of the opinion that he was unable to look after himself or his property and, indeed, a servant (Anthony Dawes, who was living locally with his family) was eventually present specifically to assist him. The jury agreed and it was decided that he was unfit now and had been since 1833. These proceedings had been instigated by Richard Blundell Nesbitt, Philip's cousin, who would inherit in due course, as soon as all the impediments had died, and a committee was to be appointed to manage Philip's affairs. RBN would be one member of the committee and it was left to Mrs Nesbitt to decide who else would manage Philip's affairs - she nominated Joseph Ward and one other person.

That was that. Except that it wasn't, for in 1848 RBN tried to have Mrs Nesbitt declared a lunatic. Dr Henry Herbert Southey, a commissioner in lunacy, was dispatched to Yarmouth to view the lady. (It's alarming, isn't it, that people with ulterior motives could instigate such proceedings and all of a sudden a lady in Yarmouth who, albeit retiring and pretty eccentric, was basically minding her own business and affairs got a visit from a commissioner in lunacy who was trying to assess her competence.) RBN had already submitted affidavits from others, asserting that she was incompetent, but Dr Southey, after three long interviews with her, thought otherwise and the proceedings were thrown out. If Dr Southey's report was accurate, it is certainly true that both Mr Fisher and Mrs Nesbitt were slightly unusual. Southey concluded, 'Although she is very eccentric, and below par in point of intellect, I cannot consider her of unsound mind'. Mrs Nesbitt then had the ultimate revenge and wrote a new will excluding RBN - he might have expected to be named in it had he not tried to have her declared a lunatic.

In 1855 Mrs Nesbitt died and up popped RBN again to challenge the will. The plaintiff in the action was Miss Mary Ann Fisher, Mrs Nesbitt's sister, who was the main beneficiary in this will and obviously wanted it to stand. (It soon emerged that Miss Fisher had not always been well either and had once spent several years in Hoxton Lunatic Asylum, although a witness said that she had seemed sane for the past 17 years that he had known her.) If the will was overturned the legatee would technically be Philip, but, as he was not competent, RBN in reality. There was detailed evidence from the solicitor who had drawn up the will and it certainly seemed that he had been meticulous in ascertaining Mrs Nesbitt's wishes and state of mind and clarifying the details. The Attorney-General, acting for PBN/RBN, ultimately threw in the towel on their behalf, saying that RBN hadn't known all the facts, which had been withheld from him until the court case and, if he had known, he might not have intervened at all. RBN's face was publicly saved.

When Philip Nesbitt died at Mr Ward's on 10 January 1862, Letters of Administration were granted to Miss Mary Ann Fisher. She then left the estate partially unadministered until she herself died in February 1868. Maria Nesbitt was buried in her father's vault in the Chancel of the church of St Peter & St Paul, Burgh Castle (near Yarmouth). Philip was also buried at Burgh Castle, as was his brother, William Fisher Nesbitt, who died there in 1834, aged 17; both have memorial tablets in the church.

Linda Jackson, 2018