How societies deal with outsiders, especially the young, the frail, and those who seem to be mentally ill, reflects on the larger society. When an individual appears, through the complexion of their skin, language or membership of a distant religious faith, to be quite different to the mass of local people, to place them in a category or group that excludes them from the majority is easy. Studying reports in British newspapers from 1850 into the 1910s drew my attention to a tiny number of people of African descent in Britain who had been considered to be mentally ill – lunatics, deranged, unstable, or eccentric. The evidence included the fact that at least two doctors of African descent were active in the treatment of these unfortunate people.
Were black people confined in prison hospitals because their actions somehow were seen as different to those of whites? What was their experience in mental wards, or in prison? This most uncomfortable subject deserves consideration if we are to understand Victorian and Edwardian attitudes to race and the history of visible minorities in Britain. For those in authority, especially where there are no relatives to speak up for or take care of a person whose behaviour seems odd, to place that stranger in a mental ward or a prison is a simple solution. It was not a solution found only in Britain.
The Jamaican Isaac Brown, who claimed royal status as both an Ethiopian and a Zulu prince, was seen as an impostor and imprisoned by the Berlin police in 1907 where he was ‘on the point of being put into Dalidorf asylum as a lunatic’ before leaving Germany for England, where his bogus claims continued (Robert A. Hill, ‘King Menelik’s Nephew: Prince Thomas Mackarooroo, aka Prince Ludwig Menelek of Abyssinia’, Small Axe 26 June 2008; Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain 1901-1914, London: Frank Cass, 1998, pp 53-55 and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
In January 1883 William Brown, a long-serving petty officer in the Royal Navy who had earned a good conduct medal, was charged at Lewes crown court with the murder of his wife Elizabeth. He and his wife, a stepson and their three children lived in Munster on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary. Brown suffered from epileptic fits. He killed his wife and stabbed his stepson Alfred Rump: the press called this the Sheerness Murder. Brown had cut his own throat and was unable to talk. Found not guilty of murder through insanity, Brown was sent to Broadmoor for the rest of his life. (The Times (London), 23 February 1883, p 8; The Times (London), 26 February 1883, p 7; Wrexham Advertiser, 20 January 1883, p 7; Preston Guardian, 20 January 1883; Morning Post (London), 18 January 1883, p 5.) Curious about Brown’s status as a petty officer in the Royal Navy — for blacks were known to be sailors in the merchant marine, but despite roles in Nelson’s fleet in the early 19th century, seem to have been almost absent from the Victorian Royal Navy — led me to check further. Mark Stevens in his Broadmoor Revealed. Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum (Pen and Sword History, 2013) has two pages on Brown. Born in British Guiana (Guyana) around 1832 he married Elizabeth Rump, a widow, in 1871 and retired from the Royal Navy in 1881. He died in Broadmoor in mid-1885. He had two daughters and a son, and a step-family. The three children were sent to the Sheppey workhouse and from there the son Donald went to Greenwich Royal Hospital School for the orphans of sailors. Donald Adolphus Brown was born in Sheppey in the summer of 1873 and a sister Anna in the winter of 1871-1872. Anna kept in touch with their father in Broadmoor by letter and visits. The other sister, Amanda, became a servant girl. On 7 January 1919 Donald Brown, a foreman at the Woolwich Arsenal, ‘certainly saved many lives’ when he dealt with a fire there (The Times 9 March 1921 [sic] announced the award of the Edward Medal for this bravery). Donald Brown was a radical in East End London and had married a suffragette, Eliza Adelaide Knight. She had been in prison because of her protests over the lack of votes for women, in the 1900s. Donald Brown’s photograph appears in Susan Okokon’s Black Londoners 1880-1990 (Sutton Publishing, 1998, page 33) but confusion is created by the author’s statement that his father was Jamaican, and that Donald Brown had been born in Woolwich in 1874 for his birth was registered in the third quarter of 1873 in Sheppey.
John Cole, a sailor whose behaviour was odd and aggressive, in December 1884 was sent to the workhouse ‘as an insane person’ by the magistrate at the Thames police court (Morning Post (London), 27 December 1884, p 7; Standard (London), 27 December 1884, p 6).
Failure to conform to social expectations brought petty criminals into the mental hospitals, as can be seen with ‘Prince Alesam’ who seemed to be a law student who tricked several London hotel keepers with promises to pay, and was remanded in April 1895. In 9 May 1895 he was described by The Times as a West African who claimed to be Prince Alison. He had defrauded innkeepers, ‘lived in luxury, drove about in hansoms [cabs], and had run up a bill with one cab-man for £1 19s in fares, which he never paid’. He was sent to prison for nine months. He had ordered champagne for his breakfast, but went without when informed it had to be paid for in advance. After his meal he told the Edgware Road hotel keeper he had no money and referred him to his agent: who had five other hotel keepers visit him on similar errands. The African (aged in his early twenties) said he had been in London for eight years and had numerous friends including law students, and if the court permitted he would go to Chancery Lane and collect the money. The prison sentence suggests he could not be the same person as ‘Prince Oresha’ a playwright who was charged days later with failing to pay London cabmen. Did these and other individuals suffer from their experiences of living in Britain as visible strangers who, as their tropical homelands were organised in such different ways, failed to adjust? Alesam served part of his sentence at Wormwood Scrubs where he created problems for the prison staff. He was scheduled to be removed from there when his sentence expired in February 1896, to be placed as a pauper lunatic in the asylum at Belmont near Banstead, Surrey which held hundreds of mentally ill people (Morning Post London, 1 February 1896).
Unemployed and homeless people could find refuge in workhouses. The Heath Town (near Wolverhampton) workhouse suffered from an outbreak of smallpox in late 1871. The guardians heard the death toll now included an old man and a man of colour ‘who had been brought in from the streets’. The poorhouse at Greenock near Glasgow had a section for lunatics where an unnamed ‘man of colour’ was kicked by an inmate. This was revealed when a workhouse warder was accused of murdering that aggressive inmate in 1875 (Glasgow Herald 15 September 1875).
James Hochee, the Surrey-born son of a Chinese man, qualified as a doctor in London in 1854. The Medical Directory 1893, p 196 gives his address as Park Gate, East Finchley and states he was the medical officer at the British National Hospital for Paralysed and Epileptics, and had been the surgeon for the Metropolitan Police’s S Division (which was Finchley). Professor James Risien Russell, from British Guiana (Guyana) showed his African descent (see page 010 of this website). By the 1890s he was a highly respected doctor, professor and author, living in London’s Wimpole Street. In 1898 he was an assistant physician at University College London and by 1906 he was dean of UCL’s faculty of medicine. He specialised in aspects of insanity, and was soon based in London’s Queen Square (the hospital Dr Hochee had worked for). Dr George Rice, an African American, qualified in Scotland in 1874 and by the late 1880s was based in Sutton, Surrey — very near Alesam’s asylum at Banstead. Dr Rice investigated epilepsy in males at the Belmont workhouse infirmary into 1917. Banstead was a huge hospital, opened in the 1870s and filled with 1,700 patients. Unlike Broadmoor, it was not for criminals per se.
Caroline Bressey found photographs of ‘a handful of named black women’ in the Colney Hatch Asylum files at the London Metropolitan Archives including Susan Hayes (1889) and M. A. C. Matthews (1898) (Jan Marsh [ed.], Black Victorians. Black People in British Art 1800-1900 (Aldershot, 2005, p 75) as well as sixteen male prisoners taken in Pentonville prison in 1881 (see page 110 of this website ref Joseph Denny or Denney).
Pauper lunatics and criminal lunatics, like every other level of Victorian society, included people of African descent. The presence of three doctors who showed their non-European descent, active in dealing with epilepsy (the illness that was said to have caused Brown to murder his wife), adds an additional complexity to this subject.
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