While researching the Victorian generations of my family I came across a handwritten entry in the front of a Bible, reading: ‘Sarah Smith, deserted by her husband on the morning of 18th December at 4 o’clock in the morning 1853’. Her husband was William Utting, my g-g-grandfather.
William and Sarah lived in Paradise Lane, Downham Market, Norfolk, but their life was far from idyllic, with at least one child born in the workhouse. Sadly the workhouse records were burned many years ago, and the information that they might have provided is lost.
Further reading uncovered a letter from a granddaughter of Sarah’s to my grandfather saying: “His [Williams] life was tragic and Grandma told me he was out exercising one of his father’s racehorses and it threw him which affected him later. It hurt his brain. He was home with grandma for a time. The doctors said he could be dangerous so he must go away and he was sent to a mental home at Holt in Norfolk. Grandma was allowed to go and see him sometimes but he was too ill to be seen, and he died there.”
The Victorians were not good at handling scandal, and the family stuck to the story of William falling from a horse, striking his head and consequently ending up in an institution. Why falling from a horse? William was described in three different documents as an ostler [a groom, minding horses], a confectioner and a tinsmith. Based on subsequent events, ostler is most likely (nothing in his life suggested confectionery or tinsmithing!).
It took several years on & off searching to find evidence of William after his desertion of his family. He eventually ended up, not in an institution at Holt, but in St. Andrews Asylum (also known as the Norfolk Lunatic Asylum), at Thorpe St. Andrew, east of Norwich; but in between leaving his family and ending up in the asylum, William appears to have spent time as an ostler at an inn in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, run by a widow. You can see the attraction!
In the Asylum register, William is described as an ostler of Downham Market, committed on the authority of Revd. Horman, with the cost of his treatment being charged to the Downham Union workhouse.
The notes relating to his admission to the Asylum on 7 November 1868 read: “William Utting, aged fifty three years, married, is an ostler living at Downham Market, is of no education … for a period of six or nine months he been the subject of epilepsy … he has frequently complained of his head and for some time has been strange in his manner, in as much as he would put on his clothes wrongly … this last month he has been getting worse, his action and conversation being very childish … and in his own kitchen he jumps on top of the chairs. The only traceable cause is intemperance . There is no hereditary predisposition and twelve months ago he suffered from delirium tremens.”
On 14th November, the notes continue: “This man has been no trouble since his admission. He has complained somewhat of his side [he had a broken rib] and has expressed himself easier…. He sleeps well at night and has had no signs of epilepsy”.
January 2nd 1869:”Yesterday evening he struggled with an attendant. When they fell together the consequence of which was that the patient suffered a fracture of the lower end of the tibia.”
January 26th: “Has progressed favourably up to this time, the fracture has fairly united, and he is able to get about on it, is now in bed having had two or three epileptic seizures recently.” 6th February: ” A few days preceding and succeeding the attacks, he is confused, restless, face congested, refuses food and disposed to hide his things.“
The stereotypical view of Victorian asylums is of harsh conditions and little sympathy for inmates. However, reading through William’s notes for the time of his stay, the tone is one of concern for his condition and his welfare. He was treated by Dr. Wm. Tayaton.
William’s life seems to have continued in much the same vein until September 12 1870:”The rib discovered to be fractured on the left side supposed to have been caused by a fall during a fit upon the side of his bedstead & plaster and a flannel roller applied.”
September 19th: “He has remained very quiet but suffers from dyspnea [shortness of breath] and wishes to have the bandage taken off.” September 24th: “Had a severe attack of dyspnea this evening … the bandage to be taken off.“
September 27th 1870: “A stethoscopic examination of his chest … and beside slight bronchitis he was found to be suffering from extensive disease of the heart … his pulse also intermits once in seven or eight beats. The dyspnea seem increasing…”
October 4th 1870: Is suffering much, his bronchitis having increased … the fits continue at uncertain intervals, between which he is useful in the ward … the expression of his face [is] confused, it is to be feared that a paroxysm of epilepsy is approaching. Large crepitation [crackling sounds] also can be heard in the lower portion of each lung the diagnosis … is that both lungs are emphysematous.”
October 26 1870: “Has had another fit …the paroxysms of dyspnea are becoming more frequent … and his strength is failing. October 30 1870: “For the last three days his breathing has been more even, and he expresses himself as feeling better.“
November 5th 1870: “No material change for the worse took place, but he died quietly in the presence of Mr. Wells. A postmortem examination was made. Heart much enlarged and dilated. The aortic valves being greatly disorganised and the seat of extensive ossific deposit. The lower portions of both lungs were collapsed …“
Life for the Victorian poor could be incredibly hard, but William seems to have been kindly looked after during his two year stay at the Asylum. This makes little mention of Sarah, whose life was equally, if not more, difficult, and she will appear in a future post.