Filling the gaps in family history

There are some secrets we may not be able to uncover in our lifetime.

How many of us have started off the new year with resolutions we never keep, like “This year, I am going to build my family tree”?

Genealogy is all the rage these days. Fascinating TV programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’, ‘DNA Family Secrets’ and ‘DNA Journey’ and even ’Long Lost Family’ and ‘Heir Hunters’ make us wonder about ancestors, and what their story might say about how we came to be who we are.

But it is not uncommon to come across gaps in the family tree. Different relatives may offer different explanations. And Granny’s ‘facts’ may turn about to fantasies hiding a carefully camouflaged family secret.

Unflattering image belies a revealing booklet

In the Glenside Hospital Museum library I came across a slim volume by genealogist Kathy Chater called ‘My Ancestor was a Lunatic’, which offers some guidance as to why it is difficult to fill all the gaps. How many times have you wondered if madness runs in the family? 

Nowadays we are far more open and caring about mental illness, and forms of dementia like Alzheimer’s, and Autism Spectrum Disorders, like Asperger’s, but in living memory they were all lumped together as worrying forms of mental disorder.

As was Down’s Syndrome. As a teenager I remember visiting Botley’s Park, part of St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey, where male and female young people with Down’s were kept apart to avoid the possibility of relationships. The doors to their dormitories would be opened to allow them to meet for supervised dances on a Friday evening. 

Outside the huts left over from wartime when patients from various London hospital were evacuated to the relative safety of Surrey, there were what looked like tennis courts. They were more like cages for seriously disturbed men who would throw themselves about and tear off their clothes.

The sad remains of Botley’s Park boiler house, now demolished.

It was a terrifying experience for we young St Vincent de Paul Society volunteers who had come to befriend the gentler inmates. We were as put off by some of the ward orderlies whose attitude to the patients in their care was disturbing if not downright sinister.

It is doubtful whether any family would want to be reminded of or associated with what seemed to an outsider a very dysfunctional institution.

One of the major difficulties, of course, is that patients’ records from such institutions, quite properly, remain confidential for up to 100 years. Past patient records from the Bristol Asylum that became Glenside Hospital are being painstakingly researched at Bristol Archives by Dr Paul Tobia. Some of his findings may help those in the West Country searching for the stories missing from their own family trees. They can be found on the Museum website

My own analysis of the 1881 census for Stapleton Workhouse, whIch sat besIde the hospital and has now been turned into luxury homes on Manor Road in East Bristol, revealed an extraordinary range of inmates. 

The majority came from Bristol and the West Country, but 79 came from Ireland, 37 from Wales, seven from Scotland and 31 were Londoners. Others claimed birth in America, Chile, China, France, Germany, Gibraltar, India, Italy, Newfoundland, or Nova Scotia. 

There were 41 people called Williams, 16 Davises, 14 Harrises and 14 Smiths.  The youngest inhabitants were Albert Axford and Edith Gilding from nearby Stapleton, and Ellen Adams and Esther Page from Surrey, all aged 1. The oldest were 97-year-old twins Maria, a domestic servant, and her ‘imbecile’ sister Mary, and William Chedzoy, 96, from Minehead. 

Another useful guide to those missing links.

Until the 19th century terms such as ’imbeciles’ and ‘idiots’ defined people we now say are autistic or have learning difficulties. Back then they were likely to be consigned to an institution, for life.

Members of the the Royal family were not immune. In the late 1980s Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, two cousins of Queen Elizabeth II who were thought to be dead, were found still to be alive in the Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives. They had been there, along with three other cousins, Etheldreda, Idonea and Rosemary Fane, since 1941. 

Imagine the difference it might have made to the lives of many others if the Royals had acknowledged and accepted these women instead of locking them away. 

The impediments deaf people and those with epilepsy, were once regarded as permanent forms of madness, unlike ‘lunatics’ whose occasional strange behaviours were linked to the phases of the moon.

Another category was General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI) which covered the consequences of venereal diseases such as syphilis. They were all catered for in private madhouses, official asylums, and early mental hospitals. 

A remarkable community history project.

Others may have ‘disappeared’ into Workhouses like the biggest one in the region, the consolidated Eastville Workhouse, at 100 Fishponds Road, Bristol. 

Members of Eastville Workhouse Memorial Group traced the details of more than 4,000 people who died there and were buried in unmarked graves. Their researches opened a window on the cruel penny-pinching attitudes of the so-called Guardians of the Poor’ when families lacked the wherewithal to bury their relatives, or were never informed of their death.

The story of this remarkable community project, which also helped to link relatives with past loved ones, is told in the book ‘100 Fishponds Road: Life and Death in a Victorian Workhouse’ published by Bristol Radical History Group <>

It follows that anyone suspecting that their ancestors may have fallen out of the family tree could have a hard job tracing them. The National Archives might provide one route to finding out, especially if you know the names of missing relatives, and/or where they might have been a patient.

Good luck if this is your new year resolution.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.


  1. another interesting piece, thanks Mike. I well remember Botley’s Park and their stale ham sandwiches with you. Happy new year

  2. Thank you for this Mike. My own research came to an unexpected halt a few years back when it appeared that a paternal male ancester might have taken his own life. Problems arise on my Irish/maternal side with a multitude of Larkins and Sullivans to follow. Luckily one of my Irish cousins has done a lot of the heavy sifting for me. A Happy and covid-free New Year…John

  3. Hi, I so wish I had visited Glenside museum while I was in the UK.
    I shall attempt to programme in doing so on one of my many visits from France.
    All the best to you, comradely

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *