Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

Teachers and lunatics

  • 14 April 2013

It seems that Joshua Summerhill (1834-1905) and his wife Elizabeth Tonks (1831-1903) had 6 children, 5 of whom survived to adulthood. Three of the four surviving girls became teachers, and three of them seem to have had mental health issues at some point in their lives. Only one of the girls married, at the age of 58, to a fellow teacher who had been widowed 4 years previously. She died at the age of 73 in Coton Hill Hospital, which at the time was an asylum for the mentally ill from the upper and middle classes.

I first became aware of the mental health link when an Ancestry hint popped up for Rosabella Summerhill on the 1911 census. It was suggested that she was the same R. Summerhill who was recorded as a patient at Stafford County Lunatic Asylum. Further checking revealed that it was indeed the same person and that she had been admitted on 18 Nov 1910 and discharged in August 1912. She was apparently readmitted in 1913 and then seems to have remained in there until her death in 1931. These later records are still confidential and would only be available to the closest living relative, who I assume would be a descendant of her brother, Walter Joshua Summerhill, the only one of her siblings known to have had children.

The records relating to her first period of admission are now more than 100 years old so are publicly available at Staffordshire Record Office (ref.:6366/1/1/4). However, it’s worth noting that some of the volume’s contents are still confidential so you will need to contact the record office in advance and explain what you want to see. The volume will then be produced for you with the confidential parts tied off.

The admission register records Rosabella as suffering from grandiose delusions that she is intimate with the Royal family and gives the cause of her admission as “Heredity. Prev[ious] attack.” The previous attack seems to have been 19 years before and caused her to be admitted to what appears to be Winson Green Asylum.

The case notes consist of a couple of lines of observation notes, initially every week, but then reducing to monthly and quarterly. Throughout the period of her admission, there seems to be no improvement in her condition – she is repeatedly excitable, at times abusive, constantly quarrelling with other patients, and all the while repeating that she was engaged to the late Prince Francis of Teck, brother of the Queen. She wrote letters to the Queen, which began “Dear Mary”. The case notes end with her discharge in August 1912 to the care of friends.

It seems the unknown friends were unable to cope and she was readmitted a few months later, staying in the asylum for a further 18 years until her death.

The admission notes mention that her sister committed suicide. This would seem to be a reference to Clara Kate Summerhill, who was found drowned in the canal near Bilston steelworks in 1886, after being missing for three days. A newspaper article (Gloucester Citizen, 2 April 1886) indicates that for several days the deceased had been subject to fits of great despondency.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.