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Archives at Sea

As the British Empire expanded in the eighteenth century, the British Navy gradually became one of the most important institutions in the country. As the Navy expanded the number of men it employed increased, and, as one might expect, some of these men seem to have suffered from mental health difficulties. A small number developed such severe mental health issues that the Navy could neither continue to employ them nor care for them. At Bethlem we have records that show admissions of patients sent from Greenwich Hospital for retired sailors and directly from the Office for Sick and Wounded Seamen dating back to the 1750s, and these numbers increase up to the development of the Navy’s own facilities for mental health care in the early 1800s.

This blog takes a look at the circumstances of one of these admissions. In our Admission papers BAP-002 we found a letter where the OS &W ask the Bethlem Governors to take on 8 sailors who have been ‘seized with distraction’ on 27th September 1799. James Appleby, Alexander Cameron, Francis Vetch, James Wood, Hugh Stevenson, Jerry Bowers, Hugh Davies and William Tuggell all entered Bethlem on 2nd October 1799. While the letter is far from unique in BAP-002, it is relatively rare to have all the ship names that the men served on included in this sort of correspondence, which does allow us to look a bit more closely at these cases.

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No diagnosis is offered in the admission records, and any case notes taken in this period do not survive to us. However it is entirely possible that some of these men saw active combat in the Napoleonic war, and may well be suffering from some sort of reaction to the trauma of combat. Certainly HMS Glory (which Appleby is listed as being a sailor on) was an active participant in the sea battles of this time, most famously in the Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1805. HMS Seine (called, incorrectly, La Seine in the letter), which Cameron sailed on, had only been captured from the French in 1798 and he may well have been involved in that and the two engagements with enemy ships she had in the earlier part of 1799. Life in the navy, in cramped conditions on ships with long days at sea and poor diet, was incredibly difficult anyway without the extra stress of fighting, and it is important to note that the one (much later) description we have of any of these men does not mention this at all.

The last part of the letter reads that they will remain at Bethlem until the Governors at Bethlem see fit to discharge them. However, another letter sent on 29th September 1800 states that the Office has directed ‘Messrs Miles and Kay of Hoxton’ to take 4 of the men (Appleby, Vetch, Stevenson and Wood). This letter specifies that Hugh Davies is to remain in Bethlem, subject to the same conditions as ‘other incurables’.

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Sadly, this doesn’t mean that these four men were now regarded as sane. The Office is merely authorising their transfer to Hoxton House, a private ‘madhouse’ which seems to have developed a very close relationship with the Navy and handled many of its long-term mentally ill. Run by Jonathan Miles, an Alderman of the City of London, Hoxton House was notorious for its poor conditions and overcrowding. All four men are listed in the Bethlem admission register covering the time as ‘incurable and not fit’- not fit in this case means they were not suitable for accommodation in the wing of Bethlem hospital reserved for longer-term patients, the so called ‘incurables’. Bethlem would usually look to discharge most patients not deemed suitable for the ‘incurables’ after a year or so, as it did in this case. This means the Navy had no option other than to seek alternative accommodation for these men who were clearly still ill, even if it meant less suitable care.

The Hoxton House records do not seem to have survived, so we have no clear end to the story of the four men sent there. An H Stevenson shows up in the Naval Allotment records (available via the Find My Past website) as having been a crew member on board the Nymphe from 1807 who gave a portion of his salary to his mother, Ann, via the Edinburgh naval office. There is also a James Appleby in the same sorts of records who was on the Texel in 1805 and Ardent in 1807 giving money to his wife, Hannah. While there is no sign of Francis Vetch and there are too many James Woods to find a match, it could well be that at least some of these men found a continued future in the Royal Navy after their stay in Hoxton.

Of those men also admitted into Bethlem, Jerry Bowers was discharged in November 1799 and Alexander Cameron and William Tuggell were discharged in March and February respectively the following year. All were listed as ‘Well’, and so were presumably ready to continue with their lives. As one might expect, there are many Alexander Camerons from this time who continue to be employed by the Navy, one of whom may be the former Bethlem patient. However, there is no match in the surviving Naval records for his more distinctively named comrades. The closest I could find was a Jeremiah Bowers who joined the Army as a private in 1806, though of course there is no way of telling if this is the same man. It seems that in a period of history where a vast number of men were required to operate the ships of the Royal Navy these former patients either did not want or were not allowed to take up their former profession.

Hugh Davies never left Bethlem. In the ‘Incurable’ casebook CBC-01, written some time after his admission (probably 1815 or so), he is described as a ‘Welchman’ and a former marine who ‘gained access to the rum cache and who drank so profusely his sense were never restored’ (excessive drinking, even a one off binge, is very often thought to be a reason for mental illness at this point). He could no longer speak intelligibly for any amount of time, and was occasionally violent, and because of this and his ‘uncleanness’ he had been kept in the basement of the building for much of that time. No one knew his place of birth or his family, and the entry was only written with the assistance of the ‘oldest attendant’ who could remember his entry into the Hospital. It is noted that he became more ‘stoic’ and less aggressive during his time, and he is continually noted as physically ‘healthy’ in the books. While it is not mentioned, in 1815 he would have been transferred from his basement and into the new Bethlem hospital at St Georges Fields, hopefully into a more comfortable living space. He died there in 1852. His case records are findable via Find My Past.

The Navy, sometimes via the Office of Transport after 1794, continued to provide security for admissions into Bethlem up until the mid-1810s. With the development of institutions like Royal Hospital Haslar and Royal Hospital Yarmouth the Navy could deal with their mentally ill in their own facilities, and no longer had to worry about the expense of sending its men to Bethlem for treatment.

Battle of Finisterre

Battle of Finisterre, National Maritime Museum.