Change Minds Online: Frances Hales by Jessica Simpson
Illness and recovery
Frances was born 136 years ago and most likely grew up in Greater London surrounded by her mother and father and seven siblings. In her early thirties she marries Walter, a young man from Kent, and soon after gives birth to baby girl she calls Ada. Living in Peckham in her mid-forties, Frances becomes severely unwell, telling a doctor during a clinical examination:
‘I put a rope around my throat to hang myself. I did it to kill myself. I don’t know why I did it’.
In handwritten hospital records, still available today, the doctor notes that he can see the mark the rope has left on her neck. Frances is convinced someone put powder in her bed to poison her and that people upstairs in her home were watching her.
In 1887, Frances is admitted into Bethlem Royal Hospital when she is 44 years old. She is described as a ‘dark complexioned women of medium height...’ with ‘...Iron gray hair’. Over her 10 month stay, she is often recorded as ‘depressed’ and ‘very noisy, shouting and weeping’. Being away from her husband and child is immensely upsetting for her.
A few months after being admitted, ‘when she is cleaning the gallery she keeps moaning ‘‘it is cruel’’ and ‘‘the child is dead’’. She pulls her hair out…‘only leaving a small pigtail at the nape of her neck’. Several months later the doctor notes she is ‘very agitated’ about her husband and child. The following year Frances is granted 1 weeks leave from hospital. When she returns she has ‘improved immensely’ and has let her hair grow back. Frances is ‘discharged well’ in March 1888 and goes home to her husband, Walter and her daughter, Ada.
Life outside the asylum is very different; with her family, Frances moves from London to Whitstable and then to Blean, Kent. Ada takes a job as a Tobacconist and Confectioner. Frances is sadly widowed when Walter dies in 1919, but then goes on to live a long life, dying in 1924 when she is 80 years old.
I initially felt a connection to Frances because, like me, she lived in South London. But as I uncovered more, I also felt a connection to her daughter, Ada. Ada is only 8 when her mum is admitted into Bethlem and I think about how unsettled she must have felt in seeing her mum in such distress and in having to be apart from her for so long. In doing so, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own childhood and relationship with my mum, Jan, who like Frances, struggled greatly with her mental health when she was a young woman raising children. But who, as I hopefully assume was the case for Frances, was able to feel well again.
I will never get to see Frances or hear in her own words how she felt after leaving Bethlem, but I find reassurance in talking with my mum. Sat on Hampstead Health, one of our favourite spots, she tells me:
‘Looking back at the 10 years I was so unwell with agoraphobia and anxiety I now see it as a valuable experience. At the time, I could barely walk from one lamppost to the next. I had no joy. There was this one day on the walk home from school that my beautiful boy standing on a wall turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you walk on walls anymore mum?’ There was a time early on that I would walk on walls with my children. It was so overwhelming because he knew I was sad. I remember him saying ‘I’ll help you’, and he gave me his hand. This little boy giving me his hand. From that day forward, I walked on the walls. I’ve fallen off quite a few times but know that it is always possible to climb back on and be happy. That moment taught me how much love I had and how I had to be there for my children and to not stop living. I’ve never forgotten it.’
The small glimpses I have managed to gather of Frances’s life, and in talking to my mum, remind me that even in our darkest moments we can heal. Poor mental health is not always a downward spiral to unrelenting sadness. I cannot know for certain Frances’s state of mind in the years after she leaves the asylum, but with her husband and daughter beside her, I like to imagine she took comfort knowing that if she ever felt unwell again that recovery was a possibility.