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Change Minds Online: Louisa Lyte Skipper / Brittenden by Barbara Prynn

Louisa Lyte Skipper

Photograph of Louisa in Bethlem taken by Barker and Parker 1887-1888, restored from glass plate negatives held under WUC-05

Louisa Lyte Brittenden was the daughter of Stephen Brittenden and his wife Maria Elizabeth (nee Lyte). Stephen Brittenden was born in 1823 in Hythe in Kent.

On 17th February, 1843 Stephen Brittenden was admitted to Bethlem Hospital. The casebook states that he was living in St. Leonard, Hythe in Kent with his father, and he was working as a grocer's servant. He could read and write and was a member of the Church of England. He was said to have a good disposition and temper and good habits, and to be usually in good health.

The medical certificate indicates that Stephen Brittenden had been under a medical practitioner since 10th December, 1842. It was noted that he was 'inactive' and that he suffered from severe constipation, and that he had had influenza. It was written that 'he refuses medicine unless given to him by me (that is the medical practitioner) or a stranger. Scarcely ever speaks. Addicted to onanism (i.e. masturbation). Thought if he took medicine his mind was wrong. He was conscious of passing events.' When he was admitted to hospital, the case record notes that Stephen Brittenden's illness 'came on suddenly caused probably by onanism.' He was said to be 'silent, not mischievous, does not reply to questions. Has an anxious look – restless.'

'Onanism' – otherwise thought of as an addiction to masturbation – was a not infrequent diagnosis for young men from the middle of the eighteenth century until nearly the end of the nineteenth century. It was considered to be a possible precursor or possibly a contributory factor in a diagnosis of dementia praecox, which we would now call schizophrenia. Therefore it was taken extremely seriously.

There are no comments about the course of Stephen Brittenden's illness in the case record, and he was discharged 'well' by Alexander Morison on 15th December, 1843.

At some time during the following eight years Stephen Brittenden came to London, and he lived initially in St. Martin's Lane. He worked firstly as a mercantile clerk and latterly and for the rest of his life, as a tallow chandler. On 10th April, 1852 he married Maria Elizabeth Lyte, who had been born in Middlesex in 1830, at St. Botolph without Aldersgate.

The 1861 census shows Stephen and Maria Elizabeth Brittenden living at 16 Streatham Street, Bloomsbury with their three daughters. -

Louisa Lyte (d.o.b. 24.3.1853)

Harriett-Mary Lyte (d.o.b. 23.3.56)

Maria Lyte (d.o.b. 19.2.1857)

All the daughters were born in the St. Giles area of London. It is somewhat surprising that Louisa and Harriett-Mary were baptised together on 3rd August, 1856. Harriet-Mary died in 1864.

Stephen Brittenden died on 8th May, 1866. His will shows that he left 'effects under £200.' This would convert to £12,521.80p to-day.

The 1871 census lists Maria Elizabeth Brittenden and Louisa living in Tavistock Place with John Turner. He had been born in 1815 and he had married Maria Elizabeth's sister Harriet-Mary Lyte on 9th November, 1852. She was born in 1819. On their marriage certificate, John Turner is described as 'a servant.' Maria Lyte Brittenden was at that time a boarder with another family, though she later joined her mother and sister in her uncle's house.

Harriet-Mary Turner had died on 1st May, 1870, leaving 'effects under £100' to her husband. This would now be worth £6,260.90p.

On 20th October, 1884 Louisa married William Alfred Skipper in St. Pancras. He was born on 21st April,1848 in Tendring in Essex. He had lodged in Burton Street, St. Pancras for more than ten years after he came to London and before his marriage. On the marriage certificate he was described as a bank clerk, and he continued in this profession for the rest of his life.

In 1887 the couple were living at 19 Tremlett Square, Junction Road, London N19.

The case record for Louisa shows that she was admitted to Bethlem on 6th May, 1887. The medical certificates state that she had been ill for ten months, since a month after her son, Wilfred, was born, on 23rd May, 1886. One of the two supporters of Louisa's application to Bethlem was her uncle, John Turner.

The medical certificates of the two doctors – Dr. Edward Thomas Blake and Dr. Donald Baynes, who supported the application for Louisa to be admitted to Bethlem, described her as having 'fair general health.' Their diagnosis was that she was suffering from 'partial dementia puerperal' as well as an 'abdominal disorder following confinement.' During the confinement Louisa had lost a lot of blood. She was said to have been 'slightly delusional during labour.' This seemed to mean that she had thought her nurse was a man; and she had had attacks of 'stupor' or 'terror.' She was also depressed after the birth and did not nurse her baby.

The certificate states that Louisa had had a mental illness before – between June, 1880 and

March, 1882 – which had been brought on by overwork, when she was said to be suffering from 'melancholy with stupor.' She was cared for at home at that time.

On admission to Bethlem, Louisa was almost totally silent, not responding when spoken to and not initiating conversation. She had a tendency to wring her hands. She was unaware of her surroundings and usually needed to be dressed and undressed. Her nurse, Ellen Brown, thought she would be a danger to her child. Before she became ill, Louisa had been clean and tidy. Now she was untidy and reluctant to wash. She did not seem to acknowledge the need to use the bathroom and urinated and defecated on the floor. She had very little speech although she did sometimes swear. Louisa would sometimes wake and dress herself during the night. She was prone to pinch and try to hit others. In the past she had been scrupulous about her nails. Now she sat for long periods doing nothing but biting her nails. It was said that she had been 'liable to depression' and suffered from 'slight rheumatism.' At times Louisa said that she could hear people speaking in the next room when there was no one there.

She was described as being 'a well nourished woman' with a good appetite, but without speech. When the doctor saw her on 15th May it was written that she was being helpful in the gallery. Her 'silly laugh' was mentioned and that she was growing fat. The doctors' notes from that date until 9th October all said 'no change' but on that day she was said to be doing 'a little work' in the garden.

On 9th May, 1888 Louisa was 'discharged relieved.' However, on 5th October, 1888 she was admitted to the Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum, then the second-largest asylum in London. On 4th March, 1894 she died at St. Thomas Workhouse and Asylum in Exeter, and was buried in St. Olave's churchyard there.

During the late 1880s the family must have come to the realization that Louisa would not live in the community again, because the 1891 census shows that William Alfred Skipper was living with his son and his mother-in-law, Maria Elizabeth Brittenden, and sister-in-law, Maria Lyte Brittenden who was a warehouse saleswoman, in John Turner's house in Nelson Road in north London.

John Turner was described in this census as a 'lodging house keeper.' By the time of the next census in 1901 John Turner had died, and Maria Elizabeth Brittenden was described as the head of the household 'living on own means.' Wilfred Skipper was working as a builder's clerk.

Maria Elizabeth Brittenden died on 17th June, 1905. She left £1,400, four shillings and threepence to her daughter. This would be worth £110,014 to-day. Maria Lyte Brittenden became the head of the household. She, like her mother, was by this time 'living on own means.'. She and William Alfred and Wilfred Skipper continued to live in the house until Wilfred joined the Duke of Cambridge's Own regiment on 1st September, 1915, in which he became a corporal. He was killed on

10th September, 1916, and his name is on the memorial at Thiepval.

Wilfred Skipper's will shows that he left his father £285, seven shillings and twopence, which would be worth £16,833.92 pence to-day.

William Alfred Skipper died on 1st July, 1922, having continued to live in the same house with his sister-in-law. In his will he left her £2,141, five shillings and fourpence, which would be worth £62,220.28 pence to-day.

Maria Lyte Brittenden lived on in the house, though by the time she died on 18th December, 1942 she was living at a different address in north London. She left to a 'bank official' £1,652 and eighteen shillings, which would be worth £65,035.66 pence to-day.

Louisa Lyte Skipper separatecollage

(top left) This is Bethlem Hospital as it was when it moved to St. George's Fields in 1815. Louisa's father, Stephen Brittenden, was a patient here from February to September, 1843. The landmark dome had not yet been built. The long side wings were demolished when the hospital moved to Beckenham in 1930 and the building was to become the Imperial War Museum.

(bottom left) The Dome was built in 1845. This is how Bethlem would have looked when Louisa was a patient in the hospital from May, 1887 to May, 1888. The building is both impressive and forbidding.

(right) Louisa was a patient at Camberwell House Asylum from October, 1888 until July, 1889. It was a large Asylum, comparable in terms of patient numbers with Bethlem, and like Bethlem, it had large grounds in which patients took part in many different activities.