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Change Minds Online 2022: John Sibbald by a Change Minds Artist

JS Photo

John Sibbald during his time at Bethlem, photographed by Medical Attendants Barker and Parker, taken from the casebook CB-134

John Gordon Edward Sibbald was born at Laira, near Plymouth, on 9 September 1845, and baptised on 16 October in the parish of Charles the Martyr, Plymouth.

He was the eldest child of Captain John James Alexander Sibbald, of the Royal Navy, and Matilda Lucretia Taplen, daughter of Lieutenant Thomas Taplen and Maria Moyes.

Prior to their marriage Captain Sibbald had served from 1839 to 1843 as First and Second Lieutenant on the Erebus on the Ross Expedition to the Antarctic. He was appointed a Captain on his return to England. Cape Sibbald, on the coast of Victoria Land, was named for him in February 1841 by Captain James Clark Ross.

John’s sister Maude Mary Sibbald was born in 1846 in Plymouth.

In February 1849 Captain Sibbald was appointed Inspecting Commander of the Dundalk Coast Guard station in County Louth, Ireland.

It appears, from the directories, that the family lived there from 1849 to 1853.

John’s brother Andrew Thomas Sibbald was born at Point House, Dundalk on 5 June 1852.

John’s maternal aunt, Emma Jane Taplen, was the wife of his father’s friend from the Ross Expedition, Captain Thomas Edward Laws Moore, who became Governor of the Falkland Islands from 1855 to 1862.

When the Moores moved to the Falkland Islands the Sibbalds went with them, sailing from Plymouth on 12 August 1855, arriving in East Falkland on 7 November 1855.

Years later John’s brother Andrew, who became a journalist, would write about their journey in an article for the Army and Navy Magazine, Volume 3, entitled “Five Years in the Falkland Islands.”

They arrived to a colony in disarray, with a bleak unwelcoming atmosphere, which Governor Moore set about cleaning up. In 1856 an epidemic killed several children. John’s cousin Lydia was born in 1856, and his aunt Emma died in April 1859 and was buried in Stanley Cemetery, and John’s youngest sibling, Ethel Emma Sibbald, was born about November 1859.

Cropped house AL

My drawing of the Sibbald residence in West Brompton

I think at least part of the family had returned to England by 1861.

Matilda, John, his siblings and two servants appear on the census at 74 North Road, Plymouth. However, Captain Sibbald is listed in the directories from 1863 to 1869 in the Falkland Islands as Clerk and Registrar of the Court, Comm. John Sibbald, R.N., so it appears that he remained working on the island.

The family were living at 32 Redcliffe Road, West Brompton by 9 September 1865, John’s twentieth birthday, and also the wedding day of his sister Maude and George Willdridge, at St Mary’s, West Brompton.

George was a tea merchant from Ireland who lived down the road at no. 17. He was much older than Maude and became ill and died the following year. Newspapers tell of litigation surrounding George’s will, where Maude, being underage, required her guardian to help with this. I wonder if this is what led to Captain Sibbald’s return to England in 1867.

In the Falkland Island’s Executive Council Minutes Book 1 – 1850 to 1872: 7th January 1867 I found this item- “application from Captain Sibbald RN, Clerk of the Courts for leave of absence for one year to proceed to England on urgent private affairs – agreed after 11 years continuous service”( https://www.nationalarchives.gov.fk/online-collections/government/executive-council-minutes ).

The Cambridge Middle Class Examinations were held in December 1859, and official lists were issued by the Authorities of the University. In class 3, J.G.E. Sibbald, of Plymouth, educated by W. Bennett, M.A., New Grammar School, Plymouth.

The New Grammar School was another name for The Plymouth Subscription Classical and Mathematical School which was a private school founded in 1822. In 1866 it amalgamated with the Corporation Grammar School.

In 1862 John took and passed the Civil Service exam and was appointed a third class clerk in the Admiralty, and this was published in various newspapers.

I have found two charts, one which records his appointment, and the other records his grades. He was clearly more interested in history than maths, an interest he retained throughout his life.

Sibbald exam 1

The results of John Sibbald's Civil Service Exam

Sibbald placement 1

The list showing John's placement in the Civil Service with the Admiralty

John was first admitted to Bethlem on 9 May 1868. By this time he had not been sleeping for four weeks, and had been wandering around the house crying for no apparent reason. He was suffering from memory loss and it seems like he could not talk connectedly and could become incoherent. His mother and sister told the doctors that he had tried to kill himself by throwing himself into a path of an advancing train at Anerley Station.

Unlike many other attempted suicides, he seems to have been treated kindly by the authorities and the Hospital. The notes mention that he was overworked and very thin, and the Hospital seems to have thought this was the cause of his illness. He stayed silent for the first weeks of his stay, but gradually seems to have talked coherently to staff, and also to eat more. By 19 August he was participating as expected in the routines of the Hospital, and by October the Hospital noted that his behaviours were ‘of a sane man’, and he was allowed leave in November.

According to his case notes from his first admission to Bethlem, John feared a great calamity would befall either himself or his parents. He was discharged as cured on 11 December 1868, and tragically his father died on 24 December 1868, aged 59 years, at 32 Redcliffe Road, West Brompton, after 18 months of paralysis from inanition (starvation).

John’s father was buried at Brompton Cemetery on 30 December 1868.

Burial register no. 54631, private grave, M 59.3 x 172.3

WILLS. 1869.


Effects under £300.

15 January.

The will of John Sibbald late of 32 Redcliffe-road West Brompton in the county of Middlesex Esquire a Captain in the Royal Navy deceased who died 24 December 1868 at 32 Redcliffe-road aforesaid was proved at the Principal registry by the oath of Matilda Lucretia Sibbald of 32 Redcliffe-road aforesaid Widow the Relict one of the Executors.

JS Proof of Age

John Sibbald's proof of age for his civil service job, taken from Find My Past

The family and a servant are living at 10 Riverdale Terrace, Richmond, Surrey at the time of the 1871 census, and the 1881 census shows John with his mother, siblings, his maternal aunt Mary Chanter, and a servant at 3 Townshend Villas, Richmond, Surrey.

I’m not sure if Mary resided with them or was visiting. Her husband Charles was listed as a boarder at 67 Stacey Road, Roath, Glamorganshire.

Mary Taplen and Charles Archibald Chanter married on 14 May 1859 at St Andrews, Plymouth. In 1861 I have found them living at 64 St George’s Square, Portsea, and by 3 July, they lived at Lenox Road, Portsmouth. Charles had resigned as assistant paymaster of the Navy in January 1861 and was working as a photographer. They also occasionally let rooms. By October 1863 they were bankrupt.

The sudden death of Mary in his house in February 1888 was a contributing factor to John’s second admission to Bethlem.

John’s second admission to Bethlem occurred on 4 March 1888. He was listed as being 38 (though he was actually older) and admitted from the family home in Richmond. He had been ill for about a month beforehand, and the death of his aunt was given as one of the causes together with general fears about fire and death. One doctor’s notes record the fears as relating to him setting all the trees in the country on fire, while the other doctor records that he saw a fire fiend in his dreams, and dreamed about death. These seem like the same fears as his first admission, but on a grander scale. These echo my own experiences of mental health, and how as the years go on my layers of trauma magnify my own fears and worries.

John is described as a shy and retiring personality, but prone in his illness to having ‘very severe infantile fits’. This, together with his fears, his tendency to overwork and his undoubted academic ability have made me to wonder if he would perhaps be diagnosed as autistic today, as these traits seem more typical of this neurological condition than of a mental health diagnosis. This is not to say that John did not have mental health needs as well - unfortunately trauma and anxiety often accompany autism.

Unlike the first admission, John was not suicidal on this occasion, but his fears seem to have deepened, and he was recorded as violently struggling with himself, though he was not a danger to others. He was not sleeping again, but he was taking food.

By this time he was described as a ’tall, rather thin but well-nourished man of fair complexion, hair and beard grey, expressionless face with marked absence of lines’. On admission he was described as standing around the ward, responding to questions in a confused manner. It seems a source of some of his discomfort was phimosis, which the Hospital recognised and treated. By 31 March he was noted to be much improved, and was sent to Convalescent Unit in Witley in April. He was given lots of leave, and was eventually discharged well in November.

His own doctor wrote a letter included in the casebook about John’s colleagues occasionally leading him astray, and I wonder if he was a lonely person in his job. I wonder if John had limitations on his life, which forced him to stay in his job, and kept him close to his family all his life. It feels to me that something held John back in his life, whether this was his mental health or an underlying neurological condition.

John, his mother Matilda, and his sister Maude Willdridge are still at 3 Townshend Villas, Richmond, Surrey on the April 1891 census. His brother Andrew had emigrated to America around this time.

In 1893, John’s mother, Matilda, died and was buried with her husband at Brompton Cemetery. Burial register no. 157041, private grave, M 59.3 x 172.3


SIBBALD, Matilda Lucretia of 150 Sheen-Road, Richmond, Surrey, widow, died 18 January 1893, Administration London, 20 May, to John Gordon Edward Sibbald, clerk in the Admiralty, Effects £166 18s. 1d.

The electoral registers for 1895 and 1896 show John still at 150 Sheen Road, Richmond, Surrey, and in the 1897 Borough of Fulham register of voters, John is at 3 Ranelagh Gardens.

John’s sister Ethel had married farmer George John Welch on 8 October 1889 at Holy Trinity, Richmond. They resided at Mount Pleasant Farm, Norton St Philip, Somerset, where Ethel died on 12 December 1899. She was buried 16 December 1899, Church of St Philip & St James, Norton St Philip, Somerset.

The 1901 census shows John at Mount Pleasant Farm, Norton St Philip, Somerset. He is now retired and is listed as a visitor in the household of George J Welch, his brother-in-law, who was now a widower. George J Welch remarried later that year.

The 1911 census shows John is still on Mount Pleasant Farm, Norton St Philip, Somerset in the household of his brother-in-law as a boarder, with his brother-in-law’s wife, children, a governess and two servants.

John owned 2 volumes of The Dark Woman; or, the Days of the Prince Regent by James Malcolm Rymer. The endpapers are inscribed John Gordon Edward Sibbald 7th December 1866.

S Ignature from book

John Sibbald's inscription from his books. Courtesy of Richard Neylon

He was a member of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society and the Somerset Archaeological Society. He used to attend meetings with his sister Ethel.

On Monday 30th June 1913 he was in the Fleur de Lys Inn at Norton Somerset where he bought a pocket-knife for ninepence from a man who stole it. He handed it into the police and was witness at the man’s trial.

We think John lived with his brother in law until he died of ‘senile dementia’ and ‘exhaustion’ on 8 August 1920. He was 75, and seems to have died at the farm. I haven’t been able to find where he was buried. He left an estate worth £870 to his brother-in-law, George Welch.

Neither John nor his siblings had any children. All the lives I’ve looked at here feel somehow incomplete or curtailed, and I feel sad for this family. I wonder if this has a link to John’s struggles with his mental health, or if there was something else happening within the Sibbalds.


My completed piece made in response to John's life.