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Change Minds Online 2022: Sarah Jane May by Amy Moffat

SM Photo

The two photographs of Sarah Jane May, taken from the case book.

When I saw the two photos in the patient record, I was instantly drawn to Sarah Jane May. One taken before her admission shows her standing poised, in an ornate room, adjusting a floral arrangement. There is a distance between her and us, as you would expect from a posed Victorian portrait. The next photo is a close-up, focused entirely on Sarah’s face. Juxtaposing the composure of the previous image, in this one her hair is dishevelled, and she is seemingly looking at the camera and laughing. I knew that I wanted to find out more about this young woman, about her time in Bethlem and beyond.

The first hurdle was attempting to find this Sarah Jane May amongst the sea of Sarah Jane May’s who lived in the UK at this time, made more difficult by virtue of her father dying when she was young and her mother remarrying. After a bit of detective work, I believe that her parents were James and Sarah Ann May. They had two other daughters, Charlotte and Rose, and all three girls are listed as being born in Spain. However, this is not apparent in either British or Spanish birth records – only Sarah Jane goes on to say she is born in Spain in future census records, her sisters later go on to say that they were born in Middlesex.

On her first census record, 1871, we see that all three are living on Fulham Road, London, which was a middle-class area at the time. Her father is listed as a zinc worker, although under what capacity we cannot be sure. The May family had a history of illness – in Sarah’s medical records, we see that her father became paralysed after a fit and died in 1872, and her grandmother, aunt and uncle all became paralysed after fits. Her records list the cause as “apoplexy,” which we would now call a stroke.

After James’ death, Sarah Ann married Robert Fox, a fellow zinc worker, and their family expanded once more. It is difficult to establish how many children Robert had from a previous marriage, but we can be certain that he had at least three children with Sarah – Frederick, Frank and Alfred. In 1881 we find Sarah Ann together with the children in Theydon-Bois, Essex, whilst Robert appears to be living in London, possibly with his older children.

At some point, Sarah Jane decided to move out of London and from 1885 until 1887 she works at the County Hotel in Rothbury, Northumberland, as a bookkeeper. We learn a little about her time in Northumberland from a lengthy medical note that was affixed to her Bethlem records. It seems she suffered a stroke in 1885 whilst in Northumberland, from which she recovered but had ongoing medical issues including gradual paralysis. In late 1887 she was admitted to St Bartholomew’s and was there for 10 days. She was discharged to her family home but was clearly unwell; she only let her sisters near her, was incoherent, had “wet and dirty habits,” and slept and ate little. It was at this time that she was admitted to Bethlem Royal Hospital, on 16th January 1888.

Whilst at Bethlem she no longer had any paralysis, however she had varying sensation in her limbs. She was often kept in strong clothing whilst at Bethlem due to occasional violent outbursts. The doctor’s talk about her being incoherent, noisy at night and often singing – on January 18th one doctor reflected by writing “This afternoon was just like “Ophelia.”” It is difficult to tell much of Sarah’s time at hospital, because between January 22nd and June 21st the doctor’s write very little beyond “much the same/no change.” We see that on May 17th she is somewhat quieter but still in strong clothing and restless, but she also appears to have been in some sort of altercation with a fellow patient, Ellen Aslin (33, housewife. Admitted December 1887, discharged uncured 1888.)

Unusually for Bethlem records, we do get some reference to one of the treatments used; on June 25th we see that “continuous bath increased 1 hour daily.” Hydrotherapy was often used at Bethlem as part of a patient’s treatment alongside moral therapy. In Sarah’s case it seems to be a hot bath, which were often used for those diagnosed with mania and insomnia. This would align with Sarah’s restlessness and sleepless nights.

According to her patient record, Sarah seems to suddenly recover. On 9th July she has improved a great deal, is quiet and talks rationally, and by 12th July is doing needlework and does not think she ought to be in Bethlem much longer. By 8th August, she seems well but is complaining of back pain and the doctors are concerned that, although her mental health has improved, her paraplegia may be returning. However, Bethlem was not a physical health hospital, and she was discharged well on 29th August 1888.

Sarah was a young woman when she was admitted and discharged from Bethlem, and luckily we are able to track her throughout the rest of her life. It doesn’t appear as though she was admitted to any other institutions and lives out her days in the company of her family.

In 1891 she lives with her older sister in Tottenham, now married and called Charlotte Perry. At this point Sarah is still working as a bookkeeper. In 1901 she has moved to a different location in Tottenham, this time with her mother (now listed as a widow), half-brothers and sister Rose. The two sisters live together for the rest of their lives. Rose is listed as being a “stationer manageress” and Sarah as “stationer and post mistress.” It seems likely that they worked together, possibly running a small shop as a family.

By 1911 Sarah, Rose and their mother have moved to Littlehampton on the south coast, and they remain in Sussex for the rest of their lives. At the beginning of the First World War, it appears as though Sarah felt a call to duty and volunteered at her local red cross auxiliary hospital, Belgrave House, a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. A news article from 1917 by R.C Adamson, a wounded soldier who was treated there, gives a glowing review, and affirms that it was a place of good repute and kind care from all that worked there. Sarah was a kitchen volunteer and served a total of 5 years working to feed those who came through its doors. I can’t help but wonder if her own experience with mental health illness affected her time, including her interactions with the young, wounded men in the wards.

We find her on the eve of World War Two in Worthing, still with her sister, both listed as “handicraft linen pottery and stationary retailer.” Her story appears to end in 1944, through the evidence of a registered burial for Sarah Jane May under the records of Littlehampton Parish. She died at the listed age of 80 in Chichester on 16 August 1944.

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“Jan 19th - This afternoon was just like Ophelia – Singing snatches of songs in a low voice + apparently having hallucinations of sight.” The first part of this quote stuck with me throughout my research of Sarah Jane May. Thinking of Ophelia handing out flowers, I chose to represent the different times in Sarah’s life through flora; heather for her time in Northumberland, dog rose and fern for London, sea thrift for her time on the Southern coast, all overseen by two forget-me-nots at the top