Years ago, when researching my great-grandfather’s family tree, I found an uncle who through his marriage fathered no less than nine children over a period of seventeen years. Most of them eventually married and began families of their own, but one particular case remained mysterious for years to come. It was only recently that I was able to uncover more information about her life (and death).
Winifred Rose Allen was born at the start of 1881, her parents’ sixth child and second daughter. The subsequent birth of two more daughters and one son (who sadly died aged four months) would complete the family tree. Little Winifred made her first appearance on the census the same year of her birth, when she was recorded (aged one month) living with her family at Portland Cottage, in the rural setting of Upper Colwall, Herefordshire. Something must have appeared to be amiss fairly soon afterwards, however, as it gradually became evident that Winifred showed signs of being physically handicapped. There are no records to show what exactly was the problem with her, but her health condition was serious enough to make it to the census, as we’ll see.
Ten years later, ten-year-old Winifred was against recorded again on the census living with her parents and siblings – only this time the column referring to being “deaf-and-dumb”, “blind” or “lunatic, imbecile or idiot” is sadly filled in with the following description: Spinal complaint from childhood. It is painfully evident, therefore, that young Winifred was physically disabled, and may well have been unable to walk altogether. Thus far there is no reason to suppose that her problems affected her learning capacity, but a glance at the column destined to each person’s occupation reveals that, unlike her siblings (both older and younger) she was not attending school. Was she indeed suffering from some kind of mental handicap, or was her physical condition an obstacle towards her going to school and receiving a normal, formal education?
The 1901 census is striking, in that it offers no reference whatsoever to Winifred’s health problems, which could initially suggest she was no longer ill. Rather tellingly, if we pay close attention to other details on the form reveals this is not so. Winifred was still living at home, residing with her parents and unmarried sisters, all of whom were school teachers. Not coincidentally, Winifred is the only member of the family whose occupation is left unanswered.
By 1911 things for the Allen family had changed dramatically. Susannah, Winifred’s mother, had died the previous year, and all of her brothers were married by then, leading lives of their own. With her father nearing his seventieth year, Winifred’s family seems to have decided to send her to an institution where she could be looked after. Thus, in the 1911 census she appears as a patient in Weymouth Street Hospital, in Marylebone (London). Now, one hundred years ago, treatment for the physically (and mentally) impaired was far less evolved and understood than what it has become today, and treatment of certain illnesses and conditions was considerably limited. It is therefore possible that, to all intenst and purposes, Winifred was locked away for good.
As the 1921 census is not yet available to the public, it is difficult to say where Winifred spent the next decade of her life, or even if she was cared for by her family (all of her siblings were alive at the time), but all facts indicate that she was institutionalised for the remainder of her life.
The 1939 UK Register, which was produced just after the outbreak of Wold War II, records Winifred once again, and once more, in an institution: she is a patient in Harperbury Hospital, a part of the Middlesex Colony (also known as Kingsley Green), in St Albans, Hertfordshire. This was a mental health and learning disability hospital which, for sixty-one years, was known as Harperbury Hospital. At the start of the war, there were over 1,190 patients, but the institution continued to work with normality throughout the conflict.
At some later stage, Winifred seems to have been transferred to Napsbury Hospital (which was featured in the Who Do You Think You Are? episode starring Julian Clary). Winifred never left Napsbury again, as it was there that the sixty-two-year-old passed away on 16 November 1944. The cause of death was recorded as lobar pneumonia and arteriosclerosis. A small anotation, “P.M.”, which I presume means post-mortem, might suggest that Winifred passed away without a medical attendant at hand, and therefore a thorough medical examination was needed following death. The death was registered two weeks later the hospital’s chief resident officer, suggesting no relative of Winifred’s was close by when she breathed her las. It was a particularly sad and anonymous passing for someone who I have the feeling was, to all intents and purposes, forgotten by everyone who had known her in her youth. Through no fault of her own, her biography was obliterated from the pages of my family history, and I am very proud to rescue her life through this article. After all, this is probably the first time in over seventy years that anyone has told her story.