Connecting individuals with the society in which they lived: the grandfather in the asylum

A recent photo of the former Kirkcaldy Combination Poorhouse. Photo credit: Kirkcaldy from the south-east, 2001. © Peter Higginbotham.

A few months ago I discovered that my 2nd great grandfather, Rankine Gourlay, was a patient at the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum at the time of the 1891 census.  With a wee bit of digging, I discovered that the asylum records had been kept – and were held in the archive at Fife Council. I emailed the very helpful archivist there, and dispatched my mother to have a look at the patient records for my great, great grandfather.

What we found was that Rankine had been admitted to the asylum in July 1889 with syphilis. He had been a merchant seaman, but lost his job because of the infection. According to his patient records, he was delusional and while in the asylum had a stroke and also attempted suicide.

Despite this, he was discharged from the asylum in October 1891. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but I do know that he was a resident at the Kirkcaldy Combination Poorhouse at the time of the 1901 census, and died there in July 1903 -aged 58.

It seems that few records remain of the poorhouse, and none relating to the period of my ancestor’s stay there, so it’s likely I’ll never find out what actually happened to him in the last 12 years of his life.

I had all but forgotten about Rankine until a couple of days ago when I listened to a podcast of the BBC Radio Scotland’s Digging up your Roots. This is a great radio programme specifically about family history research in Scotland. For those who don’t know it, each episode deals with a separate issue – records related to seafarers or excisemen for example – and one of the most recent was about asylums. I learned quite a lot about the role of these institutions in Scotland in the nineteenth century – including how prevalent it was for patients to be admitted because they suffered from syphilis.

I’m no closer to knowing more about my own ancestor, but at least after listening to the podcast I feel that I understand the context of his life a bit better.

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12 thoughts on “Connecting individuals with the society in which they lived: the grandfather in the asylum

  1. This is a sad, raw story, Su, but fantastic that you have tracked down so much evidence. It has reminded me that my grandmother had a sister whom she described as ‘simple’. At some point towards adulthood ( I imagine towards the end of the 19th century), and for reasons I don’t know, she was packed off to an asylum. She died there after the asylum caught fire. I feel she is a fluttering fragment – rather worrying; I know of her former existence and sad end, but that’s it. I’m not sure how I would begin to unearth her story. But does she want me to…?

    • That is a very interesting point. I have unearthed a few things in my research that contradict family folklore, and have wondered how much to share with family – especially the older members – but have also found a couple of stories that I’ve started gnawing at, but haven’t really explored because I wonder if I’m just disturbing the ghost of the person whose story it is. I’m thinking of making a trip to the UK later this year to do some hands-on research in local archives and libraries, and I’ve been wondering if visiting my dead ancestors’ graveyards will help give me some clarity about how to tell their stories.

  2. I’ve got an ancestor who was in an asylum for the same reason at much the same time. Mine was a coal miner in Ayrshire. He died in 1890 at Ayr District Asylum and it says from “general paralysis after insane 3 years” on his death certificate. I know from research that this will mean syphilis, which sadly was not uncommon at that time. He was only 29 when he died, and he left a young widow and a young son. His widow remarried and had more children, and the son grew up, became a coal miner, married and had children of his own, so thankfully they had a happy ending.

  3. Oh, that’s very young, and terribly sad for his widow. My 2 x great grandfather’s death certificate says he had syphilis, and the asylum records go into quite a lot of detail about it. According to my mum, who read the hospital records, Rankine’s wife apparently wouldn’t take him back when he was released from the asylum, so I guess that’s why he ended up in the poorhouse. I don’t know what happened to his wife and most of his children, but I do know that his daughter (my great grandmother) lived to be quite an old lady. She died just a few months before I was born.

  4. So do I! I think one of the good things about doing family history is how much it makes me realise that my life is really quite privileged compared to my mainly working-class ancestors.

  5. Pingback: Doing it tough in the 1890s: more Kirkcaldy pottery workers | Shaking the tree

  6. Pingback: Thankful Thursday: to archivists everywhere | Shaking the tree

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