2.36 – Lily, Walter and Albert Rufus Mitchell

Lily and her two brave sons. Was it better for her to predecease them?

Lily Webster was born in Halifax in 1864, and married John Whittaker Mitchell at Eastwood Congregational Chapel in 1884. They had two children together, Albert Rufus and Walter. John seems to have exited the scene rather quickly and in 1892 was sent to prison at Wakefield for “neglect of family” – although he had already been there in 1891, appearing on the Census return. His occupation in both records is given as “musician”…no jokes, please. He continues to go in and out of prison over the next few decades. We think he may even at one point been bigamously married. Lily remained on her own with her boys, giving her status as married and continuing on.

Lily worked however she needed to in order to support her sons – whether as a laundress or charwoman. It will have been hard work and it will have taken its toll. The stress of WW1 won’t have helped, and of her two sons going off to fight. They both joined the Lancashire Fusiliers.

Lily died at the beginning of January 1915, back when most people still thought the war wouldn’t be for much longer. For Walter, the war wasn’t for much longer. On August 7th 1915, he went missing at Gallipoli. His remains were never found and he was eventually presumed dead. Albert survived but was a very unwell man. Even though he returned to Todmorden and lived in the area for a few years after being discharged, up to 1921 when he was living at Blackstone Edge, his death in 1922 occurred at Storthes Hall.

Storthes Hall in Kirkburton, near Huddersfield, was one of several asylums which fell within the West Riding. People with anything ranging from deafness or blindness to severe learning difficulties to psychiatric illness to physical injuries were sent there. By the time Albert went it was not quite like Bedlam, but he would still have been there as the result of some very serious illness of the mind or body. His cause of death is given as “general paralysis of the insane (uncertain duration)”. But what does that mean?

CWGC designations are for those who died as a result of injuries sustained through service in WW1 or WW2. Without being able to get hold of Albert’s medical records, and without a newspaper mention of his death, we can’t be certain of WHY Albert was so unwell. However, Jennifer Driver from Touchstones, Rochdale’s equivalent of West Yorkshire Archive Services, was able to help us fill in some of the major gaps in Albert’s medical story by accessing some hospital admissions records held at their storeroom.

It seems that Albert was sent to Birch Hill House, a hospital-cum-workhouse located outside Littleborough, and began a 14-day observation order on April 27th 1921. It finished on May 10th, but he was put under observation again in December that year, and both times certified as a “lunatic”. More (if you can call it that) detail is included in December as to his illness; the cause of being put under observation is given as “walking aimlessly about”. Finally, on January 4th 1922, Albert was ordered to the asylum. The cause as given in the image below reads:

“The grounds for my opinion that the said Albert Rufus Mitchell is a Lunatic are as follows: Says he has a daughter 19 years of age and that he is very wealthy. Delusion of Rank.”

So how did he get from Birch Hill House to Storthes Hall? The answer lies with the system of Guardians which long predated the Poor Law in 1834 (you know, that one that caused all the riots) and the way that parish relief was administered. The riots were about whether people would have to leave their houses if they sought parish relief; but the system itself, before and after, essentially charged the parish where someone was born with their upkeep should they fall into poverty or infirmity. This is why sometimes you will see the man of the house pass away, and his widow and children sent somewhere else – if she was born in another parish, the parish where she lived could send her back there so they wouldn’t have to support her. Albert was, of course, born on the Yorkshire side of Todmorden, and in some records is listed as being born in Halifax district. This is why he will have been sent away. He had no surviving relatives who could afford to (or cared enough to) look after him and was not required to be kept in the asylum that served the area where he last lived before becoming too ill to work. The minutes of the Littleborough and Wardle Committee meeting for January 4th 1922 include a note: “Resolved – that Albert Rufus Mitchell be removed to his place of settlement if the Clerk find him removable.”

There’s still not enough detail in existence to say whether or not his decline was due to his service, and the nature of his delusion doesn’t really tell us anything. His absent father was constantly in debt and his mother had to work as a laundress and charwoman, lowly hard dirty work, so maybe this was his injured mind’s way of creating a better reality for himself.

Another sad stone in need of care from someone outside the family. Thankfully the Mitchells have been adopted by a group member and her efforts have brought it back from neglect.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *