The diaphanous portrait of Nell

[Do look at the fascinating comments from others concerning this article which appears at the end of this article]

Why does this image speak to me?  I’ve restored the photo after more than a century. The eyes reach out to me. A look of resignation, a loss of hope. Her expression seems so unsettling. She knows something that we never will. I call this ‘The diaphanous portrait of Nell’, taken about 1910 – it’s my great-aunt. But this photo defies age – it’s recalcitrant and insistent,demanding that I look and see.  Perhaps like the sitter.

Experience, it is sometimes said, is “diaphanous”: one sees through it to the object or property the experience is representing. I ‘m determined to see behind the veil of Blanche Eleanor Finch, my grandad William’s sister. What is her joyless secret betrayed in her hangdog expression. And why was her name never mentioned in our family now long gone. For a family so eager to regurgitate and embellish family fables, the story of Blanche Eleanor remains unspoken and unrecorded.

Maybe some genealogy will tell some truths. But in reality, historic records tell only about the punctuations in life. It’s not about truth, just the teasing facts of place and time. It’s a bit like trying to make sense of a narrative based on where the full stops and commas appear. The real stories occur in the space between. But let’s look at the evidence.

  • She was born on the 27th of November 1896 in Romford, Essex.
  • William, Bertram, Edgar, Blanche, Emily, Cecil and Gordon… the burgeoning nest of Finch offspring from the eldest to the youngest who just squeaked into the Victorian era.
  • Blanche Eleanor was affectionately known as ‘Nell’.  Our aunt Gwen wrote down how grandad William and Nell were inseparable during ‘babyhood’.
  • 1911 is a key date. My grandad William marries in that year. Bertram sets off for a military life in Aldershot. All of Nell’s younger siblings are at school, but her occupation is a blank entry. Yet her handwriting is copybook cursive writing ‘Yours sincerely Nell’ on the photo.

Why is Nell not in the wedding photo? In fact, why is she always sitting down in photos? I think she is about 15 at the time of the ‘floppy hat’ photo – that would be the same year as William’s marriage to our grandmother Amelia.

So many unanswered questions. Just a few suggestions of things not quite right.

By 1918 the remaining family have moved out from London to the small town of Earls Colne near Colchester. It’s the address the war office wrote to, to send news of her younger brother Cecil’s death in the last few weeks of the Great War.

Then there is the photo that looks like she is in service – a uniform of some sort. I must paint this and perhaps get closer to the truth than any census could ever do. I call this the ‘Unruly hair’ photo. She looks a little older in this photo, a little more world-weary.

Blanche Eleanor Finch around 1912 in service uniform and wearing necklace.
Portrait of Nell circa 1912.

By the 1920s Nell  was the only child not to have flown the nest. Along with her mother Hannah, she appears on the 1929, 1930 and 1931 electoral registers. This seems to suggest that she was of sound mind and a supporter of the suffrage movement (women were only able to vote after 1928 in the UK). But her mother didn’t make it to the 1931 election as she died in the same year.

An unsettling revelation

What had become of Nell?  That interesting. Scrolling down I see that there was an unfortunate soul called Blanche Eleanor Finch who was committed to an asylum. The 1939 census describes her as ‘incapacitated’ and residing in Severalls Mental Hospital in Colchester. The crinkly sticky tape seems to highlight Nell in the asylum list. She has a special code written in green Biro – what does that code mean ‘3wc’?

Nell saw out the rest of her days in this wilderness, dying at Severalls in  1972. The death certificate shows the same date as recorded by my Aunt Gwen in her anniversary book – so it is the same person. It seems that with the death of her mother in 1931 she was unable to cope with independent living. But what happened in those intervening forty years? Maybe she had been carrying a disability all her life? Maybe something happened to her?

What is the story of Severalls? I look at the Wikipedia entry, that starts off by telling you all the things you don’t need to know. It was designed by so-and-so, had such an such a layout and the foundation stone was laid by whoever in 1913. Spread over a sprawling 300 acres, the site was designed to be entirely self-contained with a unique architectural echelon configuration around courtyards. All very interesting, but this tells me nothing about Nell and her 40 year of incarceration.

Picture of Severalls main building in a derelict state around the year 2000.
Image of dilapidated Severalls Hospital near Colchester, UK (source: Wikipedia)

In what way was she ‘incapacitated’. I look again at the photo. Perhaps she had epilepsy, was disabled or suffered mental fatigue. I was grasping at straws. In my own naïve way, I was trying to understand what was meant by ‘incapacitated’. Only after daily online discussions with a Severalls forum did I start to see the true darkness of what happened in this unaccountable and hidden community of up to 1,700 patients. People were busy sharing their own personal experiences and those of their close relatives who were seeing out their last days.

An inconvenient truth

It seems that many of the patients presented an ‘inconvenient truth’… Inconvenient for their families, their community, their society. By isolating them, the policy of the day (1930s to 1970s) ensured that their genetic ‘flaws’ did not contaminate the wider gene pool through reproduction. They were victims of the prevailing eugenics philosophy (originating in the UK) that deemed they were unfit to reproduce.

In May 1995 a two-year study was undertaken by a social scientist, Diana Gittins, who produced a book Madness in Its Place: Narratives of Severalls Hospital. This was adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio Four. “Often women were admitted by their own family, sometimes as the result of bearing illegitimate children or because they had been raped. As they would not always (or were unable to) carry out daily tasks, they were considered to be insane and some were even subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomy.”

I caught up with Diana, now in retirement, to find out if she had any clues about Blanche. We shared a common interest in studying architecture and space: she even published with the same publisher as me (Taylor and Francis). Of course, this was a forlorn hope given that Nell was one amongst so many. As Diana noted in her email “A number of women were put inside for very dubious reasons. They did have patient records when I was working on the book but I think they were probably destroyed.”

The story ends here

The hospital eventually closed in May 1997, following the introduction of ‘Care in the Community’ in the early 1980s. It was left abandoned for many years until its development as a residential site in 1986. During its years of abandonment, it seems that the medical records of its inhabitants went astray. Curious relic hunters and arsonists inevitably hastened its demise. Medical record fragments were found scattered in the charred debris.

Severalls Hospital fire in 2004 (copyright EssexLive)

The story ends with a missive from Essex County Council…

“If you search our catalogue Essex Archives Online for the words Severalls Hospital you will see what archive material survives. You will also see quickly that little in fact does survive, relative to the very large amount that must once have existed.  So far as I can tell there is nothing likely to relate to your great aunt.”

Experiments… experiments. What use are they if you don’t keep the results? After all, wasn’t Nell and many like her just part of an experiment.

“The thing about families, Arlo thought, was that there was always some question nobody wanted to answer for you, and it was like a stray thread pulling loose in a sweater. You could tug at it all you wanted, but in the end, all you’d have was a pile of twisted yarn.”
Sarah Sullivan, All That’s Missing

It seems that all I have now is a pile of twisted yarn. But I will try and make sense of it in my own way- with a paintbrush and pallet: trying to reveal the diaphanous portrait of Nell.

Watercolour painting of Great Aunt Nell around 1912.
Watercolour of Nell in service uniform.

Please feel free to comment. This blog is looking for a place to be published in print if you have any suggestions?

8 thoughts on “The diaphanous portrait of Nell

  1. Nell is a fascinating member of the family for sure. The two photos are a world apart in so many ways as you say. I find it so terribly sad that memories and stories of those who didn’t conform in some way to the ideal ‘norm’ were excluded from recollections so very often. And worse that they were excluded from society in often very awful and even brutal ways. It certainly didn’t start due to Eugenics, there was a long history of people being placed or forced into institutions including into Workhouses especially when there way no family member to cloister or cope with them. Many women in particular would visit institutions for multiple periods through their life so Nell could have even been in Severalls, or similar, so this may even may explain her absense from the wedding possibly (particularly as adolescense can sometimes be the age where either health situations can begin/be triggered or become more difficult to cope with for the individual or family thus are sent for ‘treatment’).

    Nell’s Mum Hannah didn’t die in 1931, I believe it was 1938 (aged 73, Epping) after being fitted for a gas mask according to Grandma (Ruby): Having been ‘fitted for her gas mask she decided she didn’t want to live’. At that time and for a few years prior Hannah was living with Grandma’s family: Bertram, his wife and kids in Beulah House, Theydon Bois.

    I initially did wonder about this as 1938 seemed a year early possibly for the populace to be fitted with gas masks especially with Britain really wishing to avoid going to war with Germany. But this was corroborated with others giving their recollections of being fitted with gas masks Autumn 1938 so I think it likely that this story from Grandma was accurate:

    I don’t know the exact year Hannah moved in with Bertram and family. If the 1929 and 1930 Electoral Registers show Nell and Hannah still living together then after that, I guess. Possibly Nell going to Severalls and Hannah to Beulah House with Bertram coincided but not necessarily. I had thought that after William, Hannah’s husband, died in 1929 that perhaps was when they moved but then some of Grandma’s stories indicated that Hannah may have only lived with them for a couple of years before she died. If Hannah and William owned the house in Earls Comb is there a way to access dates of sale of the property which could give a clue?

    The only information I was ever able to pry out of Grandma about Nell was from naming her along with Bertram and his siblings. And saying they called her ‘Nell’. I’m not certain she knew anything more in this case rather than just keeping the secret but we’ll never know.

    I had wondered if Nell’s Death Certificate might reveal anything further than just ‘incapacitated’?


    1. Hi Sam. You’ve certainly helped to explain some of the story here…particularly the latter years of Hannah, the little girl that was rescued from the Thames by her father’s teeth while he clung to the upturned boat. Alas the property at Earls Colne is no more so I dont know what happened to the deeds. Thanks for your insights from New Zealand.


      1. Do local councils keep details of property records? Even if just notes on years of sale/change of ownership.
        I often think if I’d been bolder and gone urban exploring at Severalls in 2003-04 before the fire I might have stumbled across the records of a few of the family! Pretty horrific that such records were just abandoned in a building.


  2. I so enjoy reading your posts Eddy, and this has touched a chord with my own search for what it was that Grandma said we ‘didn’t need to know’. As you say, there is so much hidden between the punctuation of facts. I will continue my search for the text!
    Thank you.

    PS. Coincidentally my grandfather William Finch had a sister known as Nell (Ellen Louise). A couple of years younger than your Nell, and much luckier in the life she led.


  3. A rather sad but fascinating & well written story of Nell who deserves to be remembered, even with so little info about her. Your respect shines through, more than just a mystery story.
    I went to school in Earls Colne, & began my training as a Registered Mental nurse at Severalls Hospital in 1970. It was a period of massive change in Mental Health. I worked with folk who recounted stories of the horrors of past years, and the evidence of the results of experimentation & long term institutionalisation surrounded me, and yet it did not have the feel of a chamber of horrors. It was a place which wrapped its arms around all who were there, patients & staff, providing an aspect so helpful to many that is largely missing in today’s mental health services….asylum. Somewhere to feel safe. Of course there were abuses too. Sadly I witnessed occasions of this, not unlike today’s treatment of asylum seekers by my adopted country of Australia, but I advocated for those who were mistreated & surprisingly (at the time) found myself supported by the hospital hierarchy – a sign of changing values.
    There is every possibility that I may have seen or met your Nell in her final two years, my first two at Severalls, & I so wish I could bring her to mind, but I can’t. I find it almost beyond belief that records were simply abandoned & cannot accept that to have done so would have been a decision of the institution itself, but feel it must have been a result of the health department/government rejecting all that they saw as no longer worthy in favour of the ‘new era’? Thanks for your blog account.


    1. What a revealing and reflective response Ian. I guess as you indicated, you and other staff in the 1970s were picking up the pieces of a failed experiment from the 1920-1960 era to which people had become conditioned. And yes, our notion of asylum and safety is perhaps something that may be missing in our modern day, under-resourced care in the community. I like to think you did meet Nell…she would have enjoyed meeting you I believe.


  4. This story is so sad. My mum was adopted, and she told us a few details, that she had picked up from overheard conversations between the adults,
    but never enough to trace the story. It always upsets me that I may never fully know her background.


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