[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.
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.
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.
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.
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