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Campaigners fight to restore a derelict burial ground at High Royds, Menston

PUBLISHED: 16:42 07 February 2011 | UPDATED: 17:10 20 February 2013

High Royds patients

High Royds patients

A campaign to restore a derelict burial ground for hundreds of asylum patients reveals stories of fear and rejection. Mary Hampshire reports in the first of a two part series

Cicely Sedgwick cuts an elegant and composed figure in a floor length blue gown, with a tightly cinched waist and neatly styled hair. Her great, great grandson Alan Storey, aged 48, looks up to admire her wedding day portrait on his living room wall, having been intrigued by it since he was a young boy.

When I visited my grandma, I would always ask her to pull out her old photographs and tell us who everyone was. I was fascinated by that wedding picture of Cicely, says the father-of-two from Bradford.

On his coffee table, lies another altogether different image. Seated on a carved wooden chair dressed in a black dress, Cicely wears an awkward smile. Six years after getting married, she was admitted to High Royds Hospital in Menston, West Yorkshire, known then as West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum. Cicely remained there for 59 years until her death in 1954. The grainy black and white image was taken on her admission in 1895.

Alan adds: I knew that shed been in High Royds for a long time but no more than that. It was not something that the family spoke about much. His quest to discover more about this part of his family history led him to support a campaign group, the Friends of High Royds Memorial Garden, who helped him unearth crucial information.

In a field off Buckle Lane, behind the local ambulance station and near the former hospital grounds, lie 2,861 people. They are mostly former psychiatric patients of High Royds Hospital, including six babies, all placed three deep in paupers graves without headstones. Their families were too poor to afford a burial. Or the stigma of mental illness meant many were forgotten or unclaimed by their families. They were not given a formal funeral but quietly buried with a quick service at the chapel just inside the iron gates.

They were the asylum dead who died with no-one to mourn them, says campaign group member Mark Davis, a historian and photographer from Haworth, who has compiled a fascinating online archive about the hospital which opened in 1888 and closed in 2003. He adds: They were never claimed because often their families didnt have the funds to provide a burial for them. Some came from extreme poverty or the workhouse. Many had no surviving relatives because of the length of their stay in the asylum. Others were rejected due to the stigma of mental illness.

He explains: It was believed that madness was hereditary so families didnt admit their relative was in an asylum, perhaps fearing a slur on their good name or character. So the hospital took care of the duties for them, burying people as cheaply and quickly as possible.
The great sadness is that a significant number of people who were admitted, right up until the 1950s, included those rebuffed by society.

They found themselves in High Royds for perhaps falling pregnant out of wedlock, melancholy and the Victorian favourite, mania, along with those suffering from now treatable conditions such as epilepsy, post natal depression, and post traumatic stress. Once admitted, they spent their lives incarcerated and became totally institutionalised, excluded from the outside world, abandoned and forgotten.

In the 1890s, Parliament ruled that insanity was grounds for divorce which, explains Mark, opened the floodgates for women to be pushed in. In 1913 the Mental Deficiency Act was introduced covering admissions for the morally defective and covered a wide range of deviant behaviour. All you needed was one doctors signature until 1959, claims Mark.

There are many poignant cases that he has found in old case notes. They include a six-year-old girl admitted for being an imbecile who died 20 years later in the hospital, and who is buried at Buckle Lane; a 16-year-old young man smiling in his admission photograph, wearing oversized rough clothes, as if he was unaware that the other half of his life would be spent at the institution; and a 10-year-old boy who had epilepsy.

Campaigners have launched a fundraising push and begun restoring the site and dignity to all those buried there from 1905 to 1969 by repairing the derelict chapel and grounds overgrown with rhododendrons and weeds. Gladedale, property developers of the former hospital site, donated the ground to the group last year. The only formal reminder until now has been a small plaque next to the front gates.

Mark Davis has also trawled West Yorkshire Archive Service in Wakefield, finding valuable historical information, and set up a website. He has a complete list of those buried in the grounds, and a grave plan. This is enabling people piecing together their family tree, and stumbling across some blind spots, to reconnect with long lost relatives, some of whom may have been barely mentioned. Around 15 families have been in touch and discovered relatives buried in the field so far.

Former hospital staff are also among members of the public who have supported the fundraising effort. At least 100 shareholders have donated more than 3,000.

The group, which is a charitable company, is now applying for grants. In addition to restoring the chapel, they want to make a tribute inside it possibly with a list of names, and some historical information, and create a memorial garden of remembrance.

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