Week 1: Victorian asylums, family secrets and a new tapestry

My late grandmother was an intensely strong and private woman and fiercely intelligent. She was a research chemist before she married, having earned a chemistry degree in the 1940s. No mean feat for the daughter of a carpenter and the granddaughter of an alcoholic hotel ostler. She was incredibly supportive of me as I did my PhD and I think she wished she could have done more herself.

My grandparents

One Christmas mention was made of someone in her family who wasn’t to be spoken of. I suffered from that lack of curiosity about family history that only rectifies itself once the folk who hold all the answers are long dead. When at last I did begin my family tree I wasn’t too surprised to come across my grandmother’s grandmother, Delia Horberry, listed as an inmate in a Leicestershire asylum in the 1911 census. No doubt tragic but my interests were centred on expanding my tree as much as I could rather than focusing on any individuals.

A few years later I came across some letters in my grandmother’s archive written by her father’s brother who had moved to the States just after WW1. He talked of his mother Delia and her ‘religious mania’ and how she had tried in her lucid moments to see him educated. There was also a transcription of a letter from another of Delia’s sons in which reference was made to their sister, Delia Jo. Apparently she was a WAAC during WW1 and once engaged to a New Zealand soldier. As to Delia Jo’s current whereabouts and well being according to the letter, it was better to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’, she had, after all, been in the asylum a long time.

A spine tingling moment which I still remember. To have one relative in an asylum is sad, but to have two, well it is clearly somewhat iffy. What was going on? Was Delia Jo a bit of a loose cannon, easily dismissed as insane because her mother was? In the spirit of a good gothic novel, were the Horberry women simply too damn bolshie, strong-willed and intelligent to be handled by our ineffective Victorian men-folk and it was easier to lock them away? Was there some sort of tragic end to the New Zealand Soldier that lead to her demise?

Delia Jo Horberry who ended up spending decades in an asylum
Delia Jo Horberry who ended up spending decades in an asylum

Although the asylum where Delia and Delia Jo lived and died has been pulled down, its archive has survived, including the medical records. The county archive office were very helpful and sent me what they had. The younger inmate, Delia Jo, was admitted from a workhouse where she had a tendency to be uncooperative and to wipe her nose on her sleeve. She knocked the glasses off the workhouse nurse and with that she was carted off to the asylum in 1923. She died in there, in 1963, having never left. Her medical records consisted of a single sentence scribbled down quarterly, soon relegated to just a line each year as the decades rolled on, recording her refusal to co-operate and eventual dementia.


As for Delia senior, she was admitted in 1910 and there are clear references to delusional beliefs and cycles of mania and melancholia. This was her sixth and final admission. There was no real diagnosis or attempt at treatment. She died in 1926. There is a photograph of her in the records (which due to copyright I am not permitted to share), and it is like looking at my grandmother in old age, the likeness beyond uncanny. According to Delia senior’s admission details, her mother and sister were also ‘insane’. Well that was too much to believe – four of them? Really? I did a bit of digging; Delia’s two sisters, Clara and Alice appeared in the census every year, no other sisters had existed who then died. In fact Clara went on to marry a successful chemist in Brigg, her only son killed in WW1.

Leicester Borough Lunatic Asylum (From http://leicestertravel.co.uk/)

So that was where I was at. My grandmother’s grandmother Delia was schizophrenic or more likely bipolar, her daughter Delia Jo seemingly the victim of some horrid injustice all too common for the times. They inspired me to become what is known as a Hospital Manager, a lay person who sits on an independent panel to which folk sectioned under the Mental Health Act can appeal their detention in hospital. It is something I still do now, a great honour and privilege. I also explored Delia a little creatively, as I’ve posted previously.

A few weeks ago a new index of asylum admissions was released, and there listed was Delia’s sister Alice, a resident of an asylum in Lancashire from 1877 to 1886. The records it seems are lost and I won’t find out more. But I started to wonder if Delia did in fact have an insane sister afterall, was it true her mother was too – could all this really expand at least three generations? I looked back over my notes for their mother, Jane Horberry, and saw that she died in 1862 aged just 30. Not unusual for the times, but I soon realised it was unlikely her death was childbirth related, the last of her three daughters, Alice, was a few months old. My spider sense began to tingle that perhaps her premature death was not a natural one. I sent off for the death certificate and saw listed under the cause of death, two words – found drowned.


An inquest was held into her death and although these were usually reported in the local papers, of hers, there is nothing recorded. She was married to a wealthy farmer so I don’t know if it was in deference to him, or some other reason; I’m still trying to find out from the local archives office if there are any other extant records that may shed some light. Until facts emerge, one is left guessing, but that Jane was considered insane when Delia was first admitted into hospital decades later, we can suppose her drowning was intentional rather than accidental, and quite possibly whilst suffering from some sort of post-natal depression. But perhaps as some mental illnesses are known to be hereditary, if Delia was schizophrenic or bi-polar, this could have been inherited from her mother Jane.

An unidentiied figure from around 1877 but probably Jane’s mother Matilda who survived her by at least thirty years and at one time took in Jane’s daughter Clara.

It is hard not to think with sympathy of the young 30-year-old mother so determined to take her own life that she chose the way she did. There is something inherently lonely in the fact that she had to be ‘found’ that way, she had died alone. The extent of her desperation can only be imagined considering she knowingly abandoned her three very young daughters to the world. To some extent Jane’s story has been brought home to me by having a friend who has endured post-natal depression and by what I have seen through the nature of my voluntary work; I guess the real tragedy is there was simply not the help and understanding then as there is now. I am not in any romanticising her death, that would be ridiculous, but I don’t judge her for it.

Jane’s household in the year before her death

I’ve sent off for what survives of Delia senior’s other hospital admissions and am hoping they will be here in the next few days, but I’ve already been told by the archivist that Delia first tried to kill herself aged just 37. There is much discussion about the heredity of mental illness, and of the heredity of suicide as a learned behaviour. I suppose a hundred years ago, there was also a heredity of stigma and assumption and ‘bad blood’. However tragic Jane’s circumstances might have been, it is hard to deny the terrible legacy she left to subsequent generations, two of her three daughters ending up in asylums, and needlessly, her only granddaughter for forty years.

So why am I telling you all this?

When my new loom arrived a few weeks ago, I had to cut off prematurely The Long Night, a tapestry I had been working on, so that loom could be dismantled to make way for the new one. Although it was a hard decision, I’ve never been entirely happy with its progress and saw an opportunity to rethink the design and begin again. But one evening, as I worked on the new design I suddenly found myself doodling something else entirely, Jane, at that last moment in the water. I imagined something dark, determined and strong, but also something calm and desolate and vulnerable.


I don’t know where Jane drowned herself, the nearest river was the Trent, but the whole area was once marshland. Even so, the image came quickly and pretty much fully formed although my iPad has proved an invaluable tool for tweaking and trying out different ideas without committment. However it ends up, I know in my gut this is the subject for my next tapestry. I am not abandoning The Long Night, I will come back to it, but I feel while this is so vibrant with me, I have to follow it. I feel very connected to it, something which, ironically, I didn’t with the last one. I feel like I did with Maides Coign. And as with Maides Coign I know, as a friend rightly pointed out, I have a journey of challenges before me bringing this new tapestry to life. I’ve called this post Week 1, because I am going to do what I did with Maides Coign and try to post weekly on the tapestry’s progress. I’ve already spent a few days experimenting with my dyes trying to come up with the greens I want. Over the next week I want to finalise the blends, work out how I am going to render her hair, and work towards finalising the cartoon. She’ll be slightly more than life-size, edging towards two metres in width and I suspect she will have to be woven the right way up rather than on the side due to the horizontal shapes of the water which would form slits if I wove it on the side (I’m not fond of interlocking).

IMG_1285IMG_1275I’m very excited about this project, which I’ve called Found Drowned. I like the juxtaposition of the rather unhappy subject with the warmth traditionally associated with tapestry. I also like the idea of using a large-scale tapestry, a medium that once celebrated the great and the good, to instead celebrate the unsung and the hidden, to bring someone back to life, in fact many, who were once never to be spoken of.

IMG_1439So there we are, all change, but for the good, I feel. I am hoping to get it done for the Saltaire Arts Trail which returns in May, but suspect that may be pushing it wildly, but we’ll see. I have no doubt that the refitting of a proper studio has helped immensely, having space to develop my ideas, space to get things out and lay them before me, space on a blank wall to draw the cartoon, has been just fantastic. I put the first warp on the new loom to do the samples and it was a total joy, it is clear it was built by a true craftsman. So I’m off back up (the studio is a laptop-free zone) and I’ll carry on with those samples. Ta ta for now xIMG_1305

10 thoughts on “Week 1: Victorian asylums, family secrets and a new tapestry

  1. Fascinating post, as usual. Looking forward very much to seeing Fownd Drownd progress. Sorry for my spelling but I feel it suits your piece, the shrinking belly after childbirth and the rhythm of the water lapping around her, so please permit me to use it!

  2. Thank you for this, I found it really interesting although sad. I have been interested in family history for many years but only this last 10 did I start to do something about it, of course as you say those with information had all passed. So far I have found nothing so compelling in my ancestors and envy your talent at being able to transfer this to the magical world of textile.

    Again, thank you for sharing

    Suzanne Haigh

    1. Thanks Suzanne! I guess all our pasts are sadly filled with these types of stories, it was just the luck of a single letter between two brothers surviving, that started the journey – were it not for that reference to Delia Jo also being out away, I might never have uncovered it all!

    2. Fantastic read Chrissie … Keith heard the story now I loved hearing it in person today well done I just love it !!

  3. What an interesting, and sad, post, and how amazing that it has inspired you. I too, after many years of family history research, came across a tragically sad case of infanticide, committed by the child’s grandfather. He ended up in Broadmoor for the remaining 30 years of his life.

    I found most of the details from this case from the British Newspaper Archive, http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/, possibly you might find out more about your ancestors from there.

    Look forward to seeing the tapestry develop.

    1. Thanks for the hint David – it is a really good resource and there’s two newspapers they have which covers the Haxey area, but whilst the Lincolnshire Chronicle did report on an inquest held on the same day/place as Jane’s, there is no mention of hers. Very strange! I’ve emailed several local family history societies with no luck and am waiting to hear back from the Lincolnshire Archives Office. Do you have the Broadmoor records, atre they still extant? There might be a photograph if you haven’t got one already.

  4. I did manage to get the Broadmoor Records, Chrissie, but there was no photograph of him. The records showed that he was released after spending 9 years there as his family wanted him back – they appear to have been very understanding and forgiving, considering what he did. However, after a few months back at home his mental condition deteriorated and he was re-admitted to Broadmoor, and passed away there 20 years later.

    Because of the nature of what he did, the story made it to the national press; so it might be worth searching outside the local area.

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