From the workhouse to the lunatic asylum

Now this story is one that I’m really fascinated by. Having researched the Newing family from the Blean Union Workhouse because the name Philadelphia Newing caught my eye, I was wondering who to pick next. Purely at random, I picked John Hearnden, who was listed in the 1881 census as aged 49, a labourer, and a lunatic.

Working forward, I next found him in the 1891 census, where he seemed to have grown worse – he had moved from the workhouse at Blean to the Kent County Lunatic Asylum at Chartham. This was somewhere that really rang a bell with me, as my father used to work at St Augustine’s Mental Hospital. This was the successor to the Kent County Lunatic Asylum at Chartham, which opened in 1872 when the original Lunatic Asylum at Maidstone was full to overflowing.  As frequently happened, the building continued with a similar purpose under the new NHS.

I think I’ve traced his death to 1902 in Faversham, but I’ll have to see if I can confirm that.

Going backwards, things get even more interesting.

In the 1851 census he is listed as aged 19, living with his family in Staplegate, Kent (listed as in Sturry). He is again listed as a labourer.

His family at that point consists of his father William, and his brothers and sisters: Esther aged 25, a servant, Eliza, aged 15, Thomas, 13, a scholar, and James aged 11, another scholar. His mother had died around 9 years earlier, in 1842 (the tree I’m linking to lists an older sister also called Sarah, who was born in 1821 and also died in 1842, but I’m not convinced by this).

Further digging provides more information on the family: he had more sisters, including Emma and Elizabeth. In 1843, when John was 11, Emma was aged about 9 and had been living in Blean Union Workhouse for about two years. Elizabeth, aged around 15, went to visit her sister, and was shocked by what she heard about her sister’s treatment there. According to Emma, she had been punished frequently for wetting the bed, and on several occasions this punishment had been in the form of being shut up in “the dead-room”. On one particular occasion this had been with a body laid out in the room, with a sheet over it but with the face uncovered. There she had to stay for most of the day, and was returned there again the next day, still with the body present.

A complaint was made, but the guardians of the workhouse declared that although Emma did occasionally wet the bed and had been reprimanded for it, she had never been actually punished for it. She had, however, been threatened with being sent down to “the straw-room”, which was a couple of doors away from the dead-room.

The Poor-Law Commissioners were not happy with this report and commissioned a full enquiry, at which witnesses were called on both sides. The story does not relate the result of the enquiry, but the tone of the article definitely seems to suggest that the Commissioners believed the girl and other witnesses rather than the Master of the Workhouse.

My enquiries into John Hearnden will continue – I still want to confirm his death place and date, and find out the full story of him and his family – but I was so thrilled by this connection between the inmate I picked at random and the most famous story in the history of Blean Union Workhouse that I just had to share.


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1 Comment

  1. If he died in 1902, he will hopefully be on the 1901 Census. To confirm death you will probably need to send off for his death certificate, unless there are more references in the poor law & workhouse records. Fascinating!


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