A hint of possible ill health comes in a letter from her mother to her aunt, dated 1880, in which Mary reports that “dear Alice is in much better health”, suggesting that she had had not always been so. But otherwise the family appear from all evidence to be happy and relatively successful, with no shadows of what was to come.
In 1885, life changed completely for Alice and her family. Apparently without warning or explanation, Alice’s father abandoned his family and left the country to go to America. We can only speculate on the reasons why he left as he did. Family lore suggests that he may have had a drink problem and that he had always been an unreliable scoundrel. But this seems to be largely based on the report of his younger son, understandably angry at being abandoned by his father at the age of 10, and is hard to reconcile with what we know of him prior to his leaving.
William spent 21 years in the army and, although he was disciplined on two occasions for minor (drink-related?) offences, he also received five good conduct awards and was eventually promoted to one of the highest non-commissioned officer positions in the regiment. After retiring from the army, he became book-keeper to the cutlery manufacturer Tomlin and Sons and, on leaving after only three years service, he was given an ornate silver-plated platter, which I still have, engraved to him as “a mark of esteem and respect”.
- Salver presented to William Brodie by Tomlin and Sons
He went on to manage the Leicestershire Institute for the Blind shop and workshops in Granby Street. This was a live-in post so it is possible that, by this point, he was already estranged from his family. When he left there, in 1885, possibly just weeks before leaving the country, his colleagues presented him with a leather album “… for his great kindness and urbanity to all during his three years’ residence as manager…” While these could be simply social convention, letters from both himself and his wife to his sister over a 20-year period suggest an affectionate relationship between the three of them and a happy family life. It is this that makes his unexplained departure even more shocking.
I often wonder whether Alice’s illness was a contributing factor to his leaving. Later medical records suggest that she was already suffering from epilepsy around this time. Attitudes to epilepsy and the impact of the condition on Alice herself, with the very limited treatment available, may have been more than he could cope with. It does seem that in later life he suffered from “melancholia” (a contributing cause to his death 15 years later) so it is possible that his own mental health made it harder for him to accept Alice’s illness.
Whatever the reason, William left his wife, and four children, when Alice was just 17 and Harry still a boy. The impact of this both emotionally and financially must have been enormous. It seems to have sent shock waves through the family, with William’s sister changing her will shortly afterwards to provide for Mary and her children. The only income the family would have had at this time would have been that earned by John and Bessie who were both teachers, but both were young adults who were planning their own independent lives.
In 1888, Bessie, the eldest daughter, married Harry Carver, a clerk at the time but with political ambitions, who later became Mayor of Leicester. My great-grandfather John had already moved from Leicester to become Headmaster of a school in Weston-Super-Mare. In the summer of 1889 he returned briefly to marry his Leicestershire bride, with their first son born in January 1890.
The 1891 Census shows Bessie, her husband and baby girl living three doors away from her mother, sister and younger brother. John is visiting his mother’s family (his own family are still in Weston-super-Mare). Neither Mary or Alice is working, so the only breadwinner in the household is 15 year-old Harry, working as a warehouseman. The household also includes a nurse, possibly helping to care for Alice, but more likely for her mother. When we consider the census alongside the gravestone, the reason for John’s visit home becomes clear. His mother Mary was ill and died less than two weeks after the census was taken, leaving Alice and 15-year-old Harry alone.
The loss of her mother must have been a huge blow to 22-year-old Alice. It was Mary who had cared for her through the seizures and the resulting injuries; Mary who had protected her from the condemning eye of a society that did not understand her condition; Mary who had kept her at home and out of institutions. Mary had been her mother, protector and carer and, without her, Alice was lost. Her asylum admission records suggest that her mental illness started at this point: depression brought on by grief, expressed through angry outbursts. Today we would recognise this as completely natural and offer support and counselling. Sadly in Victorian England it was seen as the beginning of mania and lunacy.
Neither of her older siblings offered her a home. Both were relatively newly married with small children so perhaps the prospect of caring for their increasingly ill, and possibly violent, sister was too much to contemplate. Her younger brother was not much more than a boy himself and soon left Leicester to make his own life in the army. Alice was “farmed out”: boarded on farms with strangers paid to take care of her, “care” that is likely to have included physical restraint and containment.
It seems that this was the final straw for Alice. Not only was she dealing with her grief at losing her mother and carer, but she was suddenly cast alone in a world that must’ve been frightening and confusing, particularly when she was dealing with recurrent seizures and their aftermath. We don’t know anything about the people with whom she stayed, but she was finally committed to the asylum in 1893 after “threatening those she lived with with a knife”, believing them to be threatening to harm her. Whether this was entirely the delusions of a young woman suffering a breakdown, as the doctors at the asylum concluded, or whether she had indeed been mistreated in some way and was responding out of fear and confusion, we will never know. We do know she arrived at the asylum with bruises on her arms, knees and thighs, and with a black eye, injuries that could have been sustained during seizures or as a result of assault.
- Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum (now the Fielding Johnson building, University of Leicester). Photo: University of Leicester.
By the time she was admitted she was extremely distressed and hysterical. Her admission and the events that led up to it would’ve been terrifying. The Lunacy Acts of 1890 and 1891 required that a person could only be committed to an asylum by a medical practitioner after 6 days of “care and control”. This is consistent with her admission record, where her “mania” was said to have lasted for a week. During this time she was “tied to a chair”. After a week she was taken by cab to the asylum and forcibly dragged out of the cab and into the building. In the asylum she was confused and frustrated. She could not remember events clearly and she reported people insulting her and trying to harm her, including men trying to molest her. It is unlikely that these things were happening in the asylum, but it is certainly possible that she had had some or all of these experiences before and was projecting them into what must have become, for her, a nightmare present.
- The last photo of Alice before she went into the asylum
Her case notes from 14 years in the asylum survive. The early entries depict a young woman suffering from severe seizures with increasing frequency, damaged mentally and intellectually by repeated fits, struggling to manage her anger and frustration, but still aware of the struggle. She spends these early days walking outside, doing needlework or - on bad days - in bed. She is often tearful and distressed. One entry describes how she tries to throw herself in the fountain; another how she fights physically with other patients. She injures herself frequently in her seizures, hitting her head and biting her lip, the latter so badly that later she had to have a large section of her lower lip removed, adding facial disfigurement and, presumably, difficulty with eating and drinking to her other problems.
The Leicestershire and Rutland Asylum was significantly overcrowded by 1893. Plans were in place for a new, larger building but it was not ready for occupancy until 1908. In the Leicestershire asylum she would have shared a ward with at least 30 other women, quite possibly other epileptics and patients with suicide risk - all those considered in danger of injuring themselves were kept together where they could be watched. She would have had no privacy and little freedom of choice. The wards were designed as rooms off a central corridor, which also served as a day area. There was an outside exercise court, a library and a chapel. Patients were encouraged to work, in the laundry or the kitchen, or on the farm, though there is no evidence that Alice did so, possibly because of the risks from her repeated seizures.
Her epilepsy was treated with Bromide and Borax, the treatment of choice at that time, but both are toxic substances. Bromide has since been linked to side effects such as lethargy, reduced mental function and even psychosis. Combined with the damage to her brain caused by continuous and severe seizures, it is hardly surprising that her mental condition deteriorated. Later entries are depressing in their repetitiveness. She is described as irritable and awkward, slow to respond, unoccupied and fitting with every increasing frequency, until her seizures are happening nearly every day. The tone of these reports are very unsympathetic: no recognition of her illness, the impact of the drugs she was taking or the traumas she had experienced. She was simply viewed as an awkward and lazy inmate.
- Alice with her mother Mary in happier times
The records for her final years in the asylum are missing, perhaps mercifully. In 1908 she would have moved from the buildings she had grown accustomed to, to the newly built asylum. I can imagine that this too added to her confusion, moved from an environment that she knew, to having to get used to a new ward and possibly new companions.
Alice died of the effect of epilepsy in February 1912, after 19 years in the asylum. We have no record of her having visitors over this period but her sister Bessie is given as her next of kin, and I like to believe that her older sister visited her on occasion; possibly her brothers too, when they returned to Leicester.
What we do know is that in death they took care of their sister. Alice finally left the asylum and was laid to rest in the family plot beside the mother who had looked after her and whose loss had had such a devastating impact on her life.