Hidden Stories behind the Asylum Records

Written by Christine Shackell, NRO research blogger

The Thorpe Asylum casebooks held at the Norfolk Record Office give us a snapshot in time of the lives of the patients admitted there. Extending the search to include other records gives us a fuller picture of their lives. This is part of the page relating to George Howman’s admission to hospital on 29 June 1883 when he was 62 years old.

Records of St Andrew’s Hospital, Thorpe St Andrew 1883 NRO, SAH 271/47 case number 185

He was experiencing suicidal thoughts and had “begged his wife to remove all knives from his reach”. He expressed a wish to be taken to the asylum where he spoke rationally about his predicament but was very apprehensive and easily upset. George said he had been well until about three months ago but had frequently suffered pain from the site of a bullet wound to the head suffered forty years earlier in the Sikh War of 1848. 

George was baptised in St Andrew’s church Great Ryburgh on 9 July 1820.

Parish register Great Ryburgh Baptism NRO, PD 621/5

In the 1841 census he was recorded as an agricultural labourer in the neighbouring parish of Testerton, a tiny parish of only 23 inhabitants and three dwellings one of which was the handsome mansion, Testerton House.   A clue to his next occupation is the one given when he entered the asylum, that of Chelsea Pensioner. At this time Army pensions were awarded on discharge and paid from the Royal Hospital at Chelsea in cash by local agents. These days only Army pensioners living at the Royal Hospital are known as Chelsea pensioners, but in Victorian times any Army pensioner was referred to as such. George’s Army pension records have survived and are held at the National Archives.

His records tell us that on 26 June 1844 George enlisted in the Tenth Regiment of Foot for a bounty of four pounds, which has a value of about £240 today.  The following year he was sent to the ‘East Indies’ where he took part in 2nd Sikh War. He served in the campaign of 1848/9 including the whole siege operation against Multan which began on 19 April 1848.  This ancient walled city is now in the Punjab region of Pakistan, and was the focus of fighting for many months. The records give the precise date for his injury as the 9th September 1848.     

A book written by journalist and editor of the Bombay Times, George Buist,  Annals of India for the Year 1848,  gives a detailed account of the 2nd Sikh war and a possible explanation of how George came by this injury. Buist described a particular skirmish that took place on the 9th September which included the 10th Regiment of Foot, as follows:                                                                                                                                                                                                        “The enemy were in possession of a strong post about 100 yards in front: from this they maintained a dropping matchlock fire on us, so well directed that as soon as a man showed himself he was sure to be hit……… Out of ninety men engaged, Her Majesty’s 10th had forty wounded – almost all of them severely.” 1  

George was struck on the top of his skull by a ball fired from a Sikh matchlock rifle. The wound was described as causing a depression and damaging the outer table of bone of his skull.  Despite his injury George carried on fighting until the end of the siege, the final surrender being on 22 January 1849. He then fought at the next battle for Gujerat the following month.  He remained on duty but was suffering from head pains, dizziness and  ringing in the ears such that in September 1850 he went before a medical board to begin the process of medical discharge.  On 1 February 1851 he began the long sea journey back to England finally arriving in Chatham in July when he was awarded a pension of 10d per day in recognition of his service and very good character having received a good conduct badge with pay in 1849.                                                                                                                                                               

George went back to Great Ryburgh and his life as a labourer. He lived with his elderly parents initially but then courted Elizabeth Bird who was a domestic servant to a wealthy widow in Fakenham and married her in 1863.

Parish register Great Ryburgh Marriage NRO, PD 621/10

George and Elizabeth lived in Great Ryburgh for the rest of their lives as the censuses show.

1871 census for Great Ryburgh RG10/1851/40/5
1881 census for Great Ryburgh RG11/1984/66/23

However, George still suffered from the effects of his injury. Living with head pain and vertigo would seem to have been the cause of his depression in 1883. The only treatment he was offered in the asylum was a dose of morphine to help him sleep but this “acted powerfully and was discontinued at his request”. After a few weeks he became more active and cheerful, eating and sleeping well. After maintaining this progress for the next two months he was discharged as “recovered” and was not admitted to the asylum again.

On his Army attestation papers and on his marriage certificate George signed his name with a cross, but on admission to the asylum twenty years after his marriage George declared he could now read and write. It is most likely that he learned to read and write through his association with the Primitive Methodist movement which had a great following amongst rural workers and was associated with the rise of agricultural trade unions. The Norfolk News reported on 6 April 1889 that George presided over a meeting at the Primitive Methodist chapel when a Rev Cooper gave a lecture  entitled “The Best Book and how to read it”. The Best book was of course, the Bible.

Post card of Primitive Methodist chapel Great Ryburgh accessed and reproduced with permission  https://standrewsgreatryburgh.org.uk/a-cruciform-church-with-a-round-tower/village-history/ryburghyesterdayimages.php

Primitive Methodists had been worshipping in the village since the 1820s, meeting in local houses.  Congregations became so large in the early 1880s that they secured a plot of land and raised money to build their own chapel. This photograph shows the chapel with cottages in Fakenham Road alongside it. George is likely to have lived in a similar cottage.

George just saw in the new century, and was buried in the churchyard of St Andrews, Great Ryburgh on 25 January 1900.

Great Ryburgh parish register 1900 Burial NRO, PD 621/12
St Andrew’s Church Great Ryburgh Norfolk. (author’s own)


  1. Annals of India for the Year 1848  An Outline of the Principal Events which Have Occurred in the British Dominions in India from 1st January 1848 to the End of the Second Seikh War in March 1849 by George Buist 1849, page 16 accessed via Google books  
  2. George Howman Army Service records TNA, WO 97/317/16,   WO 100/13/180,   WO116/59/3, WO97/0317/01
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14 Responses to Hidden Stories behind the Asylum Records

  1. Kevin Lee says:

    What an incredible story and so wonderfully researched. Congratulations on bringing this man to life.


  2. June Clarke says:

    Such an interesting story, it seems his stay in the Asylum thankfully helped him. Also interesting about the Chappell.


  3. Terry Baker says:

    Thanks for posting this interesting story.


  4. Alan F Bloomfield OBE says:

    A very interesting narrative of George Howman, his experience in the Army in India and the head injury which affected him thereafter. It was good to read that the brief time in the Asylum helped to improve his mental health enabling him to return to his family and normal life.
    We are so fortunate today that we have the NHS and modern medecine and medical procedures such as MRI etc.


    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Thanks Alan, it was great that one of our bloggers was able to research George’s story and discover how the Asylum was able to help him.


  5. Pennie Alford says:

    Thank you for a very interesting story and all the more so as I was in Great Ryburgh this very morning at the village hall and drove past St Andrew’s where Georg rests in peace.


  6. Janet Watters says:

    Very full research and well illustrated, the asylum sounded very caring.


  7. Terry K says:

    Engagingly written and well researched story. Enjoyable and instructive to read. Thank you. I think that the best way to teach social history is through case studies such as these. It’s often the individual journeys rather than the broad trends that shape our perspective on history.


    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Hi Terry, thanks so much for your comment- we may use this when we train future bloggers as it’s really insightful for them to see what people enjoy reading and why!


  8. Lorraine says:

    Extremely interesting and seemingly very well researched. My husband’s ancestor died in this asylum and all I have to tell me what happened is gathered from a newspaper cutting detailing the inquest & a copy of the UK Lunacy Patient Register entry obtained from Findmypast.co.uk. His name was JAMES PITCHERS (born 1831) who was admitted from the Aylsham Union Workhouse on 4 April 1879 and discharged dead the next day. I live a long distance away so cannot visit to inspect the records myself. Do you have access? Can you see if there is a patient record for him please? Many thanks.


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