Friday 29 October 2010


Sometimes you find stuff in the press worthy of the best penny dreadful. A cliché in many such dreadfuls and, indeed, Victorian novels, is that of the corrupt 'madhouse keeper' who imprisons the heroine, at the behest of a corrupt husband or relative. Here's a story from the Morning Post of 1838, a little local news from my neck of the woods, with a similar sort of disappointment in store:
LAMBETH-STREET - EXTRAORDINARY AFFAIR - Yesterday an exceedingly good-looking and respectably-dressed young female applied to Mr. Hardwick for his advice and assistance under the following circumstances:-
     The applicant stated that on Friday, the 30th of March last, she was married at the parish church of St. Mary's, Stoke Newington, to Mr. Robert Wall Stephens, whose friends were highly respectable, and who himself held a situation in an extensive mercantile establishment in the City, at a salary of 300l. a year. On the day after their marriage her husband went to a tavern that he had been in the habit of frequenting, and on the following morning (Sunday, the 1st of April) two keepers came to their lodgings in Stoke Newington, and with much force and violence dragged him (her husband) away from her, and took hint to Miles's mad-house at Hoxton, though it was her (applicant's) perfect conviction that he was perfectly sane at the time. He was, however, kept there until Friday last, when he was removed to Bethlem, where she was refused admittance to see him. The applicant, in conclusion, said that she was satisfied her husband was by no means insane, and that it was her belief that he had been confined by his friends for the purpose solely of putting the marriage on one side or rendering it illegal, as they felt annoyed at his marrying, as they supposed, a person inferior in station and family to himself.
     Mr. Hardwick (to the applicant)—Did you notice anything in the manner or conduct of your husband to lead you to suppose him insane?
     Applicant—No, Sir, never; but his being dragged away from me as he has been, and confined in a madhouse, is enough to make him so, and naturally a source of great uneasiness to him ; at the same time he is no more insane than I am.
     Mr. Hardwick— How long had you known your husband previous to your marriage?
     Applicant—I became acquainted with him about three months before; but for a fortnight previous to our marriage I had been intimately acquainted with him, and during that time, as well as on the last time I saw him, he seemed perfectly collected. I have no doubt that the object of his brothers and friends in taking him away, and confining him, it to set aside our marriage.
     Mr. Hardwick—At a public hospital like Bethlem the regulations as well as the law requires the officers to be very particular before they admit patients, and they must have the certificate of two medical men as to the insanity of the party before they can receive them into the institution.
     Applicant—It was very odd, Sir, that Mr. Houghton, of Earl-street, Blackfriars, the medical gentleman who attended my husband, dined with him and me on the day before our marriage, and also drank wine with my husband after dinner, and neither then nor before did he say a sentence as to his insanity.
     Mr. Hardwick—Where was that?
     Applicant—At the Portugal Hotel, in Fleet-street. We went there on the Tuesday, and were to be married on the Thursday, but it was put off till the Friday. On the Thursday evening my husband's father and mother visited and stopped with us some time there, and neither said a single word about the inanity of their son.
     Mr. Hardwick—Were they aware at that time that you were going to be married on the following day
     Applicant—Oh. yes Sir ; and Mrs. Stephens even came up to my bedroom, kissed me, and said she hoped I'd be happy with her son. Besides, Sir, both my husband's father and one of his brothers were present at our marriage on the following day.
     Mr. Hardwick— Are you sure your husband is in Bethlem?
     Applicant—Oh yes, Sir ; he was taken there from Miles's on the Friday morning.
     Mr. Hardwick—When did you go there?
     Applicant—On the Friday evening, but was refused admittance to him, and was told I could not see him. Nor would he he released, though I offered to take all the responsibility of taking care of him myself.
     Mr. Hardwick here wrote a letter, stating the particulars of the application, and requesting some information on the subject, to Mr. Nicholls, the steward of Bethlem Hospital, and having despatched Davis, one of the officers, with it, requested the applicant to wait until he had received an answer. In about an hour Davis returned with an answer, and Mr. Hardwick having read it observed that the husband, as she described him, of the applicant was a decided lunatic, and that he was taken in on the necessary medical certificate, granted on a petition which had been signed by his brother.
     The applicant said she suspected all along that his brother was the cause of his confinement, and she was still of opinion that he was perfectly sane. Mr. Hardwick observed that. if the applicant felt at all dissatisfied, it was requested in the letter he had received she should attend on Friday next, either at Bridge-street or the Hospital, when Mr. Nicholls, the steward, would take her before the committee for managing the institution and he (Mr. Hardwick) felt confident those gentlemen would pay every attention to and do what was necessary in her unfortunate case. The applicant expressed her thanks to the learned magistrate for his attention and trouble, and left the office, declaring her conviction that her husband was no more insane than she was, and that she should never rest until she obtained his release.


  1. Fascinating. While I've heard of women being confined in such a manner, it's quite interesting that the family imprisoned the husband in this instance. Did she ever get him free?

  2. Nothing in the press ... if one had access to the 1841 census, one might possibly check ... any blog readers out there doing family history?

  3. fallingonabruise30 October 2010 at 03:12

    Theres a marraige of Robert Walls Stephens, hackney march 1838.
    Birth in Pancras, oct/dec quarter of 1838 Robert Walls Stephens (maybe she got pregnant when 'intimately acquainted with him'!
    Death in Pancras, dec 1838 Robert Walls Stephens(the baby)
    Death in hackney 1840 Robert Walls Stephens

  4. Brilliant - thanks. It suggests, at least, that he escaped Bedlam; but a sorry tale in all.

  5. I should add that the article is from May 2nd, 1838 - intimately acquainted is, I think, meant to mean what you imply ... and that ties in with an 'acquaintance' in March, perhaps ...

  6. fallingonabruise30 October 2010 at 06:30

    He never did escape...

    He died in the lunatic asylum, Northumberland House, Greens Lane, Stoke Newington,
    aged 36 and was buried at st martins , ludgate.
    When he married Jane Pullen in 1838 he was a widower, occupation, Merchant. Father, Thomas was a Tax Collecter.
    Jane was 21 according to marriage cert (but baptism record makes her 18)

  7. Worse still - perhaps he was mad, of course. I found a possible bankruptcy a couple of years earlier (the press article was partly illegible so hard to be certain).

  8. Lee,
    Great post!
    Makes you wonder how many more times this sort of thing happened,