What happened to Sarah Bryant?

What indeed!

I went to the Record Office with a list of things to look at, and the last item was to find out what happened to Sarah Bryant.  Or more specifically, “what happened to Sarah Bryant (née Backshell) and her daughter Georgiana after 1881?”

It wasn’t until after lunch that I made it that far down the list.  I was at The Keep in Brighton and had spent a fruitful morning taking advantage of access to FindMyPast.  But now for Sarah Bryant, my great great grandmother, who was in Newhaven at the time of the 1881 census with her 26 year old daughter Georgiana.  Her husband George had died five years earlier, aged only 50, and it seems that Sarah had moved from London back to Sussex, the county of her birth, to be nearer relatives.  I looked for her in 1891 to no avail.  Then I looked for Georgiana and found her in the household of William and Harriet Wise and family in Brighton where she was described as a niece.  Despite being now aged 36 she had no occupation.  In 1901 she was still with them in Pelham Street and again in 1911, this time in Kensington Place, now apparently 54 but single and with no occupation.  So next I needed to look for a death for Sarah and I quickly found a likely civil registration entry of March Quarter 1891, Lewes Registration District, aged 61.

Turning to the Sussex Family History Group database I thought I would look for Sarah’s burial.  I could find nothing.  I turned for help to the volunteers in the SFHG room.  With no likely matches on their database we tried Ancestry, and up popped an intriguing entry just below the civil registration details:  UK Lunacy Admissions.  Clicking through, it revealed a national list of Asylum Admissions records, with the information that Sarah A Bryant, female pauper, was admitted 14 June 1881 and died 11 March 1891.  Ok, that was progress – but admitted to where?  It didn’t say.  This time a member of The Keep staff came to my assistance, suggesting St Francis Hospital, Haywards Heath.  We looked at the online catalogue and found the relevant entry and ordered up the document.  He was quite excited about this too, producing a book on the history of the Sussex Lunatic Asylum called ‘Sweet Bells Jangled Out of Tune’ by James Gardner and telling me that the building is now luxury flats – the one his friend has just bought is where the toilets used to be!

Fifteen minutes later I was looking at the documents relating to Sarah’s time in the Asylum.  The first document was the Notice of Death, stating the apparent cause of death to be disease of the heart.  The next document was entitled Notice of Escape.  It seems that at 7.15pm on 20th July 1881 Sarah managed to escape; however her freedom was very shortlived as she was recaptured and brought back at 7.40pm the same evening.

The third document was the Notice of Admission.  She was certified to be “suffering from Mania” on her admission on 14th June 1881.  She was described as aged 51, a widow, abode Newhaven, religion Church of England.  Was this her first attack? Yes.  Duration?  About a fortnight.  Her next of kin was given as her son, Arthur Curtis Bryant of Chapel Place, Belgrave Square, London.

And then the Admission document got even more interesting.  Whether suicidal – “has threatened”, Dangerous to others – “yes”.  Oh dear, what indeed had happened to Sarah?

She was examined by a doctor at her home in Newhaven the previous day.  His comments make uncomfortable reading:  “she says that she has been poisoned and that she is on fire.  Is very excitable, talks in a rambling manner.  Seems lost and appears to have a dread of something”.  “Georgina Bryant her daughter says that she has threatened to cut off her head and to cut her own throat”.  Harriet Wise was also in attendance when the doctor examined Sarah and I wonder whether she will turn out to be a sister of Sarah.  Likewise a Frances Jeffrey was also present, described as a sister in law.  I need to work out the relationships there.

Poor Sarah and poor Georgiana.  It must have been a traumatic time for all of them.  I wonder whether Georgiana or any of the other relations visited Sarah during the almost 10 years that she was in the asylum?  I wonder how Sarah was treated and cared for?

And one more thing – I noticed on the Admissions document the entry ‘Supposed cause – hereditary’.  This leads me to wonder how they came to that conclusion.  Did a similar thing happen to either of her parents?  I’m now itching to discover what happened to James and Philadelphia Backshell, her father and mother…

Haywards Heath Asylum
St Francis Hospital (Asylum) Haywards Heath, Sussex



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