Annie P’s story

Annie’s father’s position – a reverend with the West African Mission supported by the Church Mission Society – led to her unusual place of birth for a British Victorian woman. Both she and her older sister Mary were born in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, as their parents had gone out to help educate and convert the local residents to Christianity.

Her father had been stationed in Sierra Leone since 1837, returning to the UK only rarely, and was responsible for setting up the Freetown Grammar School. He was the first principal, with Annie’s mother running the girls’ section of the school.

The idea of the grammar school was that by educating the people of Sierra Leone in a manner similar to that taught in “civilised” Western Europe, the boys would therefore serve as a beacon for the spread of Christianity in the country. To achieve this, pupils were taught all aspects of English grammar and composition, Greek and Roman history, Bible and English history, arithmetic, geography, classics and mathematics. They all had to convert to Christianity to receive this education.

The girls’ section of the school, opened slightly later, aimed at giving a higher degree of education to “those promising native girls, drawn from the village schools, who might afterwards be employed as teachers and school-mistresses.”

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Annie’s parents reputedly compared their students – who included sons of tribal chiefs – favourably to English students during a time when European racial prejudice against Africans was extremely high.

However, even their liberal-for-the-time views and their success with the school did not stretch to the education of their own children or them sharing in the instruction given to the Sierra Leone students. Rather than being brought up alongside them, Annie’s parents brought her and Mary back to London to be educated. The girls were housed at the Missionary Children’s Home in Islington, alongside children of others serving the Church Mission Society, and can be found there on the 1851 census. Annie was only four, so at an extremely young age would have been separated from her parents as they travelled many thousand miles away.

The missionary home was a temporary measure, founded in 1849, and provided accommodation for around 50 children – all from similar backgrounds and separated from their parents. It was run by a clergyman and his wife, who – although clearly competent in spiritual matters – must have been spread very thin in loco parentis. The society started work on a more permanent premises in later 1851, completed in 1853, and it’s likely that Annie and Mary were moved there with the rest of the children. This new premises housed around 100 children.

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In the summer of 1853, their father died in Sierra Leone, after a three-week fever, and their mother appears to have come home – although she did have business still in Africa and returned periodically over the next few years. She then took up the parental duties for Annie and Mary again, moving them to Gloucestershire and the rural life in which she herself had grown up. This was a far cry from the sultry climbs of Sierra Leone, where she had paid a worker from the local cotton gin a farthing for every cockroach he could catch in her house. In later life, Annie’s mother described her as a sharp and intelligent child.

Mary went to reside with relatives of her father for a while, while Annie appears to have lived with her mother. She also boarded at a private school in Weston-super-Mare for a time in her teens, spending further time away from home, which would have been intended to finish her education.

At some point in the 1870s, the family – Annie, Mary, and their mother Maria – moved to the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham. They took up residence in fashionable St Paul’s Street, which had an array of recently-built quite grand (for the time) houses, and lived off Maria’s inheritance from her husband and anything she earned from the Church Missionary Society.

Around 1874 Annie suffered a prolonged gastric fever herself, which was said to have left her mentally weak. The family moved from their original Chippenham house to another a street or two away. Two years later, while her mother was out of the country, she was sent to the care of her maternal aunt in London, while there, aged in her late 20s, she had a love affair that sadly ended, but was said to have “conducted herself well” for the duration, as might be expected from a good Christian girl from her background.

However, it was this experience – combined with the ill health that had plagued her since her fever, that seems to have exacerbated a mental health breakdown for Annie. She began writing letters filled with delusions that were sent to family and friends. She insisted that neighbours were passing evil thoughts to her by extra-sensory projection, and was afraid that someone was trying to injure her. Another delusion was that she had once died and came back to life again. She also wrote out texts of scriptures and would pass them to people in the street. She slept badly and lost weight.

Her aunt referred Annie to Bethlem Hospital in the July of 1876, where she was described as the “orphan daughter of a clergyman” and diagnosed with melancholia via unceasing debility. Melancholia, in Victorian terms, generally meant depression and low spirits. The hospital records describe her as a “small thin individual with very dry skin”, who spent most of the day sewing. Today there are many different treatments available for the illness Annie had, but back then very little was known about how to approach mental health.

Upon her mother’s return to the UK, Annie was released from Bethlem and put under her care. They returned to their life in Chippenham. However, Annie’s illness soon became too much for her mother to cope with, and she was admitted initially to the workhouse – where she threw things and attacked an attendant – and then to the Wiltshire County Asylum at Roundway, near Devizes.

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Here records show that Annie’s problems had exacerbated since her removal from Bethlem. She was exhibiting symptoms of pica – eating soap, pig swill and unmentionable things from wastebaskets – and having no concern for her personal hygiene. She would also become violent and begin breaking household objects. This was now classed as mania. Her delusions and melancholia continued, and she often did not eat properly or at all, resulting in extreme thinness and weight loss.

The asylum considered that she was in good physical health, had been well off and had led a moral and temperate life.

Her mother briefly attempted to remove her from the asylum again, insisting that she could cope and that her “darling Annie” would be better off at home, but it appeared that the burden on Maria and Mary was too great, and Annie returned to Roundway around three months after she left, with little change in her condition reported. She would often keep her eyes covered, and repeat the same phrases.

Her mother died in Chippenham in the early 1880s, and was buried locally. Mary left the area after her mother’s death. Annie remained in the asylum, with no reduction in symptoms and no successful treatment for a further 32 years. She died in her sixties of pneumonia, just before the First World War, and was reportedly severely underweight at that time.

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