The "Norasearch" Diary - by Andrew Conway

Saturday 5 June 1999

I look into the archives to investigate the City Asylum at Winson Green and it is 100% certain that this place was a lunatic asylum. I read the Proposed Rules & Regulations for the Government of the Pauper Lunatic Asylum for the Borough of Birmingham for 1850, the year it was opened, and the Committee of Visitors report for the following year. The first lays down some interesting rules: when Robert would have fallen 'dangerously ill', the Steward would have contacted Amy 'to visit... without delay'; striking or speaking harshly to patients was strictly forbidden; and no female visitor was allowed to remain alone in a room with a male patient at visiting times, so all of Amy's visits would have been in the presence of an Attendant.

More interestingly, though, I pick up a photo story from 1953, which was a great expose of 'Winson Green Hospital' as it was then named. By then it was terribly overcrowded and something of a national disgrace, but the article asks why it is still open when the building was condemned in 1893. This indicates that it must have been pretty awful even when Robert was there.

The local history volumes offer the History of the Corporation of Birmingham, in which the author has some interesting things to say about the City Asylum. In 1905, the two other asylums of Rubery Hill and Hollymoor were 'still devoted to cases of chronic insanity, all new cases being first received and observed at Winson Green and acute cases retained there'. Most interestingly, in March 1905, the Committee of Visitors decided to set apart two wards at Winson Green for 15 private patients each, the minimum charge fixed at 15 shillings a week. Is it possible that Robert was one of these private patients? He was certainly no pauper.

Then I'm delighted to read this paragraph: In 1913-14 'the Committee were gravely concerned with the condition of Winson Green. This asylum - which was now in charge of Dr Cecil Roscrow, who had succeeded Dr Whitcombe as Medical Superintendent, after serving as his assistant for eight years - was still the only institution for the reception and treatment of acute cases of mental disease' (Cecil Roscrow, of course, certified Robert's death). The Committee were concerned that the asylum was 64 years old and had become antiquated. Since 1899 they'd spent £2-3,000 per year on improvements 'but were still left dissatisfied'. (There is no mention of the building being 'condemned' in this history).

Alcoholism was accountable for an alarming percentage of cases. 21.7% in 1900 (which was considered abnormally high), and 10% in 1904 (which was thought normal). Volume III has a lot to say about the regime that operated there: an 'entire disuse of seclusion and mechanical restraint; sedulous attention to bodily comfort, including abundant food; the provision of entertainments such as concerts, dances, dramatic performances' and lots of open air exercise, cricket games and tennis matches. Their philosophy was very much 'occupation and amusement'. Printing and bookbinding were added to numerous other activities and suitable employment 'for all who can be induced to work'. This all makes it sound incredibly idyllic... if it's true.

The sources for all of this are:

Vince, Charles Anthony, MA. History of the Corporation of Birmingham, Vol. IV (1900-1915), 1923.


Vince, Charles Anthony, MA. History of the Corporation of Birmingham, Vol. III (1885-1899), 1902.

A note of caution, though. We can't yet be certain what constituted 'insanity' back in 1912, in much the same way as 'schizophrenia' has been used as a catch all diagnosis for a lot of perfectly normal afflictions. The references to alcoholism and poverty are worrying. It's certain, though, that in Robert's case, it didn't involve being a bankrupt or a pauper, because of the money he left Amy.

Monday 7 June 1999

A startling discovery! I decide to search through all the burial registers for Birmingham, scanning through loads of films of faded ledgers, unreadable in many places. Of course, what I'm looking for turns up on the very last reel for the very last cemetery I check.

* Index to Register of Burials in the Burial Ground for the Kings Norton & Northfield Urban District Council in the County of Worcester (Broadwood End Cemetery)

Parker, Robert William January 1912
Register of Burials: No. 6457 Folio 85
Register of Graves: No. 1272 Folio 85
Register of Purchased Graves: No. 1783 Folio 36

The registration numbers will allow me to trace the plot and ascertain if there is still a gravestone there. If there is, I'll take a photo of it.

The Norasearch seems suddenly to have come back to life again, even if it now feels more like a Robertsearch. It's exciting again, to discover something new. It amazes me that I walk through the sixth floor of the library and, in various books, films and fiches there are little pieces of their life just waiting to be unearthed; evidence that has been sitting there all my life.

Copyright © 1999 Andrew Conway. All Rights Reserved.