The asylum seekers...

Angela Treweek,left, and Cheryl Baiey have been transcribing the records from the Middlewood Lunatic Asylum records
Angela Treweek,left, and Cheryl Baiey have been transcribing the records from the Middlewood Lunatic Asylum records
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SOME were diagnosed as being disappointed in love, others were thought to have suffered sun stroke, plenty more were simply said to be in want of work.

But all of them - all 20,000 of them - were labelled insane by 19th century doctors and committed to the dreaded South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum.

South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum, taken in the late 1920's [credit to rotherham-images.co.uk ]

South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum, taken in the late 1920's [credit to rotherham-images.co.uk ]

A mammoth 18-month project to digitise all the early admission records of the prison-come-hospital has just been completed – and the findings are surprising to say the least.

“Some of the reasons why people were locked up in there are incredibly sad,” says Cheryl Bailey, senior archivist at Sheffield Archives, and leader of the project. “You’re reading through them with 21st century hindsight thinking ‘But that person shouldn’t be committed. They’re not insane, they just need some help’.

“One of the most common causes of insanity recorded is what we’d today recognise as postnatal depression, another is soldiers who are said to be sun-stroked but which was probably post traumatic stress.

“There’s also people locked away because they had epilepsy, or were alcoholics or because the doctors said excessive study had driven them to melancholia. It’s quite heartbreaking.”

South Yorkshire Asylum, later Middlewood Hospital, in 1928

South Yorkshire Asylum, later Middlewood Hospital, in 1928

Heartbreaking but nonetheless fascinating.

The findings - transcribed from 20 register books dated between 1872, when the facility opened, and 1910 - show men and women, young and old, and rich and poor were all locked up. Teachers, miners, clerks, doctors and prostitutes were among those committed, while the age range spread from people in their 20s to 70s.

The asylum - which later became Middlewood Hospital and only shut in 1996 - held people from across Yorkshire. Many, once locked up, remained so for the rest of their lives.

“The whole point behind digitising the information is to make it more easily available to people by getting it on-line and on CDs,” says Cheryl. “It’s hard to believe but these books are one of the most popular resources we have at the archives. People come in every day and ask to look in them because they’re trying to trace old relatives or working on their family tree .”

The task of the transcribing was undertaken by a dedicated team of volunteers from the Sheffield and District Family History Society including Angela Treweek.

“One of the most bizarre things we found was a woman who was said to have suffered dementia because she was jealous of her sister,” says Angela. “Another was a person who was apparently driven mad by writing a pantomime. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so serious. And many stayed in there for years - they became institutionalised and then couldn’t function properly outside.”

Now the history group are having a well-earned breather before taking on another monster research job, this time transcribing the details of the thousands of petty criminals convicted at the Sheffield Quarter Sessions between 1880 and 1910.

The asylum records are set to go live on-line from April.

Some Of The Unfortunates

Sarah Chapman, 35, servant of Doncaster - dementia caused by disappointment in love (May 1882 - October 1882).

Henry Morgan, age unknown, pit worker of Mapplewell - melancholia caused by an explosion of dynamite (October 1882 - November 1882).

George Brook, 49, cloth finisher of Dewsbury - dementia caused by bathing (interned 1881 - 1888).

Joseph ToDd, 20, soldier of Crosland Moor - dementia caused by sunstroke in Zululand (1881 - 1904).

William Cromack, 21, unemployed of Pontefract - melancholia caused by violent antipathy to military service (September 1881 - December 1881).