At the beginning of August, 1879, 34-year-old labourer William Yeomans appeared at the Crown Court in Norwich.
Yeomans pleaded guilty to the charge of ‘unlawfully and maliciously’ setting fire to a stack of wheat at Great Ellingham on the 7th June. The stack was the property of farmer, William Barnard.
Defence of Insanity
However, this was not a straightforward case. Whilst William admitted the offence, he told the court that “his mind was very bad“. It was also disclosed to the prosecutor that ‘the defence of insanity would be set up‘.
Although the Judge remarked that “there seemed no apparent motive for the crime, and it was beyond doubt that the prisoner did set fire to the stack“, he adjourned the case until the next day.
The Judge also said that “evidence must be forthcoming to substantiate the statement regarding the prisoner’s insanity“. Accordingly, the Medical Officer for the Union in which William lived, would be expected to attend court the next day, and give evidence as to William’s state of mind.
William was again in court the next day. A local newspaper reported that William gave his answers “in a very incoherent manner.” Medical evidence was duly given as to William’s state of mind, and the court was told that William had previously been confined to an asylum.
The Jury’s verdict was that William Yeomans was “incapable of understanding the plea he had given“. Consequently, the Judge ordered that William be “kept in strict confinement during Her Majesty’s pleasure.”
Unsurprisingly, several local newspapers published reports of the case. The headings included ‘Arson by a Lunatic‘ and ‘An Insane Criminal‘.
‘Lunatic’ is not, of course, a term we use today as we would find it derogatory or insulting. However, in the past it was commonly used (along with words such as ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’) as a medical term and given to a person with mental health disorders.
The author of ‘How Our Ancestors Died‘ mentions that “Lunatics tended to be people suffering from schizophrenia-like illnesses, whereas an idiot was born with mental incapacity.”
What is William Yeoman’s Story and What Happened to Him?
William was born on the 19th June, 1845 at Rockland All Saints. However, perhaps it was not the best start in life.
Wayland Union Workhouse, Rocklands All Saints. Courtesy of Liz Barrett
Despite being a legitimate child of Perry and Rebecca Yeomans of Great Ellingham, William was born in the Union Workhouse at nearby Rocklands. Whilst it is not surprising to find an illegitimate child born in the workhouse, it is less common to find a legitimate birth. Accordingly, I wonder why Rebecca Yeomans gave birth to William in the workhouse notwithstanding that she was a married woman with a husband?
Perry Yeomans and Rebecca Hill married in St James’s Church, Great Ellingham on the 8th October, 1842. This was Perry’s second marriage, and Rebecca’s first.
Perry’s First Wife and Children
In the July of the previous year (i.e.1841), Perry’s first wife, Mary Ann (Marianne) died at the age of 40. Perry’s four month old daughter, Lydia, died shortly after Mary Ann.
Perry and Mary Ann had eight children between 1822 and 1841. When Mary Ann died in 1841, the elder children may well have been working and able to look after themselves. However, at least four of the children were under the age of 12.
Given that both Perry and Rebecca lived in Great Ellingham at the time of their marriage, it is perhaps likely that the couple continued to live in Great Ellingham. Likely, Rebecca moved in with Perry and his children – before or after the marriage.
Perry & Rebecca’s First Child
Rebecca was probably heavily pregnant when she married Perry.
Their daughter Caroline’s birth is registered in the same quarter in 1841 as the registration of their marriage. It is, of course, possible that the child was born just before the marriage. However, given that the registration of Caroline’s birth does not indicate an illegitimite birth, it is more likely that Caroline was born with weeks of the marriage.
Application for an Allowance from the Union
Why would Rebecca give birth to William in the workhouse in 1845? Did she need care (medical or otherwise), which could not be provided (or afforded) at home? Had Perry and his family ‘fallen on hard times’?
Just weeks after William’s birth, Perry Yeomans made an application to the same Union Workhouse for an allowance ‘out of the house‘. The application for support was refused.
Accordingly, it is likely that Perry Yeomans was experiencing financial hardship around the time of William’s birth. Perhaps, Perry couldn’t find (or keep) work, or, was unwell and unable to work.
The 1851 census captures five year old William Yeomans with his elder sisters, Elizabeth aged 13 (a daughter of Perry by his first wife), Caroline 9 and their 38 year old mother, Rebecca, living in Long Street.
Perry Yeomans is not with his family in Great Ellingham, but at the home of his nephew, Robert Yeomans, in Bexwell, Norfolk (a small village not far from Downham Market). It is not clear whether Perry was just visiting or had been staying with his nephew for a long period. Perhaps he was working away from home?
Nevertheless, Perry is with Rebecca and some of their children on the next census.
View of Long Street. Postcard courtesy of Carol Ewin
The 1861 census is the last head-count which captures William with his family.
Sixteen year old William is with his parents Perry and Rebecca, and brothers Alfred 25 and George 8, in Long Street. Like his father and elder brother, William is working as an agricultural labourer.
Ten years later, Perry and Rebecca (with their son George) are now living in Church Street, Great Ellingham. However, I have not yet found William on the census. I wonder whether he was then in the Norfolk County Asylum.
From at least the 1860s, William was suffering with mental illness.
In December 1865, William Yeomans of Great Ellingham is an inmate at St Andrew’s Hospital (the County Asylum at Thorpe St Andrew).
In 1869, 23 year old William Yeomans was admitted to the Asylum at Thorpe St Andrew. Norfolk Record Office holds the case record under reference SAH 264/383 page/case no. 769. This would likely provide further information, particularly around William’s health.
At the trial at the Norwich Assizes in 1879, the court heard that William had previously been confined to an asylum. This concurs with my findings.
Court Appearances in the 1870s
Nevertheless, it seems that William was discharged from the County Asylum and was back in Great Ellingham during at least the period between 1875 and 1879. This was also a period in which William found himself in front of the Magistrates on several occasions.
In 1875, William was convicted of being drunk and disorderly at Rockland All Saints. He received a fine of £1 3s, which included costs. He was also given 21 days’ imprisonment should he fail to pay the fine.
In the May of the following year, William was again charged with being drunk and disorderly. This time at Great Ellingham. William was sentenced to 7 days’ imprisonment with costs of 15s. He was given a further sentence of 14 days if he defaulted on the costs.
Just two months’ later, William was back before the Magistrates. He was given a fine and costs totalling £1 3s 6d, for being drunk at Great Ellingham. The complaint was made by Police Constable David Woor. However, at the same court, William charged P.C. Woor with assault. The constable received a fine (with costs) of £2.
At the beginning of May, 1877, William was again charged with drunk and disorderly behaviour at Rockland All Saints. He received a prison sentence of 21 days. He was also ordered to pay costs of 14s (with an additional 21 days imprisonment in default).
William may well have been ‘in trouble’ for drunkenness on numerous other occasions, which were not, perhaps, reported in the local newspapers (or, I have yet to find them).
We do not, of course, know the state of William’s mental health. Is there a connection between William’s mental health and his seemingly excessive drinking – or vice versa? In those days, there would not have been the understanding given to mental health as there is today.
Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum
Following the trial at the Norfolk County Assizes in 1879, William Yeomans was sent to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
The 1881 census finds 36 year old labourer, William Yeomans, born Rocklyns, Norfolk, as an inmate in the asylum.
However by the beginning of 1889, William was back in Norfolk. He was admitted to the Norfolk County Asylum on the 10th January.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the 1891 census finds William Yeomans at the Norfolk County Asylum. All 706 patients are identified by their initials. Accordingly, William is listed as ‘W.Y.” He is a single man aged 45, with the occupation of a farm labourer. William is also described as a ‘lunatic’.
Coincidentally, also in the asylum at this time is 51 year old Charlotte Newby, the wife of Harry Newby of Great Ellingham.
In 1901, William is again identified by his initials as being one of 841 patients in the County Asylum at Thorpe St Andrew. Again, he is described as a ‘lunatic’.
Death in 1911
William remained at the asylum until his death on the 17th January, 1911. The County Asylum had its own burial ground. Accordingly, it is likely that William Yeomans was buried there.
UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912. The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Lunacy Patients Admission Registers; Class: MH 94; Piece: 28. Accessed via https://www.ancestry.co.uk
St Andrews Hosptial Admissions, Mischellaneous Archives .12.65 to .04.1870. Norfolk Family History Society. www.norfolkfhs.org.uk
England, Norfolk Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DT33-TF7?cc=1824706&wc=M6V6-HP6%3A161088401%2C163311201%2C163311202%2C161095001 : 21 May 2014), Norfolk > Wayland > Rockland All Saints Workhouse > Guardians’ minute books > image 1549 of 2723; Record Office, Norwich.
Guardian Minute Books 1841-1852 Workhouse Register of Births 1837-1914
“England, Norfolk Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DT3Q-9M9?cc=1824706&wc=M6V6-HTL%3A161088401%2C163311201%2C163311202%2C161157101 : 21 May 2014), Norfolk > Wayland > Rockland All Saints Workhouse > Births > image 13 of 63; Record Office, Norwich.
The history of Broadmoor Hospital
http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/berkshire/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8263000/8263371.stm Accessed 4th July 2021
Bury & Norwich Post. 12th August 1879. Accessed via https://britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk 14th December 2020.
Diss Express. 10th September 1875. Accessed via https://britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk 23rd June 2021
Eastern Daily Press 7th August 1879. Accessed via https://britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk 4th July 2021
Norfolk News 5th May 1877. Accessed via https://britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk 23rd June 2021
Norwich Mercury 9th August 1879. Accessed via https://britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk 4th July 2021
Willis, Simon. (2013) ‘Mental Illness and Suicide’ How Our Ancestors Died. Pen & Sword Books Ltd., Page number 127
Great Ellingham Parish Registers. Norfolk Record Office. PD609. Also available at https://www.familysearch.org
1841 census HO107/781/8
1851 census HO107/1823/129, HO107/367/16
1861 census RG9/1237/94
1871 census RG10/1841/89
1881 census RG11/1320/99
1891 census RG12/1538/150
1901 census RG13/1854/150