'A Nervy Lot'

'A Nervy Lot'

Kathy Chater explores how a lucky find on eBay opened up a family tale of madness and legal disputes

Header Image: Camberwell Asylum in Peckham Road, South London is now used partly for local council offices and partly as a student campus.

Kathy Chater, Professional genealogist with an intrest in Huguenot and Black British History

Kathy Chater

Professional genealogist with an intrest in Huguenot and Black British History

While researching my forthcoming book, My Ancestor Was a Lunatic, I saw an item on eBay which interested me. It was a solicitor’s itemised bill for a legal dispute relating to the will of a woman who died in a lunatic asylum. This is the kind of document that might well turn up in family papers.

From the bill, a fair amount could be reconstructed. In 1922 Amy Louise Hall died in Camberwell House lunatic asylum leaving her whole estate to Alice Maude Wrightson, spinster. Robert Charles Hall, Arthur Hall, Mary Ethel Hall, Alice Esther Hall and Mrs Margaret Mary Thomas were the defendants in a case brought in the High Court of Justice Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division (Probate). They were being sued by Alice Maude Wrightson for money they were withholding. From the detailed accounts, it appears there was a previous hearing when the family had entered a caveat against the will, asking for its provisions to be overturned. The family lost both actions and a bill for £128 8s 8d (equivalent to about £6,180 today) was incurred for legal disputes which lasted for two years.

I went to First Division House in Holborn, London (note that the probate search room has recently moved to Court 38 in the Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand). There I found that probate of the will of Amy Louise Hall of Camberwell House, Camberwell, spinster, who died on 5 February 1923, was granted to Alice Maude Wrightson, spinster, in London on 13 February 1925. I enquired if there were any court records of the case there and was told there were not. I went on to the internet and found no records of the court proceedings in The National Archives either.

Next I turned to Andrew Roberts’ Studymore website to find information about Camberwell House, which was a private lunatic asylum in Peckham Road, South London. Only some records from the 19th century survive, some in the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) and others in the Royal College of Psychiatrists. (Another useful website is Lost Hospitals of London .)

From the website Deceased Online I found that Amy Louise Hall was buried in Paine’s Lane Cemetery in Pinner, Middlesex. She was 43, so was born around 1881. I looked on the 1891 census and, using some of her siblings’ names, was able to locate the family in Croydon, Surrey, where they had all been born. Their mother, the head of the household, was a widow living on her own means. Amy was the youngest child. The family had three servants, suggesting they were quite well-to-do. Next I looked at the 1911 census to see if Amy was in Camberwell House then, but she was staying as a visitor in Barnstaple, Devon, in the household of Alexander Lander, a 70-year-old architect and his wife Mary.

Solicitor’s account
The solicitor’s account (found on eBay) which opened up a whole family saga

I thought that Alice Maude Wrightson might have been an attendant at Camberwell House who had managed to persuade Miss Hall to change her will. In the 1911 census I found an Alice Maude Wrightson, aged 23, living with her husband Stanley, an upholsterer, her brother and three boarders in Camberwell. The Alice Maude Wrightson to whom probate was granted was, however, a spinster. I looked for the marriage to Stanley online but it was not there. So, it appeared she was not just a cunning manipulator of poor deluded Miss Hall but living in sin! What an unscrupulous deceiver!

The next source was newspapers. The Times has always carried law reports and I hoped this case was juicy enough to get coverage. But, alas, Miss Hall’s case did not present enough legal or personal interest to be recorded. However, I struck gold. The case was extensively reported in the local newspapers in Devon, where Miss Hall had lived a great deal of her life. It was here that I found the story.

I had maligned blameless Alice Maude Wrightson of Camberwell. It turned out that the beneficiary of Amy’s will was her first cousin, Alice Maude Wrightson, of Pinner, Middlesex, hence her burial place. At the 1911 census Miss Wrightson was in Mrs Lawson’s household in Hampton Wick, Surrey, and in 1901 she was living in Pinner with her aunt and uncle.

I had assumed that defendant Margaret Mary Thomas was a married sister of Amy Louise. However, from the newspaper report, I found that she was the wife of Dr Frank Leslie Thomas of Barnstaple. Miss Hall met her in 1906, when Mrs Thomas was asked to give Miss Hall singing lessons.

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The Landers, with whom Amy Louise had stayed, were Mrs Thomas’s parents. An earlier will of 1910 had left everything to Mrs Thomas, who alleged that Mrs Lawson, an aunt of the deceased, and Miss Wrightson had exercised undue influence on Amy Louise Hall. In examination, Miss Wrightson denied that Ms Hall had said in her presence that Mrs Thomas should have power of attorney. She also said that Amy’s family were highly strung, a nervy lot. It seems that for a period after 1922 Amy lived in Hatch End, near Pinner, when she used to go to ‘kinemas’ and to London alone. She kept a diary, in which she noted her expenses, and was otherwise normal except that her nerves were bad.

Miss Hall’s aunt, Mrs Lawson, said that Miss Hall had not only been unhappy in Barnstaple, but also suffered a shock when the Landers died. Online BMD records revealed that Mrs Lander died in 1920 and her husband a year later. Miss Hall had come to stay with her aunt for holidays while living in Barnstaple. Mrs Lawson testified that Amy had loaned jewellery to Margaret Thomas, but had not got it back and that her niece had loaned Mrs Thomas £1,000. Mrs Lawson also said that she had told Miss Hall her brothers and sisters ought to come first in her will but Amy said they had enough. She added that Miss Hall was ‘infatuated’ with Mrs Thomas but annoyed when her friend would not allow her to claim some dividends before they were due.

Mrs Lawson’s brother, Mr Wrightson, deposed that when Miss Hall came to live with his sister, her intelligence was absolutely perfect. She told him she had made a will leaving all her money to Mrs Thomas, so he asked her if she wished Mrs Thomas to have all her money. Miss Hall replied she did not, so he wrote a note revoking this will for her.

Mrs Thomas’s testimony painted a different picture. She said Miss Hall had sold some of the jewellery and given other pieces to her as presents. Amy had insisted on loaning her £1,000 in connection with a mortgage and Mrs Thomas was repaying her at 4% interest, which was 1% more than she was getting elsewhere. She said that until a visit Miss Hall had paid to Pinner, the two were on very affectionate terms but then things became very different. Ms Thomas also observed that her friend had previously never touched alcohol, declining even to take communion but had been given brandy for her bath. Once when they visited a ‘kinema theatre’, Miss Hall said she could not see and she was in a fog. She also spoke about dreadful feelings and said demons and devils had followed her home from church.

Mrs Thomas’s husband, the doctor, testified that after his in-laws died Miss Hall had stayed with him and his wife and suffered from fits of depression and moodiness. She thought she was pursued by devils. When asked about Amy’s alcohol consumption after 1920, Dr Hall was discreet: It was a matter of comparison. He did not suggest insobriety.

The judge summed up and the jury found that Miss Hall’s will was duly executed with no undue influence. A later action, when the family and Mrs Thomas were sued for the sum of £450 (about £23,177), also resulted in their defeat.

As so often, even the newspaper report which gives so much detail raises more questions. Why did the family and Mrs Thomas band together? When they gave evidence, Miss Hall’s siblings did not seem too bothered that their sister had left money away from them. Why was Amy Louise Hall in Camberwell House when she died? There were hints of alcoholism so perhaps she was being dried out there and it was the equivalent of somewhere like the Betty Ford Clinic or The Priory today. Certainly her fits of depression and belief that she was being pursued by demons suggests some kind of alcohol-induced delusions.

But these only develop after many years of alcohol abuse. Had she been a secret drinker when living with the elderly Landers? And why was she living with them? She seems to have been an impressionable woman, easily influenced by whoever she happened to be with.

There may never be an answer to these questions but the case shows how family feuds and secrets can be discovered from something as mundane as a solicitor’s bill.

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