The Tragic Case Of Stephenson Smith In Bethlem Hospital
One of the saddest memorial cards I have researched in the past few years is the one of Stephenson Smith. Stephenson as born in 1855 in Tooting, which was then in the county of Surrey. His parents were William and Sarah Smith. William was an omnibus proprietor and the family lived in the High Street in Tooting. He had one brother and three sisters and for the 1860s and 1870s the family appeared to live a reasonably stable upper working class life. On the 1871 census Stephenson and his brother Robert had joined the family business, Robert was an omnibus conductor and Stephenson was a fly driver. In the 1870s a photographer John Thompson captured working class London life in a wonderful set of photos and one of his photos was of "Cast Iron Billy" a London omnibus driver photographed with his conductor in 1877. It gives a real feel of what life would have been like for the Smith family at that time.
By the 1881 census, following the death of their parents Robert and Stephenson had inherited the family business and continued to trade from Tooting High Street. Then early in 1883 a tragedy struck which would devastate the family. I managed to piece together the circumstances of Stephenson's death from the records of Bethlem Hospital. Apparently he had fallen from a horse a short time previously, sustaining an injury to his head and then developed "mania". His brother and friends tried to look after him and for five days tried to keep the problem hidden but he had managed to escape from them and run out into the street in his night clothes while they were in another room. He was taken and admitted to Bethlem Hospital in St George's Fields in Southwark. A mental hospital with a terrible reputation, it was the outcome his brother and friends had been trying to avoid. On arrival to the hospital on the 7th April 1883 he was violent and spitting at the attendants, behaviour completely out of character. The tragedy is that if a similar head injury happened today, Stephenson's behaviour would be a recognised symptom, but in 1883 he was restrained and no doubt was not eating and drinking. On the 17th April, despite his brother and friends being in constant attendance, his condition deteriorated and in his weakened state died.
Stephenson was buried in Tooting on the 22nd April 1883. It took three years for probate to be granted, as it appears Stephenson hadn't written a will. His occupation was listed as Coach Proprietor, Draper and Furniture Dealer of High Street Tooting. As a fit young man of only 27 years old probably death had not crossed his mind. His brother Robert, as his next of kin, inherited £743.
His memorial card hints at the heartache of his family and friends:
We weep with grief, that one so dear,
No more shall share our smiles or tears,
We weep for joy that God has given,
The hope that we may meet in heaven.
London, Bethlem Hospital Patient Admission Registers and Casebooks 1683-1932 can be searched here
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