Saturday, January 21, 2017

Surname Saturday: Tracing the Sad Fate of Mary Shehen Slatter

Was my husband's great-grandma, Mary Shehen Slatter, committed to a London insane asylum in 1877 -- and did she die there in 1889?

Thanks to online records, a phone call, and the kindness of a cousin who lives in London, I'll soon know more about this ancestor's sad fate. This is part of my Genealogy Go-Over, filling in the blanks on the family tree.

I am fairly certain of Mary's birth date, thanks to marriage records, but not her death date nor her whereabouts after the 1871 UK Census, shown here. At that time, Mary and her husband John Slatter and their 5 children lived together in Tower Hamlets, Whitechapel, London--an area known for extreme poverty.

In December, I learned that Mary's 5 children had spent time in a notorious London workhouse.

Checking further, I discovered that a woman with the name of Mary Slatter had been committed to Banstead Asylum in September, 1877. Whether this is our Mary Slatter, I couldn't tell, but it was an intriguing and disturbing thought.

Women were committed to such asylums for a variety of reasons, not just in the 19th century but also well into the 20th century. Click to read what one genealogy researcher found out about her great-grandmother's time in Banstead, circa 1930s. But get out your hanky before you click.

Next, I did an online search and landed at the National Archives in Surrey, England, which has an entire page devoted to Banstead Asylum and Hospital, closed for years. At the very bottom is the statement: "...not clear whether these records are now at either London Metropolitan Archives or Surrey History Centre."

Time for a phone call to the Surrey History Centre. The gentleman who answered the phone listened to my question about where the asylum's records might be found and told me they were definitely at the London Metropolitan Archives. He even gave me the archive catalog code so I could quickly locate what I needed.

On the London Metro Archives site, I found lots and lots of files readily available to the public, subject to the 100 year rule that protects patient privacy. Oh, the archive has patients' records, organized by date and by gender. Also visitors' logs and some photos (possibly only of staff, but maybe I'll get lucky?). What a treasure trove. Only one catch: These files must be accessed in person.

I sent an email to my London cousin Anna, asking whether she would be willing to undertake a field trip to the archives on my behalf. Even though she has no relation to poor Mary Shehen Slatter, my wonderful cousin agreed to visit this spring, armed with what I know and what I want to know. Before the snow melts here in New England, I hope to confirm whether this is hubby's great-grandma Mary and clarify her fate.

Why is Mary Shehen Slatter in my thoughts? Because too often, women are much less visible in family history . . .  especially once they marry and their maiden names disappear from public records. I want to honor and respect the lives these women lived, give them dignity and help them be remembered as more than simply "the wife of" or "the mother of" when I share the family tree with their descendants.


  1. It must be wonderful to have a cousin in the right place & willing to do some research for you!

  2. Colleen must be reading my mind. My thoughts exactly. Some days I don't feel like crying, so I had to pass on the link, but I'm guessing conditions and treatment were far worse than anything I can imagine. Picturing an ancestor enduring such a life is difficult.

  3. Colleen and Wendy, truly I feel fortunate that this cousin is willing and able to dig into the records for me. And yes, picturing what Mary might have endured is difficult--but I want to respect and chronicle her life by telling her story to the next generation. If only she could have known how well her 5 children turned out, and their children!

  4. Oh, how I hope you find answers! It would be truly sad to find out this was your ancestor, but it's better to know than not know. And, I must have missed your post about the 5 children so will go back and read it.

    By the way, I love your last paragraph about remembering the women. The men in our past are easier to trace and leave more records, but the story of are female ancestors is just as important. Best wishes as you continue your search!

  5. Thank you, Dana, for reading and commenting. As soon as I learn more about Mary's fate, you know I'll post about it. There is still a chance this is not the Mary I'm seeking, but I strongly believe it is.

  6. The Mary Slatter who died in1889 was supposed to be age 52? Would that fit?

  7. Good question, Elizabeth. All dates are approximate, but by my calculation, Mary would have been about 49 when she died. However, I believe her husband had already left for America by that time so I don't know who "informed" authorities about her age. With any luck, my cousin's in-person research will reveal these details and allow me to definitely determine whether she is hubby's great-grandma. Stay tuned!

  8. I once found two penitentiary records, and thought they were two siblings of my ancestor. Well, one was, but one wasn't! And, I'd already drawn so many conclusions. Anyway, hoping you find answers! But, glad you are waiting for the evidence. :)

  9. I'll definitely be looking forward to hearing what your cousin finds. How cool to have someone across the pond willing to help you out.

  10. I am glad you found out what happened:)


    Anne Young

    Anne's family history