Great Yarmouth

200 Years Ago : Mental Health in the Early Nineteenth Century

In my series of posts from 200 years ago this week, there were two stories in the same issue of the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette which I noticed. These type of stories are very common, so there’s nothing unusual with this, but it’s a reminder of how bad mental health was in the early nineteenth century and how this isn’t just something that is a modern situation as some people I’ve heard have suggested. There’s nothing new about struggling with life, as these two stories suggest.

Firstly, from Great Yarmouth:

“An unfortunate female threw herself into the river, near the bridge on the north side, about one o’clock on Wednesday morning; first deliberately taking off her cap, and placing it on the ground, she floated under the bridge, and had it not been for her clothes keeping her buoyant, she must inevitably have met with a watery grave. An alarm was immediately given by the watchman near the bridge, when she was got out with great difficulty, her clothes fortunately caught the rudder of a boat lying under the bridge, or she must have been drawn under by the rapidity of the current and would not have risen again. Jealousy is assigned as the cause of this imprudent act.”

Mental health issues and insecurity were perhaps the real cause of the act, but this is from 1823 and it feels wrong to judge.

Secondly, from Oulton, near Lowestoft:

“An inquest took place before JE Sparrow, coroner, on the body of Susan Sewell, who on Friday 8 August put an end to her existence by hanging herself in a shed contiguous to her dwelling. It was stated in evidence that the deceased was upwards of 75 years of age and had the misfortune to lose her husband by an accident about three months ago, which calamity appeared to preyed so much upon her mind as to lead to self-destruction.”

And that’s it, a tragic story of what was perhaps a lonely lady who felt she had no other options and I assume nowhere else to go. It all feels like a tragedy to me, but what has changed recently is attitudes to depression and mental health. It has clearly always been there since time immemorial, but at least now it is better understood and there are ways of tackling it.