Armine Montagu Lomax 1891-1910

armine image

Armine was the second child of Montagu and Ethel Lomax. There is some confusion about Armine’s  place of birth: The UK 1901 census records Armine as having been born in Leamington, Warwickshire in August 1891. However,  the family were in New Zealand at this time. The New Zealand papers reported  that Ethel Lomax  played in a tennis tournament in January 1891; attended the Countess of Onslow’s reception October 1891 and visited the Hanmer hot springs in the South Island in December 1891. There was a third trimester, intrauterine  haemorrhage according to the Earlswood admission papers, so it is unlikely that she would have travelled back to the UK for Armine’s birth in August. At the time, it was compulsory to register births in both the UK and New Zealand. There is no record of his birth in either country, and his father didn’t announce it in the papers unlike the birth of his elder son and younger daughter. It is possible that Armine  was premature and/or sickly and wasn’t expected to survive. His name, meaning  ‘soldier’, might indicate that he fought for his life.

The first documentary evidence of Armine’s existence is a note on the RMS Rimutaka passenger manifest when the family returned from New Zealand to the UK, arriving on 24th September 1896. He is recorded as Master A. Lomax-Smith, aged 5.

On the 1901 census, Armine was living at Winchester House, Normington in Surrey. Armine was nine years old and described  as a ‘feeble minded patient’. For modern sensibilities, it is hard to understand why a parent would want to put their child into care at such a young age. There were nine other children living at Winchester House, all entered on the 1901 Census as feeble-minded ‘patients’. Winchester House was the family home of Dr Fletcher Beach, a prominent alienist (psychiatrist) of the day. It was perfectly acceptable practice at the time to take in paying boarders to supplement a doctor’s income, and with seven household servants, the children would have had had good care. Many private asylums advertised in the medical press as ‘Dr and Mrs X are pleased to receive patients into their home’. It was lucrative, and the business often passed from father to son with the most famous example being Normansfield in Surrey, whose proprietors were the father and son, Drs Langdon Down. (Langdon Down senior first described the characteristics of mongolism, now known as Downs Syndrome).

Parents admitted their children as borders for many reasons, some from expediency since caring for a handicapped child would have been time-consuming and expensive, so pooling carers and costs within  an institutional setting made sense. Then, the eugenics movement had been popularised such that by the turn of the 20th Century, idiocy was thought to lie within the hereditary nature of disability. This ‘hereditary taint’ meant that there was considerable shame attached to having such a child in the family and great efforts were made to conceal the affected individual – the queen’s cousins spent most of their lives in the Royal Earlswood Asylum with the secret only exposed by the press in 2011. It is not possible to be sure why Montagu Lomax put his son into the care of Dr Fletcher Beach, but the timing is interesting.

There was a general feeling towards the end of the 19th century that the idiot would be happier amongst his own kind, rather than being isolated and mocked in their own villages. It was thought that ‘educable idiots’ might be trained for domestic service or gardening roles. Dr Fletcher Beach published a book in 1895 entitled ‘On the Treatment and Education of Mentally Feeble Children’. He argued that feeble minded children ‘should be removed from home and placed in a suitable institution where they may be educated and trained’. He also suggested that the younger the treatment was started, the more effective it was. It is highly likely that Montagu read Fletcher Beach’s treatise and took it to heart. He was relatively wealthy, and I am surmising that he wrote to Fletcher Beach, asking him to take his son in hand. The following year in 1896 Montagu came back from New Zealand to live in London, presumably whilst his son settled into Winchester House. From Winchester House, Armine went to St Christopher’s school in Ealing which was established for the ‘educable idiot’ suggesting  that Armine’s condition was mild. At age 14, Armine was transferred to the Royal Earlswood Asylum. He was able to write letters home according to his admission sheet for  Earlswood. It is likely that he was being trained for a menial job, and his file shows that he was working in the gardens as well as taking lessons in the girls school. 

The Royal Earlswood Asylum originated from the Highgate Asylum for idiots founded in 1847. Prior to this date, idiots had been lumped together with lunatics, often in workhouses and their plight aroused the sympathy of a philanthropist, Andrew Reed. In 1847, he spent some months visiting institutions for the care of idiots on the continent. He returned with the notion that the imbecile should be educated and prepared ‘for the duties and enjoyments of life’. His methods attracted national interest, such that the original Highgate Asylum quickly filled and larger premises were soon needed. The new building at Earlswood was opened in 1855, originally planned for 500 patients. Earlswood was conveniently situated two hours by train from London Victoria station. It was considered to be the premier institution for ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and was recognised across Europe for its progressive methods.  Queen Victoria conferred a Royal Charter on the asylum in 1862. In 1902, the name was changed to the National Training Home for the Feeble Minded, but it continued to be known as the Royal Earlswood Asylum.

Earlswood was a voluntary asylum, and primarily aimed at the idiot with a learning disability. Preference was given to younger children who were thought to benefit most from early education. Patient’s fees were paid privately or by subscribers to the hospital and patients were generally admitted for periods of five years or less. 

Private patients such as Armine, were normally segregated from charitable cases. Their parents were drawn from the professional and manufacturing classes including surgeons and solicitors. The annual fee was the equivalent of the wages for two full time domestic staff, and additional services such as individual attendants could be negotiated. It was not uncommon for families to hire domestic staff to look after their handicapped children at home, so transferring the responsibility of care to an institution would have been viewed as an investment, not a financial hardship, with the added bonus that the children were schooled and taught to look after themselves as far as was possible.  Earlswood Asylum itself was viewed as a training rather than a curative institution. Wright (1) said that he saw no evidence of dumping of inconvenient relatives, rather patients stayed for 2-5 years, suggesting that families were ‘trying out’ asylum care. Wright noted that many parents wrote to the asylum superintendent , thanking him for the improvement in their child’s behaviour.

Armine spent most of his young life in institutional care. It is likely that his family visited him and he was obviously loved since his brother Guy called his first son ‘Armine Guy Greville’. This suggests that the boy  wasn’t locked up to be forgotten. However, Montagu never wrote of his experiences at Earlswood, nor mentions his son in any of his published correspondence or speeches, although he did admit having been ‘a life-long student of psychology’.  The shame of  hereditary taint’ was strong at the time and Montagu Lomax may have been keen to conceal the existence of his feeble-minded son for social or professional reasons.

Here then was Montagu Lomax’s ‘Dark Secret’, and perhaps his motivation for his subsequent involvement with the Asylum system.

On 21st March 1910, Armine complained of feeling unwell. His slow decline is documented in detail in the Earlswood medical records, with swinging temperatures, and signs and symptoms compatible with typhoid fever. Typhoid was a common cause of death within the asylums of the early 20th century. He died 12 days later, aged 18 years.

Lomax published his book, The Experiences of an Asylum Doctor in 1921, eleven years after Armine’s death. The book attracted enormous publicity, and it seems likely that the Earlswood staff who looked after Armine would have recognised that Lomax was the boy’s father. However, I can find no evidence in any of the British newspapers that Lomax’s secret was revealed during his lifetime.

Armine’s headstone, Reigate Cemetery (courtesy of Dr Claire Hilton)

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  1. Mental Disability in Victorian England, the Earlswood Asylum 1847-1901

       David Wright, Oxford Univesity Press. 2001 (ISBN-13: 9780199246397)

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