The problem of how to care for the insane has exercised the best minds for many centuries. Campaigners for reform of the mental health services have often emerged from the ranks of former patients, and Rachel Godde-Smith was such a person. Rachel was placed within the asylum system after an episode of severe depression following the death of her husband. She recovered from her illness, but remained effectively imprisoned for twelve years. Her story is shocking in that she had to fight to be recognised as sane, and she was subjected to significant cruelty from the people who were supposed to be caring for her. On her release in 1912, she published an account of her suffering, which was intended to be used as ammunition for the reform of the asylum system in the UK. Unfortunately, the issue was sidelined by the more pressing demands of the first world war.
Montagu Lomax published his book, The Experiences of an Asylum Doctor in 1921. Having been introduced to Rachel by a mutual friend, Lomax encouraged her to republish her account of her encounter with the lunacy services, and her book, The Experiences of an Asylum Patient was released in 1922. The two books complemented each other, with Rachel’s experiences confirming Lomax’s allegations of cruelty, and were vital evidence for the subsequent Royal Commission tasked with Lunacy reform.
Rachel Bovill was born in 1852 in Clapham, Surrey, daughter of Lavinia Ann L’Anson and William John Bovill – a celebrated Barrister from Middle Temple. Rachel married Dr Frederick Martin Godde-Smith (1857-1900) in 1881, and moved to her husband’s house in Clown Derbyshire, where he worked as a GP. Her husband had repeated bouts of flu and depression. He used laudanum (a tincture of opium) as a treatment for his chest. Reading between the lines of her account, it sounds as though Frederick Godde-Smith was a morphia addict, which was a common problem with doctors at the time. He died of an overdose in May 1900. She described dealing with the legal and financial side of his estate and winding up his practice but as soon as she had leisure to think, she was ‘overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all and suffered from a nervous breakdown’.
She was then aged 48, and childless. Her family was of little help in her grief since she went from her mother’s house to her married sister who then sent her away to the sea side at St Annes where she was lodged with a nurse. Her mental state deteriorated here, she felt she was being blamed for her husband’s death and she blamed herself. She agreed to try a ‘nerve rest cure’. Her brother fetched her back from St Annes, and admitted her as a voluntary paying patient at Cheadle Royal Asylum in August 1900. She was then committed formally as insane with the papers being signed by her younger sister Edith who never once visited her. Rachel thought that Edith would have been coerced into signing by her brothers. (Interestingly, in 1903 Rachel and Edith inherited a house together from their friend, Mrs Alexandra Orr who has her own Wikipedia page and was quite a celebrity of the time). Rachel was also made a Ward of Chancery without her knowledge so that her estate was managed by the Courts.
Her family moved her to four further asylums, from Lancashire, to Burley in Wharfedale and to the Isle of Wight. She wrote many letters in an attempt to obtain her freedom. Indeed, Lomax thought that the reason she was kept in asylums for 12 years is because she kept writing to complain to the Lord Chancellor so that she was viewed as a persistent nuisance. Eventually, she was able to arrange an assessment by the prominent alienists, Dr George Savage and Dr Percy Smith who certified her sane and she was released in 1912. However, her estate remained under the control of the Master in Lunacy, and the authorities refused to return it unless she agreed to sign a paper accepting that she had been insane.
Rachel was incensed by the injustice of her incarceration, and by the way she had been treated by the staff of the various asylums she had passed through. Her husband’s friend, Hugh Morgan Davidson, who was a doctor turned barrister, tried hard to get some recompense for her and and wrote to the Lord Chancellor requesting a case review in 1914, 1915 and 1922 but with no success. The establishment attitude to ex-patients was well illustrated by Lomax who wrote “When my friend Mr Hugh Davidson, who is himself a barrister as well as a doctor, and who has known Mrs Grant Smith for more than 30 years, and has taken a great interest in her case, approached the Minister of Health with a view to having the whole case re-opened, he was told by two members of the Board appointed to interview him that in their opinion ‘Mrs Grant Smith was mad when admitted to the asylum, was mad while there and is mad still’. She was never allowed to claim compensation for wrongful imprisonment being ‘out of time’.
Lomax was introduced to Rachel by Hugh Morgan Davidson, and described her as a perfectly normal woman. He was impressed by the account of her experience in the asylums which had been published in the popular magazine, “Truth” in July 1914. He knew that a sequel to his 1921 book, The Experiences of an Asylum Doctor, would maintain the interest of general public and keep pressure for change high on the government’s agenda. So he encouraged her to produce The Experiences of an Asylum Patient which she published in 1922 under the pseudonym of Rachel Grant-Smith. The book contained the original 1914, articles from ‘Truth’ along with a commentary written by Lomax and relevant certificates. As expected, the book was a sensation. The public were shocked by her account of the brutal bullying inflicted by the asylum nurses. We have seen this in our own times where checks and balances are not adequate, and institution staff assume absolute power over helpless individuals.
It is astonishing to think that a daughter of a well-known barrister, and friend of another barrister could be imprisoned without formal review. She had money, persistence and intelligence otherwise she may never have obtained her freedom. In theory there was a system for complaining about treatment but Rachel wrote that she had never heard of the ‘Visitors’, nor were her rights explained to her when she was first confined. Eventually she did manage to obtain a short interview with an unidentified gentleman who dismissed her complaints as ‘having no foundation in fact’. She wrote ‘ ……what fooling of a solemn Act of Parliament, and what farcical commentary on the so-called protection afforded by the Lord Chancellor’.
When she was finally released, aged 60, her relatives would have nothing to do with her. Rachel trained as a nurse and a midwife after she was discharged, living in London for the last years of her life . She died in 1930, in hospital in Nice, leaving a reasonable estate of £2299.
The Experiences of an Asylum Patient, Rachel Grant-Smith. 1922