Bringing Asylum Records into the Light
Senior Archivist, Sal Mager, discusses a new collection of patient records from the Asylum at Shelton.
We recently featured an article on social media in which a Canadian couple wrote about their discovery of family records in the Shelton Asylum patient files.
Sharing this beyond Shropshire Archives’ own Facebook page stimulated some interesting comments as to how people felt about such information being made public. I would like to share these here and invite you to think about some of the challenging issues raised.
Here is a link to the article about Thomas Nagington:
I shared the post commenting: “Many sad but fascinating tales like this in the Shelton Asylum records are held in the archives. For many women in their 40s and 50s the reason given for admission is simply “the change of life” and many sadly never came out. Interesting to see that [Thomas Nagington] died of influenza in 1919. For both conditions we have thankfully progressed at least a little in the last 100 years in how we deal with them.”
Here is the discussion as it unfolded:
“It is indeed shocking to think that this happened only 100 years ago. I worked in a prison that was [a former] Asylum. Apparently, there were quite a few women who were patients there because they’d been made pregnant by their fathers or other family members. Very pleased we’ve moved beyond that!”
“What a very sad story. Important that it gets told and heard”
“Interesting read, I work as an AMHP [Approved Mental Health Professional] and at times admit people to the new hospital at Bicton. We work hard to maintain confidentiality. I suppose the records becoming public at a later point serves a degree of check and balance to the actions of the state, but I do feel rather uncomfortable about detailed medical records being available once someone has died. What do you think as an archivist, my reaction is as a MH Worker?”
Me: “Very good question […] I spend a good deal of time in my job considering questions such as this and negotiating my way through the balancing act of access to information, not only to ensure we follow the principles of GDPR but also negotiating the ethical issues around them. We appreciate these are incredibly sensitive records so rest assured we take great care over these decisions. Although each case has to be looked at individually, a hundred years after death, as in this case, is considered safe territory for making such records open to the general public. My concern is such detailed case records are unlikely to be there for posterity in future as the tendency now is to destroy all personal records to protect confidentiality without considering longer term historical preservation. Our role is to keep them under carefully controlled access conditions should they be needed for legitimate purposes and until they fall into that category. Hope that answers your question – I could easily write an essay on the subject!”
“So interesting thankfully some things have changed especially our understanding and knowledge of mental health conditions.”
“You only have to go back in Ireland to the sixties and the Magdalane sisters situation. Not long ago, terrifying.”
“Thanks, it’s good to discuss it and I think that the point above illustrates the benefit of having a record to scrutinise. It’s an interesting ethical issue.”
Me: “The information no longer comes under data protection once someone dies and it is very challenging working out who can see what in the period after, there are lots of grey areas and complex case law to negotiate. Many people have an aunt or uncle who it was hushed up about where they were. We have to weigh up the reasons someone wants the information/public interest against protecting privacy. Often it was kept hidden all of someone’s life but generally it is family wanting to understand out of compassionate reasons and helps them to process their own lives. Generally we allow access to next of kin and they can choose whether it is available beyond that. Over passage of time they pass into the realm of “history” rather than personal, but just as poignant. Really interesting to hear people’s reactions to putting this stuff out on general view.”
So, as I said, we have the guidelines and regulations to follow concerning access to data but beyond this there are also public perceptions to take into account. Our policy has always been to take the time to explain as fully as we can the reasons for any decisions we make to release or withhold information so that they are fully understood.
This series of patient files, dating from the early twentieth century, were a more recent addition to the existing collection of Shelton Asylum records we held. They were recently catalogued by our volunteers which has made them more accessible for research. We have been carefully considering whether to publish details on our website or not, and what information to include on it. The records are officially clear of any legislative restrictions and we do have a duty to let people know the records are here. The question is whether people need to approach us to ask what we have or we include names on the online catalogue so they can be more readily found.
Whilst we need to be mindful of their sensitivity, I feel we owe it to the people within these records to let their stories be told, as well as to those who have a genuine interest, be they family descendants who feel a personal connection to the individual involved or those undertaking the very valuable work of researching the history of mental health care.
We would be very interested to hear any thoughts you may have on this issue.
For more information on our policies regarding access to records, please see our Restricted Access Guidelines: https://www.shropshirearchives.org.uk/policies/
The patient case note files (7761/1-17) cover admissions from 1903-1918 with a few earlier files. They supplement the series of patient case books from a similar period.
The series can be found on our catalogue ref 7761 but we have not as yet added details of the individual files to the online catalogue.