Friday, 16 January 2015

Adventures in outreach...

Archivist Louise has been very much focused on genealogy this week….

“On Monday 19th January, I’m off to talk to the Scottish Genealogy Society about the history of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital (REH). As with most archivists, outreach is a key part of my core work, and LHSA has worked with everyone from P7 schoolchildren to university students and retired NHS staff. Talks like these are not only a chance to introduce the uninitiated to archives and what you can find there, but are also a chance to introduce seasoned researchers (like the Scottish Genealogy Society!) to what LHSA can offer family historians.

My talk on Monday will combine a history of the REH (which has recently celebrated its bicentenary) with a guide to what researchers can learn from our collections from the institution. Despite not being the largest of our hospital collections (our Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh papers have that distinction!), LHB7 (for the REH) is the one that is consulted most often - by academic researchers and genealogists alike. In addition to the fascinating history of psychiatry that all asylum collections can convey, I think that one of the reasons for the popularity of our REH records is that they recorded information so thoroughly – I’m sure that many of the medical and administrative staff would have made admirable archivists!

Last year, 230 out of a total of 938 enquiries came from family historians – just under one quarter of the whole, which is quite a small number compared to many other archives. However, if you do find out that your relative was in hospital, health records can offer a great deal of biographical information to family historians. The REH collection is a case in point – and the excellent record-keeping skills of the institution means that I can often trace a patient from certification (compulsory admittance to the hospital, saying why the admission was thought necessary) to admission, case history, and finally discharge or (for the unlucky ones) death. Most of our family history enquiries about the Royal Edinburgh Hospital come to us after research of death and census records has led people to find that a relative has either died or was recorded as living in the REH (earlier known as the Royal Edinburgh Asylum).

Sketch of the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, 1808 (LHB7/57/1d)

Of all our REH records, the 121 case books that we hold from 1840 to 1932 are an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to delve deeper into personal or medical histories in a fascinating period of advancements in psychiatric care. Case records such as these come with caveats, of course – they only record what the physician and / or clerk thought to be relevant, many are governed by a printed pro-forma layout which determined how patients were described (and how much room there was to do that in), and notes on the progress of patients can be at times frustratingly short (for example, simply recording no change in condition, or whether the patient had lost or gained weight). Nevertheless, the detail that they offer is matched by few of our collections prior to the introduction of folder-based case notes. I can also be sure of finding a record for each patient in the hospital if they were resident in the period that case books were in active use. A further advantage is that they are indexed, meaning that the researcher (in a lot of cases, me!) can find an individual fairly quickly if no precise date of admission is known.

For the family historian, the case books not only contain biographical detail (such as the originating address, age and occupation of the patient), but also can tell you whether the patient paid fees, giving a hint of their financial circumstances. Fees were paid by patients across the hospital - East House (which was later demolished to make way for Craighouse, which opened in 1894) as well as in West House, which also took pauper patients. There were different levels of fees in each house – if your relative was in East House, you could assume that s/he (or the family) was reasonably well off, with fees costing up to £200 per annum in the late 1870s, compared to an intermediate rate of £45 for patients residing in West House.

The billiard room in Craig House, showing the level of accommodation offered to paying patients (from LHB7/7/10)

Reading case histories of ancestors in the REH can also lead researchers to new lines of enquiry. Not only were patients sometimes discharged to other institutions (leading their descendants in turn to new archives), but the clerk was required to record whether any hereditary history of mental illness was known, which can bring new histories to light. Reading these histories can be upsetting, no doubt, but they can also be compelling, and while some researchers can become upset that their relative was institutionalised, others have been impressed by the concern and care that was expressed in the case history, far beyond what they had been led to expect by the forbidding reputation of the ‘Victorian asylum.’ It’s also comforting to remember that these histories were written at a very different time, and that it is misleading to superimpose our current expectations of the treatment, definition and understanding of mental illness upon the past. However, what we can do is try to understand that past a little more, which is what academics, genealogists and archivists are all striving to do.”

If you’d like to learn more about how LHSA can help family historians, you can find more information here:

You can find more about the Scottish Genealogy Society (where Louise will be speaking on Monday evening) here:
If you would like LHSA to talk to your club or society about the work that we do, please contact us on or 0131 650 3392


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