Friday, 11 August 2017

The Cockenzie Mystery - more insights from the Royal Edinburgh Hospital

We continue our journey into the Royal Edinburgh Hospital case books with our second volunteer blog. This one is from Carmen, a first year history student at the University of Edinburgh.

Since I began volunteering for Lothian Health Service Archives in April of this year, I have discovered a whole new perspective of eighteenth-century psychiatric treatment. Having the opportunity to access the Royal Edinburgh Hospital records has allowed me to have a glimpse of the lives of those who needed said treatment, and also the attitudes towards them.

When I first started cataloguing the volumes I was looking at mostly pauper patients – those whose treatment was funded by their parish – and I really resonated with many of those who found themselves suffering from mental illnesses. There was one patient in particular who stood out to me as she had lost 4 children within the space of a year because of diseases such as tuberculosis and typhoid. I remember thinking that any person would find themselves mentally vulnerable if they had lost so many loved ones in such a short period of time. There were also other records of other women who had been admitted because they had symptoms of what we today would diagnose as postpartum depression. By just looking at these records, it is clear that we have come a long way in terms of both diagnosing and understanding mental health problems. 

Since finishing my first volume, I have now moved onto one of the Hospital’s volumes that was specifically for private patients. What is most interesting about this volume is that because these patients were paying significant sums of money for their treatment, the doctors were more likely to include information about their personality. For example, it was said that one patient was “the most generous of men” and was known for buying magazines and newspapers for everyone in the ward. Others were not described so kindly, with one being labelled as “a moody, taciturn old man” who entertained himself by scribbling on any pieces of paper he could find; and another “sullen” for refusing to speak to any doctor but Dr Clouston, the director of the entire hospital. Another patient was admitted because she had “delusions” that she had been seduced when she was young - whether this was actually a “delusion” or not is questionable. Information like this is invaluable in helping historians understand the lives of those who suffered from mental health issues in a time where knowledge on the subject was limited. If not for these insights from contemporary doctors, we would not know what the people who were treated at these hospitals were really like.

Another interesting discovery I had when looking at these volumes was the fact that many of these patients seemed to go to “Cockenzie” for several weeks at a time, and little else of the place is mentioned. When I brought this up to Alice, the Archive’s Access Officer, she suggested that the patients may have had something like a holiday home - as Cockenzie is by the coast – and may have gone there to get into the open air and get a break from the city. If this is true, this is fascinating as it shows that Clouston could put another of his theories into practice. Dr Clouston was a strong believer that people had to have a positive environment in order to have a positive mind, and he tried to ensure that his patients lived in the best conditions possible because of this. Since volunteering at the archives, I have been fortunate enough to also read several of Clouston’s published works, including one in which he explains that his inspiration for the asylum layout came from a luxurious Swiss hotel. However, as the volume I am cataloguing has not been looked at in much detail yet, the archivists here at LHSA still know little about Cockenzie and what that actually meant for the patients at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. Nevertheless, that is one of the best things about working in archives and handling contemporary material: we may never know what Cockenzie actually was, but by looking at the records we have in our collection, we do know that it existed and was of some significance to the daily life of the hospital.

Overall, I have loved every minute of volunteering at the LHSA Archives and think it is fantastic that the University offers its students the opportunity to look at the wealth of material that they have in their collection. I have been able to learn even more about the city that I now live in and love, all the while gaining invaluable skills that will prepare me for my dream job in the heritage sector. 


One of our wonderful Twitter followers has unraveled this mystery for us! Kirsty Nicol (@Kirsty_Nicol) dug into census records for Cockenzie and found a property called Hawthorn Villa, with residents who gave their occupations as Medical Students and one Asylum Matron. She then checked this information against digitised map collections held at the National Library of Scotland, and found that Hawthorn Villa was a property on the Western edge of Cockenzie. This certainly seems like a likely candidate for a convalescent-type home!

Many, many thanks to Kirsty for her outstanding detective work – and what a fabulous example of the benefits of digitising collections!

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