Cataloguing and transcribing the letters of John Home, a patient at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in 1886-1887
Hi there, I’m Emma Filshie and I started my eight week internship at LHSA at the beginning of January. I’m currently on a career break and looking to retrain as an archivist, so this placement is a great opportunity to build up a solid base of varied work experience to support my application for postgraduate study starting this autumn.
The main focus of my internship will be the rehousing, cataloguing and transcribing of around 175 letters from John Home, awho was a patient at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in Morningside (now the Royal Edinburgh Hospital) during 1886 and 1887.
John Home was a man of significant social standing in Edinburgh, both through his family and his profession. He was also a prolific correspondent, writing to a wide range of people including the Lord Advocate, Flora Stevenson, William McEwan MP (of McEwan’s brewers) and Drs Joseph Bell and Patrick Heron Watson, who inspired the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson!
His letters cover a variety of topics, but one prominent theme is his conviction that he had been wrongly certified and detained at the Asylum. He wrote several consistent accounts of his arrest and transfer to the Asylum, alleging illegalities and rough treatment, and continued to complain of the conditions once resident there. These complaints range from allegations of physical assaults, to the unsavoury behaviours and conditions of his fellow patients and the state of the food. His letters also reveal a number of romantic interests, frequently declaring his love and intentions of marriage…. to more than one woman!
Letter to James Auldis Jamieson, Crown Agent – 15 December 1886
I have to request that you will acquaint the Lord Advocate with the following monstrous fact that his Lordship may take such steps as in the circumstances are necessary.
There is at present in our midst a patient suffering from a most virulent attack of venereal pox, his head is one mass of open sores.
His Lordship is of course well aware that the poxous matter is a most malignant poison of a most infectious nature, and that patients suffering from this hateful disease are invariably confined in solitary confinement. In fact it resembles in many respects leprosy, and yet this infected monster is allowed to mingle and take his meals with the other patients.
The other day one of the sores burst, and the couch on which he was sitting was besmeared with poxous matter.
Your most obedient Servant,
Letter to Miss Mahon, a barmaid at the Balmoral Bar – 9 December 1886
My darling Wife,
I had hoped to get away from this infernal place this evening but fear I shall not now until tomorrow. I shall immediately come to you darling and shall bring the Diamond ring and gold chain and we shall then go along to the University Club and be married in presence of Mr and Mrs Fenn.
Send me a little letter by the bearer.
Ever your very loving Hub,
Letter to the Publisher of the Scotsman – 4 March 1887
I have to request that you will be good enough to insert the subjoined notice of marriage in your issue of tomorrow…..
At Edinburgh on the 4th March
John Home Esq W.S. to Kate, Daughter of Kearney Esq. of Londonderry
Under the 1866 Lunacy (Scotland) Act, medical personnel were permitted to open correspondence from patients and hold back any that were deemed unsuitable, so those of Home’s letters still held in the LHSA collection never reached their destination. He began to realise this after a few months, writing numerous copies of the same letter in an attempt to get at least one of them to its intended recipient.
P.S. Don’t be surprised if you receive several copies of this letter. I require to take these measures to ensure one being posted as the utter bugger, at the head here, excuse the expression, stops all letters….
The rehousing of the collection of letters has now been completed, with each letter now stored neatly in its own acid-free folder for preservation purposes and allocated a unique reference number to improve accessibility. Cataloguing the letters posed a couple of initial challenges – deciphering unfamiliar 19th century handwriting being the first, and writing brief yet comprehensive catalogue descriptions for some extremely long letters being another! I soon became familiar with the characteristics of his handwriting and with practise the summarising became easier, so hopefully will assist researchers accessing the collection in future.
|The rehoused collection|
The next step will be to transcribe the collection, which will require a forensic level of attention to detail and a good dollop of patience in order to replicate the drafting with complete accuracy. I’m looking forward to this next step and to providing another update on what the letters reveal in a future blog!
You can find out more about John Home, his letters and the wider context of the time in this article:
M. Barfoot and A. W. Beveridge, ’Madness at the crossroads: John Home’s letters from the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, 1886-87’, Psychological Medicine, 20 (1990), 263-84.