Imagination in the Archives of Mental Health Law

Reflecting upon the assumptions we make when dealing with legal documents, historian Janet Weston questions the ever-important role of the imagination for those working in archives of mental health law.

Imagination always plays a part in research. Some disciplines (and some researchers) are more comfortable with this than others. History and historians may acknowledge and even embrace it; legal studies and lawyers are perhaps more doubtful.

I mention history and law because I’ve been researching the history of mental health law, and the role of imagination has, unexpectedly for me, became ever-more important.

The documents that legal proceedings leave behind can be deceptive: what looks like a beautifully clear statement of fact or a rich, spontaneous narrative of evidence is hemmed in on every side. Legal requirements and procedures, as well as particular goals, perspectives, and personalities, all shape the final product. True of any source, this unsteady foundation feels particularly unsettling in legal archives. A touch of imagination is needed to shake free the full range of possibilities.

Let me explain with an example. In 1939, a legal entity called the Management and Administration Department (soon to be renamed the Court of Protection of England and Wales, and hereafter called the ‘Court’) intruded into the life of Beatrice Alexander, a retired housekeeper living in Dorset. She was said to be unable to manage her own property and affairs as a result of some unspecified mental infirmity. The Court ultimately approved an application for the Official Solicitor to be appointed to take charge of her finances, in light of her mental state. She remained legally ‘incapable’ until her death in 1969.

Figure 1. The request to the Lord Chancellor’s Medical Visitor (The National Archives, London, catalogue ref. J127/24)

When the Court was notified about Miss Alexander’s situation, the paperwork shows a request that the ‘Lord Chancellor’s Medical Visitor’ call on Miss Alexander at her house and report back (Figure 1). A copy of this report sits alongside the request, across two pages (figures 2 and 3). It runs to about 200 words and begins in factual terms. Miss Alexander had been the housekeeper to a doctor. He had died, leaving his house to her along with a pension. She had to retain the services of his cook and gardener, Mr and Mrs Humphries.

The report then moves into more overtly speculative territory. The position ‘seems’ to be that she is living with various members of the Humphries family, who receive no wages as such. The house ‘seems’ orderly, but the visitor was ‘not favourably impressed by Mrs Humphries[,] a coarse looking woman with the appearance of a heavy drinker’. Mrs Humphries tried to prevent any private conversation with Miss Alexander, who was ‘a plesant [sic] little lady’ but under Mrs Humphries’s influence. Miss Alexander was ‘vague’ and unable to account for her money. She was, therefore ‘not fit to manage her own affairs,’ and the report’s author recommended that someone should indeed be appointed to take control of her money and property.

What to make of this brief account? Was Miss Alexander ill? What was happening in that house? It’s not only useful but essential, I think, to imagine this visit – even just its first moments.

The Humphries and Miss Alexander probably had no idea that legal proceedings were in the air when the visitor arrived at the door. The point at which Miss Alexander had to be formally notified had not yet been reached. The visitor’s arrival was unexpected, even startling.

Figure 2. Page 1 of the visitor’s report (The National Archives, London, catalogue ref. J127/24).

I suspect that the visitor himself, Mr Meysey-Thompson, cut an imposing figure. Born into a family of lawyers, peers, and politicians, he had been privately educated, served as an officer during the first world war, and worked as a barrister. Just a few years earlier, he had been energetically criticised by one of the more financially straightened households he visited on a regular basis, for ‘swaggering around in a large car’ and making the subject of his visit ‘discontented’ with her own modest means. His swagger may have been overstated, but Meysey-Thompson’s family background, education, profession, and affluence all marked him out as very different from the women in this household he came to inspect.

Figure 3. Page 2 of the visitor’s report (The National Archives, London, catalogue ref. J127/24)

An unexpected, perhaps intimidating visitor at the door. Who answered the knock? Maybe Mrs Humphries, the cook, failing to impress with her appearance (“coarse”) and manners. But these kinds of intrusions into her domestic situation from the great and the good rarely boded well. Mrs Humphries’ children had been assessed in the recent past with a view to declaring them mentally defective, and perhaps even removing them to some distant institution. The local Mental Welfare Association secretary wrote about her family in scathing, dismissive, upsetting terms. Did Mrs Humphries dissemble and delay: a clumsy but well-meaning effort to protect her employer (and friend?) from similar judgment?

Later documents agree that Miss Alexander was nervous around new people. Did she answer the door herself, already anxious, and immediately affirm the visitor’s pre-existing view that she was under the thumb? Think of her alarm, with the appearance of a fancy London lawyer, talking about Lord Chancellors and courts and whether she was of sound mind. This was not in aide of a well-known legal procedure; it’s much more likely that her thoughts leapt immediately to mental hospitals and involuntary confinement. Was she about to be taken away? Perhaps, in the midst of mounting panic, Miss Alexander can be forgiven for being ‘vague’ about dates and unclear about how she spent her money.

Such imaginative steps provide little certainty, but can help with critical thought and careful interpretation. Importantly, these flights of fancy gain their wings from background knowledge about people and processes: they demand attention to any and every possible clue that might help to build and test different versions of events.

Imagination can also destabilise the ‘facts of the case’: Miss Alexander may have been incapable in law of managing her own affairs, but after four years spent studying the files about her, I’m still undecided about whether anyone around her truly believed that she had any kind of mental infirmity. I can imagine it as a convenient fiction to remedy what looked like an unhappy situation; I can imagine her nervous and bullied; I can also imagine her showing the first signs of the dementia that affected her deeply in later years.

The story within this official report certainly could correspond with the information that the Court had already received: that Mrs Humphries was a devious and controlling woman taking advantage of Miss Alexander’s mental infirmity. But to imagine the events behind the report opens up other possible explanations, too.

These are useful lessons, I think, for all research that tackles those complex experiences and perceptions of illness that the health humanities strives to understand, even – and perhaps especially – where uncertainty is less obvious. Even a dry administrative request or policy document moves through human hands and carries human ideas (and errors – if the Court requested a ‘Medical Visitor’, why did a barrister show up in Dorset?). To think imaginatively about the people, events, and accounts surrounding health and illness is to test our own assumptions, to locate and acknowledge doubt, and to make room, even if only briefly, for a richer array of possibilities.   

About the author
Janet Weston is as assistant professor in the Centre for History in Public Health, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her book about care, mental capacity, and history, Looking after Miss Alexander, is out now in paperback and as a free pdf (with thanks to the Wellcome Trust for their funding, grant number 209884/z/17/z).

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