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b. 1893 – d.1916

Full name: John Matthew (Aaron?) Sheffield Cassan.


John was born on 6th November 1893 in the registration district of Elham, Kent.

He was the second of five children born to Matthew Sheffield Cassan (1852-1910) and his wife Alice Mary nee Field (1868-1947.) Alice was born in Brixton, Surrey.

Matthew and Alice were married on 2nd May 1892 at All Saints Church, Notting Hill, London, he claims to be 33yrs but is actually 39yrs old and Alice is just 24yrs. Matthew is shown as a ‘Commercial Traveller’.

Marriage: Matthew Sheffield Cassan and Alice Mary Field


Following the birth of their first two children in Kent, Matthew and Alice made the move up to London and all three of their remaining children were born in St George’s Hanover Square District, Westminster.

By the time of the 1901c they have all their children. The house is also occupied by visitors, Gerald Madden a Captain in the Irish Guards and Amelia Farquharson (living by own means), as well as Housemaid, Kitchen maid and Lady’s maid. This shows a sign of wealth.

Matthew Sheffield and Family, with Visitors and Servants
  • Edward Douglas Laurenceson Sheffield Cassan – 1892 – 1951
  • John Matthew Sheffield Cassan – 1893 – 1916
  • Victoria Mary Sheffield Cassan – 1896 – 1989
  • Flora Kathleen Sheffield Cassan – 1898 – 1968
  • Matthew Reginald Sheffield Cassan – 1901 – 1957

The family is living at 40 Ebury Street, Westminster which, according to Booth’s Poverty Maps, is a ‘middle class, well to do area with good lodging houses interrupted by shops.  You can see that they have three servants including a ladies maid who comes from Jamaica.  From this we can assume that the family is living comfortably although Matthew has no occupation shown.

In 1903 Matthew and Alice have all of their children baptised together on 27th January 1903 at St John the Evangelist, Wilton Rd, Westminster.

We assume the birth year 1903 is a mistake

The Sheffield name comes down through Matthew’s family; originally of Huguenot decent they were large land owners in Cappoley, Laois, Queens Co, Ireland where they built Sheffield House.

John’s father Matthew was born in 1852 in Ireland, his grandfather, also Matthew Sheffield 1820 -1905, was a land owner and gentleman farmer from a family of Barristers, Magistrates and landowners, his wife Phoebe Louisa Dawson was the daughter of John Dawson, Earl of Portarlington. Theirs is a complicated family of possibly eleven children all born in Ireland.

Financial Difficulties

By 1855 things were not going well financially for the family and the Sheffield Estate was put up for sale, however this did not seem to go ahead at this time.

In 1872 John’s mother Phoebe becomes unwell possibly with Epilepsy, but as far as her husband is concerned she is “going mad” and he has her committed to Highfield House, Private Asylum in Drumcondra (26 female patients.) 

Matthew, previously a lawyer, transferred all his property into her name so that it could not be seized and was protected by the Court of Lunacy

John’s Father Dies

Sadly on 26th January 1909 John’s father Matthew Sheffield Cassan, was admitted to Hanwell Asylum Southall, where he died on April 24th 1910. Contradictory evidence is given about Matthew. We are told he is tee total and that he died from, Locomoto Ataxy (loss of control of bodily movement) and consumption.  Later in the notes, it is said that Matthew had syphilis prior to his marriage, and later again John’s doctor says that his father died of Alcoholism and Syphilitic insanity.

Hanwell Asylum was built in 1831 the first of the Middlesex Asylums and was the model for the many others that followed, including Epsom and Colney Hatch where John would be sent later.

It was just four months later in April 1909 that John is first admitted to a ‘Lunatic Asylum’ aged just 16 years. It was said that when one of the doctors asked John a very personal question, “he was so horrified that he went raving”. Doctors instructed that nobody was allowed to say he had done anything wrong.  What a terrible time for Alice and the family.

Patient 93960, Admitted 29 Apr 1909 – Discharged “Reld” 20 Sep 1909

John Sheffield Cassan was initially admitted to Colney Hatch Asylum, Hertfordshire from the Northumberland Street workhouse, St Marylebone on 29 April 1909. He was discharged from Colney Hatch ‘Reld‘ and the Workhouse authorities sent him onto the Devon County Lunatic Asylum, Exminster on 20th Sept. 1909.

Patient 3178, Admitted 20 Sep 1909 – Discharged “Not Improved” 12 Nov 1909

He was discharged on 12th November 1909  ‘not improved‘.

On 12 March 1910 he was admitted to the Marylebone Workhouse and is noted as “supposed insane” and from there, on the 17th March 1910 he was re-admitted to Colney Hatch Asylum in Hertfordshire. 

Admitted: Casson, John Sheffield – Supposed Insane
Discharged: Casson, John Sheffield – to Colney Hatch Asylum

When Colney Hatch was opened in 1851 it was the largest and most modern asylum in Europe and also the most expensive ever built, but by 1858 serious defects in construction began to appear. Expansion continued and later temporary wooden buildings were erected but in 1903 a terrible fire occurred in a temporary building killing fifty one people, the worst disaster in English asylum history.

Patient 13831, Admitted 17 Mar 1910 – Discharged “Reld” 08 Sep 1911

Between 1908-1913 whilst John was living there, seven new permanent brick villas were built including one for “subnormal boys with Epilepsy or disturbed behaviour” so we can hope that John benefited from this new system.

The 1911c for Colney Hatch records patients by initials only and on checking initials and age I have not been able to find him but we assume that he remained in Colney Hatch until he was transferred to the Epileptic Colony (Ep.Col.) on 13th Feb 1913.

Patient 78898, Cassan, John Sheffield, Admitted 13 Feb 1913 to Ep. Col., Discharged (Died) 31 Mar 1916

John in the Epileptic Colony

On his admission to ‘The Colony’ John is 18 years old and single. His care is chargeable to the Wandsworth Union and his previous abode is given as St James’s Infirmary Balham and Wandsworth Union Infirmary.  No dates are shown.

The medical certificate confirms Epilepsy and the doctor states that he is very dull, torpid, and that “no rational conversation can be held with him.”  

According to the family history given by his mother John made a very good start in life and developed into a “brilliant scholar”. He began his education at the United Services College which is a prestigious school set up originally to train the son’s of officers of the East India Company. 

Later, in John’s mothers obituary, her husband is named as Maj. Matthew Sheffield Cassan, but no evidence has yet been found that Matthew was in the services.

The original school was at Haileybury in Hertfordshire but later a second school opened at Westward Ho near Bideford, Devon. We do not know which of these John would have attended.  

Unfortunately whilst at this school John was “knocked senseless” from a blow to the head by one of the masters, when he was about 10 yrs old at the time.

He went on to take the entrance exams for Christ’s Hospital School (Bluecoats) and passed 3rd out of 200 boys; he moved to the school aged 11 years. 

Bluecoats school

The school was set up by Edward IV to educated boys and girls from poor families.  The original school was opened in part of the Franciscan Greyfriars Monastery , Newgate (dissolved by Edward’s father, Henry VIII in 1858.) In the late 1800s, the school moved to Horsham, Sussex. The traditional bluecoat uniform is still worn to this day.

In 1896 whilst at “Bluecoats” school (in Sussex) John tried to get back to London; from “the caravan” he wandered for 36 hours and was eventually taken to the infirmary.”  

A Blow to the Head

It is noted in medical notes that John had also suffered several serious childhood illnesses which at the time would have been very dangerous.  These included Scarlet Fever, Pneumonia, Measles, Whooping Cough and Bronchitis.  He had started to experience severe headaches following the blow to the head and at about 12yrs old his Epilepsy became apparent.

He was described by family and schools alike as hard working, steady, affectionate, bold and courageous and all ascribe the changes in him to the blow he received at school.

When John’s mother Alice talks about her family it is clear that cleverness and achievement is a priority.  Both her family and her husband’s are described as very clever, (no mention of her husbands death in Hanwell Asylum). John’s educational achievements are repeatedly referred to, as are the achievements of her youngest child, Reggie, who was already budding actor on the London stage          

The Eugenics movement

This was gathering strength at this time and in 1913 the “first Eugenic baby”, Eugenette Bolce, was born.  In a newspaper interview given in 1913, Alice shines a light on her belief in the subject.

The Doctor’s Analysis of John

The doctor who admitted John to the Epileptic colony noted that physically he is 5’7’’, 10st 10lbs and had grey eyes, light brown hair. He says his expression was “vacant and silly.”

Mentally he “takes an interest in his surroundings but his comprehension is much impaired” he is “not able to understand most questions but will repeat them without apparently understanding.”  “He gave his name but did not know his age and obeys commands, but more by signs than words.”   

John was placed onto Walnut ward were he soon became very troublesome, interfering with fellow colonists and causing scuffles.  He was experiencing high numbers of fits and was unable to look after himself.

In the doctors report of January 1814, it says that he is “picking up rubbish and filth to eat, but is in good health and condition.”  Throughout the whole of that year he is regularly placed into the hospital because of his constant troublemaking which causes such problems on the ward, and in a note in December 1914 the doctor says, “He continues in a marked Schizophrenic condition”, a diagnosis not mentioned before.

Once again we now find “new ledger” written in his notes, which means that his case notes continue elsewhere.  Unfortunately these new ledgers have not been found but we know that there are some loose notes for John, which will require further investigation at Surrey History Centre.

John Dies

John continued to live in the Colony until his death on 31st March 1916.  He was buried in the Horton Cemetery on 7th April 1916 in grave 4b.

The ‘Epsom Colony’ part of the Epsom Cluster of five mental hospitals, had been opened in 1903 to care for “the Epileptic insane of the Metropolis”. This new approach housed patients in a collection of villas, avoiding the stigma of living in a mental asylum.  The treatment consisted of a specially regulated diet and doses of Potassium bromide, the first effective treatment for controlling epilepsy.  The patients were expected to contribute to their costs by working on the hospital farm or in the kitchens, laundry or bakery all of which supported the Epsom cluster of hospitals. As yet we can know little of John’s life in the hospital but we hope to discover more in time.

John’s Family

By the 1911 Census, with her husband dead and son John in an Asylum, we find Alice Mary Sheffield Casson as a ‘boarding house keeper’ at numbers 6,8,10 York Street, Marylebone, at the Baker Street end of York Street. 

In total there are 27 guests and 10 staff plus her son Edward, the only one of her children living with her.  This area, according to Booth Maps was at the “well to do, middle class” end of the street.

Flora was a boarder at a private school in Folkestone, Kent but Victoria and Matthew Reginald cannot be found.

Life after John – New York, New York!

The 1920 United State Federal Census shows Alice Sheffield and son Reginald immigrated in to America in 1915. Reginald is a paid (waged) actor. The family seem to have dropped the Cassan part of the name.

According to the 1930 Census for the USA, Alice, son Edward, daughter Flora and son Matthew Reginald are also shown to have arrived in New York in 1915, so the whole family left England. Edward is an accountant at a bank and shown as ex military. Flora is an actress and Reginald is an actor.

Mother Alice

John’s mother Alice Mary Sheffield Cassan nee Field died in 1947 in Missouri, USA aged 79yrs.   In her lifetime she had travelled back and forth across the Atlantic several times, seen her family fall apart and then go on to undreamt of success. 

Was it hard to leave John behind in the Colony?   Or was did he not quite fit the profile for her clever, talented family?  Did she or any other members of the family make one last visit to say goodbye? There are no names appearing in the visitors book?  What might John have gone on to achieve if he had not received that blow to the head?

Edward Douglas Laurenceson Sheffield (Cassan)

John’s brother married on 23 Oct 1923 to Agnes M Loskant.  Edward trained as a accountant. In the 1931 ships log travelling from Folkstone to New York with his mother he claims he is the Manager of Lloyds Bank, Cologne. Edward died on 18 July 1951 in Washington, District of Columbia, USA.

Matthew Reginald ‘Reggie’ Sheffield (Cassan)

Brother ‘Reggie’ married in 1927 to Louise Sanderson Van Loon 1905-1987 and they had three children.

  • Mary Alice 1928 -1977
  • John Matthew (Johnny Sheffield) 1931 – 1010
  • William Hart (Bill) 1935 – 2010

Reginald ‘Reggie’ Sheffield had been acting on the stage and screen in England since 1913 – the lure of the American film industry must have been a big draw.

He went on to play David Copperfield in the 1923 film and worked with many famous actors  such as Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster, acquiring ~130 film and TV credits.

Reggie’s son (John’s nephew) Johnny Sheffield starred as ‘Boy’ alongside Johnny Weismuller in the Tarzan films and as ‘Bomba the Jungle Boy’ in a number of films as well as many other screen appearances. His Brother Bill was also an actor and starred in an Oscar award winning short film. 

Victoria Mary Sheffield (Cassan)

John’s younger sister became a ballerina and when they moved to the USA she spent 6yrs with the Anna Pavlova dance company. After retiring, she taught dance and many of her pupil’s went on to professional careers .

She married in Fareham, Hampshire in 1924 to Lieut. Cmdr. Robert Lewes Burridge and they had two children.  Victoria died on 28 March 1998 in St Louis, Missouri and is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery, Bel-Noir.

Flora Kathleen Sheffield (Cassan)

Known professionally as Flora Sheffield, John’s youngest sister went into the film business and was involved in a number of productions, but is best known for her role as Kitty Verdun in the 1931 production of Charley’s Aunt, and as Barbara Hare in East Lynne (1931) (shown left). She married 15 March 1932 to Ethelred Barrs Wilden Jnr 1905-1967. Flora died in Los Angeles California on 26 Dec 1968.

Contact with Descendants

From a descendant through Ancestry.com

“Johnny Sheffield’s whole family were actors – brother, sister and parents. I do not know why they dropped the Cassan name. Stephen Cassan was a Huguenot and somehow became a Dr. and went to England, joined a British regiment and went to Ireland with army of William of Orange.

Being in a British regiment was unheard of for the minor nobility and it is assumed he was not of the minor nobility. Being a Doctor gave him the ability to be in a British Regiment and he also married into nobility.

In Ireland. Stephen Cassan and Elizabeth Sheffield had 8000 acres in Ireland. The son sold lands in England to build the family home. Between 1921 and 1937 the home and property were lost to back taxes and destroyed.

The fellow you show in your cemetery could have inherited the property but let the property go to another descendant. Thus ending up in England and America.”

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