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    Borough of Epsom and Ewell’s
     Michael Arthur
     David Smith
     Jean Smith 
     Michael Staples
     Jean Steer
     Keith Mann
     Robert Lewis
    Member of Parliament
     Baroness Sheila Hollins
     Rt Hon. Chris Grayling
     Revd. David Fox Branch
     Janice Baker
    Polish Institute
      Dr Andrzej Suchcitz

GOODWIN, Robert John 


We know that Robert John Goodwin was not buried in Horton Cemetery but further research will need to be carried out to establish his exact burial location. It is likely that he was buried in Banstead Hospital Cemetery.

Childhood and family life: 1875-1893

Robert John Goodwin was born in the first quarter of 1875 to parents Robert and Mary Ann Goodwin (née Beamish) in the St Saviour’s district of Southwark, Surrey. Following in their father’s footsteps, Robert and his three brothers – John Robert (1877-1950), Walter (1879-1968) and Charles (1881-1910) – all worked in basketry from teenagehood. At the time of the 1891 census, Robert Goodwin Sr. and his eldest sons, 16-year-old Robert and 14-year-old John, were all occupied as basket makers.

Indeed, it appears that the trade of basketry was integral to the Goodwin family history. Robert Jr.’s paternal grandfather had also spent most, if not all, of his working life as a basket maker. Unfortunately for the Goodwins, this low-status craft (described by an anonymous author in 1747 as “an inferior hidden Sort of Handicraft Business”[1]) would probably have earned them little more than their daily bread. Nevertheless, Robert’s upbringing appears to have been relatively free from hardship: according to Charles Booth’s London Poverty Map, Well Street, where Robert spent the entirety of his childhood, was a “fairly comfortable” area with middle-class pockets.

Early adulthood: 1893-1901

The 1901 census records Robert John Goodwin’s place of residence as 159 Well Street, Hackney. Single, he was still living at home with his parents and two of his brothers (Walter and Charles); John, the only married brother, had by this time left the nest and was living with his wife in Victoria Park Road (classified by Booth as “well-to-do”). All four sons and their father continued to work as basket makers.

Robert does not appear in any censuses after 1901. At some point between April of that year and the final quarter of 1902, his apparently comfortable life began to unravel; a turbulent decade and a half of ‘pauperism’, mental illness and institutionalisation awaited him.

From pillar to post: 1902-1916

Towards the end of 1902, Robert John Goodwin suffered his first psychiatric “attack” of unknown cause. On 23 December of that same year, the chairman of the Hackney Board of Guardians (John Fenton-Jones) signed an order authorising Robert’s admission to the asylum; he entered Fisherton House in Salisbury, Wiltshire just eight days later.

Established in 1813 as a private licensed house, by 1890 Fisherton House had become the largest private madhouse ever to have existed in the UK; alongside private patients, the asylum also accepted pauper admissions like Robert from boroughs well beyond Wiltshire. By the time Robert entered the institution, conditions were poor: an 1896 report noted inadequate washing facilities and ventilation, smelly bathrooms, unexplained bruising on some patients, and the use of seclusion.

Robert spent a total of 475 days as a pauper patient at Fisherton House (excluding an unspecified period in the Hackney Union Infirmary) before being transferred to The Manor Asylum, Epsom on 19 April 1904. His diagnosis upon admission to The Manor was “chronic melancholia” (a form of major depressive disorder), and he was classed as “dangerous”. According to his medical certificate, “[h]e is noisy, violent and maniacal, hears voices, talks to imaginary persons – he says there were several devils expelled from his heart, that the Lord touched it and it became healed.” His mental state upon admission was described as follows: “Dull, listless, rambling in conversation; has delusions that he is being persecuted, and that things have been pulled out of his heart”.

According to his case notes, during his time at The Manor Robert displayed the following symptoms:

  • Delusions of persecution “by unknown people”
  • Delusions relating to his heart (“has a delusion that shaving pulls his heart out of its place and makes him ill”, “says he has had something drawn from his heart as if by magnetic force and that it has left a hole”)
  • Depression
  • Apathy and listlessness (“stares vacantly about him”, “wanders vacantly about and takes little interest in anything going on”, “keeps apart from other patients”)
  • Confusion and memory lapses (“cannot tell the day of the week or the month”, “says…he is an epileptic patient”)
  • Disorganised speech
  • Disorganised and catatonic behaviours (“childish”, “inclined to be quarrelsome with other patients”, “seems unable to rouse himself”, “disinclined to speak”, “occasional outbursts of excitement”)

On 23 November 1914, Robert – not yet 40 years old – was diagnosed with secondary dementia. War had broken out on the European continent just three months earlier, and this would soon have significant ramifications for the patients of The Manor Asylum: when the institution was requisitioned by the Army Council and began operating as the Manor War Hospital in the summer of 1916, all existing patients were transferred to other institutions. It was thus that, on 11 August 1916, Robert found himself uprooted yet again, when he was admitted to Banstead Asylum in Belmont, Sutton, Surrey.

Banstead Asylum: 1916-1917

Robert’s health – both physical and mental – deteriorated significantly in the twelve months after he entered Banstead Asylum. He lost a substantial amount of weight (1 st, 10 lbs between September 1916 and the following August), and by August 1917 he weighed just 8 stone (down from 8 st, 10 lbs just two months earlier). He continued to display clear signs of confusion (e.g. “very slow in understanding directions about going out or coming in from the airing courts”) and listlessness, spending his days standing vacantly by himself and wandering about aimlessly; except from his incoherent rambling, Robert also virtually ceased to speak “unless pressed”, and completely desisted from work. By late July of 1917, he was “in a very chaotic mental condition”.

Then, on 1 September 1917, Robert John Goodwin was transferred to the infirmary with the following somatic symptoms: “dullness over both apices of lungs”, “upper [dullness] in heart”, “loss of flesh”, and poor appetite. He had contracted tuberculosis (TB). This disease had long been a leading cause of death among both asylum patients and the general population, but WWI significantly worsened the situation: between 1914 and 1918, TB mortality rates per 1,000 resident patients soared from 1.25% to 5.1%. The total asylum population in England and Wales at this time represented about 0.3% of the total national population, yet approximately 50% of the national wartime increase in TB deaths occurred in the asylums.[2]

Over the next five days, Robert’s condition deteriorated rapidly, and on 6 September 1917 he was diagnosed with advanced TB in both lungs (worse in the right). He died at some point between 9 and 10 p.m. at just 42 years old.


No ‘Find A Grave’ entry could be found for Robert John Goodwin. However, we can reasonably assume that he was laid to rest in Banstead Hospital Cemetery, located in the former grounds of the asylum; as of 2007, only five legible headstones remained.

Author observations

Robert John Goodwin’s story makes for very sad reading indeed. How did this man go from leading a seemingly comfortable life to that of a ‘pauper’ in the space of a year? My research unearthed a surprising potential answer: the fact that Robert was admitted as a pauper lunatic does not necessarily mean that he was destitute. As historian Dr Claire Hilton explains in this fascinating blog post, only those able to afford the full cost of their care were reclassified as private patients; if, upon means testing, the Poor Law Board of Guardians was required to make any financial contribution (no matter how small) to a prospective patient’s inpatient stay, the patient remained designated as a pauper lunatic. In fact, something as minor as a visit from a union medical officer was considered a form of poor relief.

Thus, as British nobleman Frank Russell put it in 1924, “a man who has been paying his rent and paying his way, and who does not owe anybody anything and is earning his wages, may suddenly be called a pauper when he comes to be certified, although in the ordinary sense of the word he is not a pauper at all”. This might well explain why Robert – who appears to have grown up in a relatively comfortable household and was still employed as a basket maker at the time of his admission to Fisherton House – seemingly never entered the workhouse. The label of ‘pauper’ would no doubt have been a humiliating one for Robert and the Goodwin family. While private patients were afforded the option of wearing their own clothes, Robert would have been forced to bear his new status through standard asylum ‘uniform’; compared to his private counterparts, he would also have had less autonomy over his care and treatment, would have been more likely to have his letters intercepted, and may well have been served food of a lower quality.

Robert’s case notes from The Manor and Banstead asylums paint a tragic picture of a man tormented by his own mind. Many of his reported symptoms are indicative of what might today be diagnosed as schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder (it is also interesting to note that schizophrenia has been linked to secondary dementia, which Robert was subsequently diagnosed with).

For me, perhaps the most harrowing recorded episode occurred at The Manor on 26 September 1904:

“While working in one of the female airing courts, he went to one of the outside lavatories, which is some distance away…[H]e was seen making for the gate and was followed by the gardener…who lost sight [of] him in the grounds. [H]e got out on the road and was caught by a passing carrier, he said when questioned that he wanted to go home”.

[1] A General Description of All Trades: Digested in Alphabetical Order. London, T. Waller, 1747, p. 14,

[2] Hilton, Claire. Civilian Lunatic Asylums During the First World War: A Study of Austerity on Londons Fringe. Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, p. 215,

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