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Ada Elizabeth Wheeler was born in Fulham in the 3rd quarter of 1865 and baptised in Hammersmith on the 5th of November 1865. An epileptic, her health deteriorated after a bereavement and she spent the last 14 years of her life in St Ebba’s (the Epileptic Colony).

Ada’s parents

She was the daughter of Charles William Wheeler (born in Hammersmith on the 18th of August 1833) and his wife Alice (née Fuller, born on the 6th of September 1837 in Rothfield, Sussex). Charles’s parents were livery stable keeper Charles Fuller and his wife Elizabeth. Alice was the daughter of farmer William Fuller and his wife Harriet.

Charles William Wheeler

On the 9th of September 1850 Charles, then employed as a labourer, enlisted in the 60th Regiment of Rifles, serving in the East Indies from October 1851 to 30th of November 1854. 

Although his service record describes his character and conduct as ‘very good’, he was discharged from the army on the 9th of October 1855 ‘in consequence of being found unfit for further service’. His medical officer wrote that Charles was “affected with pain and palpitations of the heart, dysfunction caused by any exertion. His general health is bad and he has had oedematous swelling of the feet. His disease I consider to have been caused by constitutional infirmity with heat of climate and military excesses”. It was this ‘constitutional infirmity’ which would lead to Charles’s early death causing a change in Ada’s circumstances and, indirectly, a deterioration in her mental health.

A growing family – and three tragic deaths

Charles and Alice were married on the 10th of November, 1858 in All Saints Church in Fulham. According to the marriage certificate, Charles was a commission agent, that is, a salesman who derives his income solely from commission on sales. At the time of their marriage the couple were living in Fulham. However, in the 1861 Census we find Charles, Alice and their first child Charles William (born in the 3rd quarter of 1859) living at 1, Clayton Cottages in Islington, a property they share with two other families. Charles is now employed as a gate porter.

In the next ten years Alice gave birth to three more children:

  • Edward George (born 4th quarter of 1863)
  • Ada Elizabeth (our subject, born 3rd quarter of 1865)
  • Ida Nellie (born 3rd quarter of 1870)

Based on General Register Office Records it would seem that Alice gave birth to two more daughters and a son during this period, all of whom died shortly after or within a year of their birth:

  • Alice Ellen (born 3rd quarter 1861, died 4th quarter 1861)
  • Harriet (born and died 4th quarter of 1862)
  • Albert Ernest (born 1st quarter 1868, died 1st quarter 1869)

This evidence suggests therefore that the couple’s first two children died, a tragic way to start a family.

By the time of the 1871 Census the family had moved to 55, New Grove Road in Fulham, a property of which they were the sole residents. Charles was now employed as a watchman.

The following year, in the 4th quarter of 1872, Alice gave birth to her eighth child, a daughter named Rhoda Louise. Two more daughters were born before the end of the decade, Florence Julia (born in the 4th quarter of 1877) and Alice Ethel Grace (born in the 3rd quarter of 1879). At this time the family was living at 7, Waite Street in Camberwell and Charles was working as an insurance agent.

(Ada’s case notes on being admitted to the Colony state that she is the 3rd child of a family of 10 – three brothers and seven sisters – all of whom are accounted for above. However, we know from General Register Office Records that the birth of a girl named Kate Lillian Wheeler (mother’s maiden name Fuller) was registered in Wandsworth in the 4th quarter of 1875. Sadly, the baby died in the same quarter. Although the names and date and place of birth strongly suggest that Kate Lillian was Charles and Alice’s daughter, it has not been possible to prove this conclusively.)

Birkbeck Schools

Ada’s case notes on entering St Ebba’s refer to her ‘unusual intelligence’ and her education up to the age of 14 at ‘Birkbeck Schools’.

The first Birkbeck School opened in the London Mechanics’ Institution’s Southampton Building in 1848, the creation of William Ellis, one of the original founders of the LMI. It offered elementary education for children of working parents. It was also radical, prohibiting rote learning in favour of Socratic dialogues between pupils and schoolmasters. It upset the Church authorities by being thoroughly secular as well as teaching what was called (at various times) ‘political economy’ or the ‘science of human well-being’.

The death of Charles and a change in the family’s circumstances

In the 1st quarter of 1881 Charles died of heart failure in Southwark aged just 47, his early death the result of the ‘constitutional infirmity’ that necessitated his discharge from the army. 

The change in the family’s circumstances is evident from the 1881 Census taken shortly after Charles’s death. Widow Alice, her seven children and her mother Elizabeth are still living at 7, Waite Street in Camberwell, a property they share with one other family. However, 41 year-old Alice is now working as a washerwoman and her eldest son Charles is a clerk. Charles is the only other member of the family in employment.

Ada – ‘in charge of a jeweller’s’

The family’s situation had greatly improved by the time of the 1891 Census. In the intervening years, Alice had seen three of her children marry: in1888, Charles married widow Annie Marie Southgate and, in 1890, Edward married Jessie Clara Rickard and Alice married George Percy Marchant. 

In the 1891 Census Alice and her daughters, Ada, Ida, Rhoda and Florence, are living at 92, Varcoe Road in Camberwell and Alice is described as ‘living on her own means’. It is possible her income derived from letting out rooms as there are two lodgers living with the Wheelers – Frederick Glendenning, a milk carrier, and a harness maker called Charles Madeleine. 

(Interestingly, 23 year-old Eveline Allen is also listed as a resident and she is described as Alice’s adopted daughter. Research has revealed that she was the biological daughter of Elizabeth Allen from Stoke Newington who was widowed in 1870 and left with two daughters, both under the age of two. However, it has not been possible to find a connection between Eveline and Alice before the 1891 Census).

We read in the census that all four daughters are employed. Rhoda and Florence are bookbinders and Ada and Ida are ‘in charge of jeweller’s shop’. Tragically, it was an incident which occurred in the jeweller’s shop that would contribute to the mental health problems that would necessitate Ada’s admission to the Colony.

Ada’s epilepsy and its contributory factors

From the case notes on her admission to the Colony in 1903 we learn that Ada was suffering from epileptic insanity with ‘fright’ and ‘mental stress just prior to her first fit’ listed, along with ‘bereavement’, as contributory factors. We learn that Ada suffered from ‘nervous debility’ at the age of 20 and experienced her first epileptic fit at the age of 26 but, “while in charge of Watch Co. Depot, at age of 23½ (that is, in 1888) a man entered and snatched watches. She chased, caught and held him till the police arrived. Returned to shop and became unconscious for remainder of afternoon. Man sentenced.”

The notes continue: “She appeared as witness. After the trial she had her first fit. These fits increased in frequency and degree. Treated at Queen’s Square Hospital for 5 years then sent to Constance Road (Workhouse) Infirmary.” 

We then learn that when she was 32½ years old (that is, in 1898) Ada “lost her fiancé, her sister and sister-in-law all in three weeks. Health rapidly weakened after this”. 

Unfortunately we do not know the name of Ada’s fiancé. Her sister Ida died of heart failure at the age of 27 in the 1st quarter of 1888. However, Charles and Edward’s wives, Annie and Jessie were still alive in 1903, so I do not know who the sister-in-law referred to in Ada’s case notes might be.

Admission to St Ebba’s

The case notes state that Ada was able to earn her own living until August 1899 while living with her mother at 112, Asylum Road, Queen’s Road in Southwark. However, we know that she was admitted to Constance Road Infirmary in Camberwell on at least two occasions in 1901 and 1902, suffering from epilepsy and melancholia. Ada was admitted to Bexley Heath Asylum on the 29th of June 1902 where she stayed until the 8th of September 1903. She was then transferred to St Ebba’s (which had only opened the previous month), where she was to spend the last fourteen years of her life.

Her doctor’s initial report on her admission at the age of 38 describes her as “noisy, violent and uncontrollable. Strips herself, refuses food and has to be fed by force. Threatens others.”

Ada’s mental and physical decline and death at the age of 51

Comments in Ada’s case notes trace the deterioration of her physical and mental health over the next fourteen years:

  • “Is a person of education. Does no work except needlework but that well. Refuses to clean or scrub because she did not come here to be a servant.”
  • “Suffering from epileptic dementia with recurring stuperose attacks in association with batches of fits preceded by vomiting.”
  • “Has considerable number of fits. She has numerous ‘sensations’. These are just like fits and she falls in them.”
  • She is slow mentally and very quiet. She is never troublesome and does good needlework. She is pleasant but reserved and only speaks when addressed. She very much wants to go home.”
  • “Today she had an epileptic seizure, falling against the bedstead inflicting a clean incised wound…which required nine catgut ligatures.”
  • “Decidedly weak-minded. Has been violent to other colonists.”
  • “Very quick to violence towards the other colonists and has bouts of depression in which she cries and sulks.”
  • “She is very unstable emotionally and readily becomes querulous and depressed. She not infrequently loses self-control and gives way to morbid outbursts of wrath.”
  • “Is prone to complain in an unfounded way of neglect when she is somewhat depressed.”
  • “Has had 58 sensations and 8 fits in the quarter. Often falls in sensations and usually cuts the back of her head.”
  • “Has had 63 seizures in the quarter.”
  • “Has had 64 seizures in the quarter. Remains emotionally very unstable as well as being very childish.”
  • “Has had 69 seizures in the quarter. Emotionally unstable, liable to bouts of much confusion and little use as a colonist.”
  • “Has had 123 seizures in the quarter, a little more than half of major type. Has been more deteriorated mentally and has been very unsteady on her feet and has had many falls. Needs much supervision.”

Sadly, Ada’s mental and physical decline continued and she died in the Colony in the 1st quarter of 1917 aged 51. She was buried in Horton Cemetery on the 19th of March 1917 in grave 1188b. 

Ada’s family after her admission to St Ebba’s 

  • Alice (mother) moved in with her daughter Alice and her husband George at their home in the Old Kent Road. She later lived with her daughter Rhoda and her husband Alfred at their home in East Dulwich. It has not been possible to find the date of Alice’s death.
  • Charles (brother) and Annie had two daughters and a son but had separated before the 1911 Census. It has not been possible to find Charles after the 1901 Census.
  • Edward (brother) and Jessie had three children together. Edward worked as a railway clerk and died in Greenwich in 1929 aged 66.
  • Florence (sister) married Post Office counter clerk and telegraphist William James Burman in the 4th quarter of 1897. They had 4 children together, one of whom sadly died before 1911. Florence died in Suffolk in the 1st quarter of 1959 aged 82.
  • Rhoda (sister) married schoolmaster Alfred Gregory Brumby on the 9th of February 1895. The couple had two children together. Rhoda died in Sussex in the 3rd quarter of 1959 aged 86.
  • Alice (sister) and her husband George had one daughter together. Alice died in Thanet in the 2nd quarter of 1925 aged 45.
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