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  • Writer's pictureCatriona Haine

An Asylum Pauper Patient Case Study and the Scottish Kirk Session Records

Updated: Mar 11, 2022

When genealogy research goes back in time beyond the start of the Scottish civil records in 1855, finding evidence of ancestors in the Old Parish Records can be tricky and records aren’t always to be found for various reasons. Just like anyone wanting to establish the birthplace of their ancestor, when I was investigating pauper patients who were removed from the Glasgow Royal Asylum (Gartnavel) in the late 19th century, I needed to find evidence of the birthplaces of the individuals being researched. Establishing these birthplaces was an important element in understanding how the rules of the Poor Law Amendment (Scotland) Act of 1845 had been applied and the consequences for the patients and their families. In one case, involving someone born before 1855, a baptism record was proving elusive but the Kirk Session Records provided vital information, along with some unexpected details.

Poor Relief and Place of Birth

When a pauper was admitted to an asylum, under the poor law rules, the “chargeable parish'' would be identified. This would be the parish held accountable for paying the bill from their poor relief funds for a patient’s treatment. The Parochial Boards, who managed the poor relief funds in each parish, were keen to ensure none of their parish funds were spent on patients who could be charged to other parishes. The Inspector of the Poor, working on behalf of the Parochial Board, would establish the patient’s place of birth along with investigating where else they had lived, in case the charges might be passed on to one of those parishes. Under the poor law act, a person was chargeable to the parish of their birth unless they had ‘settlement’ in another parish, having lived there for more than 5 years. Married women, however, were chargeable to their husband’s parish of birth or settlement regardless of where they came from or had previously lived.

The Changing Asylum Landscape for Pauper Patients.

Asylum provision for paupers changed significantly after the enactment of the Lunacy (Scotland) Act of 1857. Before 1857, eight asylums were independently built in Scotland between 1782 and 1839 as a consequence of philanthropic subscriptions. Seven of these asylums, known as 'Royal Asylums' because Royal charters were bestowed on them, were created with the vision of providing for both those who had the means to pay and those who did not. The eighth asylum, in Elgin, was also built as a result of philanthropic interests but for the care of paupers only. Aside from these eight asylums, alternatives for those who couldn't pay were few, especially for those in more rural locations.

Map from 1857 Royal Lunacy Commission report showing locations of the 8 asylums in Scotland before 1857 - credit below.

Between 1863 and 1899, twenty asylums were built across Scotland with the prime purpose of treating pauper ‘lunacy’ patients. Most of these new asylums were initially built and managed by new District Lunacy Boards, who reported to the General Lunacy Board of Scotland. In the beginning, there was much political wrangling between these new lunacy boards and the established parochial boards, however, despite this, many of the parochial boards viewed the new pauper asylums as a more cost effective solution than the discounted rates available for pauper patients at the likes of Gartnavel. Patients, initially admitted to Gartnavel, would subsequently be transferred to the pauper asylum serving the parish of their birthplace or their settlement, regardless of its location in relation to their home and family.

Pauper asylums built after 1857 with those built by the Parochial Boards in bold.

Before the new asylum building era in the latter half of the 19th century, Gartnavel had been suffering endemic overcrowding in their pauper wing because there were so few asylums. With the advent of the new district asylums for paupers, Gartnavel was equally keen for the parochial boards to remove pauper patients to ease the overcrowding. As this practice continued, Gartnavel saw an opportunity for its future and changed direction from its original philanthropic vision of treating both private and pauper patients, to making the decision to treat only private patients and, finally, in 1897, declaring no pauper patients remained in their institution. But what of those who’d been removed to other asylums, some to distant locations from their homes? How had the poor law rules on settlement impacted them? Finding evidence of birthplace was an important part in answering this question and understanding the consequences for pauper patients.

Patient Case Study

Grace Smith was a 50 year old, married woman who spent almost 6 months in Gartnavel in 1873 before being sent to the Argyll District Asylum at Lochgilphead, Argyllshire, a remote location on the west coast of Scotland which was a considerable journey, in the 19th century, from her home in Glasgow.

Extract from Grace Smith's Case Notes. Credit: NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives. House surgeon’s notes for physician: female. Collection: Records of Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow, Scotland. HB13/5/96. Reproduced under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

When she was admitted as a pauper patient to Gartnavel in February 1873, the chargeable parish for Grace was given as Barony, one of the parishes of Glasgow. As Grace was subsequently sent to Lochgilphead, the conclusion might be drawn that, as a married woman, Grace’s husband didn’t have settlement in Glasgow, that he’d lived in Glasgow for less than 5 years and that he was born in Argyll. If that were the case, Barony might have been given initially as the chargeable parish because that’s where Grace and her family were living at the time and nothing else was known about her husband’s origins.

However, Grace's husband hadn't been born in a parish in Argyll and nor had he been resident in the Barony parish for less than 5 years. He had, in fact, been born in Glasgow in the Barony parish where, it seems, he lived all of his life.

Tracking Down the Evidence

On all census records documenting the family, William Smith, Grace’s husband, gave his birthplace as Glasgow. This wasn’t conclusive evidence of his birthplace as birthplaces recorded on census records weren’t always given consistently or accurately. A post 1855 marriage record for William and Grace might have provided William’s parents’ names, making identifying a baptism for someone with the very common surname of Smith a little easier. However, from the census records, it seemed likely the couple had married prior to 1855 as their eldest children had been born in the 1840s. This theory was supported by information on the post 1855 civil birth records of their younger children. On those records their marriage date was given as either 12 or 21 July 1844, though no marriage could be found in the church records for William and Grace.

William Smith died in 1877 and his death record provided a vital clue; it noted he was ‘illegitimate’, signifying his parents, John Smith and Mary Riddell, weren’t married when he was born. If William’s parents hadn’t been married, there was a strong chance his parents may have been called to appear before the church court, the kirk session, for having had a child when unmarried. An entry found in the Barony Kirk Session minutes in 1823 confirmed William’s mother, Mary Riddell, was called to appear before the church court to discuss having given birth to her son that year when she was unmarried. At that first meeting her residence in Shettleston, a village in the Barony parish, was confirmed, as was William’s father’s name and occupation; John Smith, weaver. Later kirk session minutes document that the matter wasn’t resolved to the church court’s satisfaction and Mary subsequently left the church ‘under scandal’ in 1824.

The Power of the Inspector of the Poor

The Kirk Session minutes confirmed Grace Smith’s husband was born in Glasgow and therefore someone who had settlement in Glasgow by virtue of his birth there. Barony parish, given as the chargeable parish when Grace was admitted to Gartnavel, was the correct chargeable parish. So there wasn’t any reason under the poor law rules why she was sent so far away to Argyll.

Extract from 60th Annual Report of Glasgow Royal Asylum [for 1873]. Bound Annual Reports. Glasgow: James Hedderwick & Son. p. 9 Collection: Records of Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow, Scotland. Reproduced under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In the 1873 Gartnavel annual report, thanks is given to Mr Peter Beattie, Inspector of the Poor for Barony, for being “kind enough” to remove a large number of his patients to Barnhill, which was the Barony Poorhouse, and elsewhere. ‘Elsewhere’ included Grace Smith and 7 other patients sent to Argyll District Asylum at Lochgilphead on 15 August 1873. All patients chargeable to Argyll had been removed from Gartnavel and sent to the new district asylum there when it opened in 1863. Grace’s removal from Gartnavel to Lochgilphead had been arranged by the Barony Inspector of the Poor to help Gartnavel’s ongoing overcrowding in their pauper accommodation in the East Wing and bore no relation to poor law rules on birthplace or settlement.

The Consequences for Grace & Her family

Grace’s removal from Gartnavel was almost certainly done to suit the needs of both Gartnavel and the Barony Parochial Board with, likely, little or no thought given to the impact or consequences of the move on Grace or her family. At the start of 1873, Gartnavel reported its highest number of patients in residence and the ongoing and persistent issue of overcrowding, along with the asylum’s reluctance to turn any patients away, were the asylum’s priorities. Meanwhile, it would have suited the Parochial Board to place pauper patients in cheaper accommodation regardless of the consequences for the patient or their family.

While a patient at Gartnavel, Grace was allowed visitors every week on Saturdays between 10am and 12 noon. There are no records documenting visitors to the asylum, nor any reference to visitors in her case notes, however, her upset at being separated from her children, and her concern for their well being without her there to look after them, was clearly expressed by her when she was admitted and is documented in her case notes. So the opportunity to see family members would likely have been something Grace would have been glad of. But after she was removed from Gartnavel to Lochgilphead in August 1873, it is very unlikely that any of Grace’s family would have been able to visit her. In 1873, the journey from the east end of Glasgow to Lochgilphead, on the Kintyre peninsula, would have been a considerable undertaking, involving trains and steamships, not to mention the costs that those receiving poor relief would have struggled to afford.

Grace's husband William removed his wife from Argyll District Asylum four months after she was sent there and before she had been deemed recovered by the asylum. At a time when only a small minority of pauper patients were removed from an asylum by family, William’s actions can be viewed as further evidence of the emotional distress caused by their separation and their need to be together as a family

Sources and Resources

Credit for Map of asylums: Her Majesty's Commissioners. (1857) Report by Her Majesty's Commissioners appointed to inquire into the state of lunatic asylums in Scotland : and the existing law in reference to lunatics and lunatic asylums in that part of the United Kingdom. With an appendix. Edinburgh: Thomas Constable. Reproduced under Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

For more on the Poor Law (Scotland) Act of 1845: Cage, R. A. (1981) The Scottish Poor Law 1745-1845. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Scottish Civil and Kirk Sessions records at ScotlandsPeople

Glasgow Royal Asylum Records including annual reports available online at the Wellcome Collection.


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