Frances Farlam, a ‘lunatic’ from grief

The sad story of Frances Farlam tells us a lot about bereavement, mental health, and how both were ‘treated’ towards the end of the 19th century. 

It also shows that infant deaths – so common that we today might think Victorians accepted them stoically – took their toll on parents too.

Garlands Hospital

Anyone researching their family tree needs to expect to find some painful stories on there. Murder, other crime, suicide, accident, tragedy… rare is the extended family that has not been touched by some or all of these down the generations.

For those of us with Cumbrian ancestors, one place name that jumps out from census returns or death certificates that screams pain is Garlands Hospital.

Indeed, you don’t have to look to distant ancestors, for Garlands Hospital, on the southern edges of Carlisle, was in service until 1999.

Built as the Joint Counties Lunatic Asylum (the joint counties being, of course, Cumberland and Westmorland), it opened to its first patients in 1862.

You can read a brief history here:

Frances Farlam

But being Cumbrian Characters, this isn’t the story of the asylum as an anonymous institution: it is the story of one woman deemed on the 1891 census to be a ‘lunatic patient’.

Frances Hetherington was born circa 1835 in the parish of Castle Sowerby. By 1860, she had found her way to Silloth – where, on Christmas Eve, she married Robert Farlam in Holme St Pauls Church, at Causewayhead.

Robert Farlam was a mariner ‘of Maryport’ and the newly weds set up home in lodgings in Crosscanonby. They were there (at a different address) on the 1871 census as well – though their son John was baptised (in 1868) in Liverpool.

The life of a seaman’s wife is hard one to this day. Modern communications don’t make up for long, long absences. And in the late 1800s, news did not travel fast.

And life for a mariner was hazardous.

Loss of the Mersey

1885. December 4, Carlisle Patriot. Loss of a Maryport Vessel.

The barque Mersey, bound from Bathurst (NBY) to Liverpool with a cargo of timber, encountered severe weather on November 15 and 16 and became waterlogged and unnavigable. The crew left her in their own boats and were picked up on Nov. 18th in lat 49N, long 19W, by the brigantine Joseph, of St Malo, which landed them there on Nov 27, from whence they proceeded to Milford Haven, and have since arrived home. The Mersey was a barque of 580 tons register, commanded by Capt Robert Farlam of Silloth, built at Windsor at 1851, and was owned by Capt John R Suiter, of Maryport.

But it wasn’t a shipwreck that killed Robert Farlam far from home: it was disease.

Robert Farlam’s death

Carlisle Patriot. September 6, 1889.

Death of a Silloth Captain.

In our obituary today, we announce the death of Captain Robert Farlam, of the barque Jessie Morris, which took place at Pensacola, Florida, on August 7 last. Deceased, who had only arrived a few days previously from Cape Colony, was taken ill and removed to hospital, where he died of dysentery.

For many years, he sailed in the Quebec trade, to and from Silloth, and during that time he made a large number of friends here, by whom his death will be regretted.

‘Mad’ from grief

The news was reported a month after Robert’s death. And two months after that, on November 28, 1889, Frances Farlam was admitted to Garlands Hospital, suicidal and suffering from ‘melancholia’.

 She was then aged 52, had grey eyes, weighed 12 stone, and her address was given as 4 Church Terrace, Silloth.

You can (when open) find records of Garlands Hospital patients in Cumbria county archives.

They record that Frances Farlam took her husband’s death really badly, wanted to kill herself, and blamed herself (her sins) for his death. 

She stopped eating. Wouldn’t converse. And alternated between being listless and restless. 

The only treatment seem to have been that they fed her (force-fed?) when she wouldn’t eat, put her on iron and quinine and gave her a pint of porter a day to drink, for her health, and kept her safe.

In this, perhaps, she was lucky.

The records say she had been lively and cheerful and temperate, with no previous health issues, and no predisposition to melancholia – until the shock and grief of losing her husband.

She became dull, quiet, wandered about, wouldn’t talk, and ‘wanted to end herself in the docks,’ saying she had murdered everyone and the world was going to end.

Old grief stirred back up

Taken into Garlands Hospital for her own safety, they found it hard to check her heart as she kept groaning. Her skin was yellow, her hair very white, her muscles wasted, and she was old-looking for her age.

She told the doctors that her seven children had died of neglect, but at other times said she had four still living.

The truth was she did indeed have four living children (in 1889, the eldest was 23, the youngest 16). Two boys had died while still babies, so perhaps there was a third infant death she blamed herself for in her grief. 

She was still talking of killing herself in March 1890.

The report thins out after April 1890 – either there was not much to say, or not much interest was being taken in her.

By January 1891, she ‘knows what is going on, but takes no interest in anything’. by April, she was ‘working well’, but still suffering from melancholia.


She had eventually agreed to work in the laundry, and finally, after two years and one month in Garlands Hospital, there is the entry:

December 28, 1891: ‘was this day discharged’.

Frances Farlam returned to Silloth – where a few weeks later, she was granted the right to her late husband Robert Farlam’s effects, amounting in value to £320 19 shillings and 9 pence. That would have had the purchasing power then equivalent to about £40,000 today.

Frances Farlam died in 1909, aged 74, of natural causes, at the home of her youngest daughter.