Research and text by Brian Roote
Some years ago a campaign was launched by the Croydon Guardian at the instigation of a Croydon resident to have the names of a number of servicemen who had ended their days in Cane Hill Asylum recognised as service graves which should be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Debt of Honour records. The men had been discharged from service due to what had then become known to the general public as ‘shell shock’. This simple explanation turned out to be some way from the truth when their medical records were examined. The campaign had been triggered by Croydon Council’s decision to allow the Cane Hill site to be built on.
Burials from the Asylum took place in the hospital cemetery in Portnall Road and in 1981 the cemetery was cleared for ‘redevelopment’ and the remains of all the patients were reverently exhumed and cremated at Mitcham Road Crematorium. The ashes were scattered over location 1000 which had been specially chosen. In 2009 Croydon Council had a memorial placed on the site but no names were included. This memorial was later stolen and has since been replaced. It was then that the campaign started. The men were not on the CWGC Debt of Honour and many felt that they should be afforded the same honours as any other men who gave their lives.
To qualify for recognition as a War Grave a serviceman must have died in the period 4 August 1914 to 31 August 1921. If they were still on strength then the death could be from any cause. If discharged then the cause must be attributable to his service. So unless service and medical records are available then nothing further can be done. Fortunately most of the Cane Hill men’s records had survived so the painstaking task of submitting evidence to the War Department commenced and at a recent check most of the names are now on the CWGC Debt of Honour. The records clearly show that the deaths were caused by their service and many had been issued with a Silver War Badge which shows the reason for discharge as ‘sickness’.
In addition to the original 25 names on the ‘crusade’ list a further 2 have come to light. A suitable memorial has been constructed in Mitcham Road Cemetery. Of the remaining 9 names on the original list no service records have survived so they cannot be included.
During the research two main burial plots were found in the Cane Hill burial register clearly marked as ‘Service Graves’ so the Cane Hill authorities recognised them as such. The plots were numbered Grave 420 and 441 and each contained 6 burials (see illustration) Records of other plots have not been found.
WHY WERE THEY THERE?
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT OF WAR
Within a few months of the start of World War 1 the first cases of men suffering some sort of mental breakdown began arriving in the UK. No one had expected them and no special arrangements had been made. They were first placed in beds set aside for the physically wounded but doctors did not know what to do with them. As increasing numbers of such men shuffled home from the front they were sent to hurriedly opened neurological wards in the established military hospitals and nurses were advised to wash them, feed them, and let them sleep, expecting them to recover. However, as more and more pale trembling men filled the beds it became increasingly obvious that this was an epidemic for which there was no quick fix. Some men showed no signs of recovery and it was decided to transfer some of the worse cases to established mental asylums such as Cane Hill. Probably the first case to arrive was Arthur Henry Dore admitted on 20 March 1915 and discharged to Powick Mental Hospital in 1923.
In some cases, doctors diagnosed the dementia as being the result of syphilis, a not uncommon disease amongst the military at the time. It was termed General Paralysis of the Insane or GPI for short, leading to dementia praecox. Evidence of this diagnosis is clearly to be seen on some soldiers records where questions were asked of the man or a Wasserman Test, a test for syphilis, was carried out. Soldiers were generally seen by medical staff at or near the front and then sent to a military hospital in the UK for further assessment and transfer to an asylum if necessary.
In October 1917 a memorandum was issued from the Ministry of Pensions to the effect that discharged servicemen in asylums would be classified as ‘Service Patients’ and get better treatment.
So Cane Hill continued to receive such mentally ill soldiers, gave them what they considered reasonable treatment and when they thought fit, discharged them. The majority, however, remained at Cane Hill and died there in the next decades, some in the 1930s.
THE SOLDIERS REMEMBERED NOW
Private Robert Thomas Army Service Corps
Private Robert John Gibbons Royal Army Medical Corps
Private Richard Leonard Skinner Kings Royal Rifle Corps
Private George John Groombridge The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)
Private Charles William Fray Middlesex Regiment
Private William John Penny London Regiment
Private Alfred Charles Cartwright Grenadier Guards
Private Leonard Dobson The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment)
Private George John Lammie Royal Garrison Artillery
Private Bertie Harvey Royal Welsh Fusiliers
Corporal George Charles Lawrence Royal Flying Corps
Private Alexander John Mackenzie Northumberland Fusiliers
Driver Walter William Sutton Army Service Corps
Private George Robert Tullick Welsh Regiment
Rifleman Samuel Schoolenart King’s Royal Rifle Corps
Private Henry Albert Wilson South Wales Borderers
These names are recently found ones not on the original list.
Private Edmund Cattley Royal Artillery
Private Frederick Taylor Somerset Light Infantry
All are now on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Debt of Honour and are now on the Memorial in Mitcham Road which was dedicated in May.