The Forgotten Servicemen of Cane Hill

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.

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One Response to “The Forgotten Servicemen of Cane Hill”

  1. Peter Thomas

    I had not realised that the cemetery at Cane hill had been cleared until I returned to the Crematorium on Thornton Road for my mother’s cremation. How sad that these servicemmen, shunned by society and many labelled as lacking “Moral Fibre”I suspect, should suffer the final indignity of being exhumed and cremated along with the 6,000 odd other burials at Cane Hill. I know that little was known then about what has become PTSD, but it is so sad that our country sees fit to treat its military personnel in such a cavalier fashion. Thank you CWG for finally acknowledgeing the sacrifice made by these men trapped in their shattered minds for many years

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