Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

Behind the Book


Author photo by Steve Freer

This page is rather like the Extras section on a DVD – the part that offers deleted scenes, and features cast members explaining how the film was made. Here you will find the background to the books, and more about the actual research that I had to do.

When I began to find out about the Tayleur family I used the census returns on Ancestry. I had used these when I was researching my own family tree, and I knew my way around. They were extremely useful, and I found the names of all the servants as well as members of the family.

Every character in “A Long Time Dying” was a real person, except for the servant who met Charles outside the Lavender Hill house and tried to answer his questions. I made him up.



William’s insanity

I had not been working on the family tree for long when I came across a mystery. On the 1861 census form I found Mary Ellen Tayleur living at Hampton House with Galfred, Eveline and new baby William. Her husband was not at home, but I wasn’t surprised by this as I assumed he must be away seeing to business concerns elsewhere. I was puzzled however, by the fact that Mary Ellen was listed as head of the household. This didn’t make sense. William was clearly still alive because she was described as married and not widowed, and I decided that the entry must be a mistake. The census returns often contain errors. But when I checked the 1871 census, Mary Ellen was still the head of the household although she was still married, and there was no sign of William. How could this be explained?


Hampton House today – now a private school.

I searched the census for William, but he was nowhere to be found in 1861. I then searched the 1871 returns, and found him living in Kenton. He was the head of a small household on the main street next to the pub. He was living alone, except for a valet, a housekeeper and a couple of other servants. What on earth was he doing there, away from his family? At first I wondered if he had left Mary Ellen, but that seemed rather a modern idea. Then I read further across the page, or rather the screen, and came to the column at the end in which the census official makes a note if the individual is blind, deaf, dumb or insane. In that column, in black, spidery writing, was the word “lunatic”.  I was very shocked – I had not expected that.

My mind was immediately full of questions. Why had he gone mad? What had happened to him?  What did the word “lunatic” really mean? I was 55 at the time, exactly William’s age when this terrible thing happened to him. I was still working in Hampton House, walking around the rooms he had been living in, touching the same banisters and door handles, looking at the same view out of the windows.

I went to the local record office because I had read that they had a document pertaining to William’s “lunacy”. The lady disappeared into the store rooms to find it, and I checked the admission registers for the County Lunatic Asylum while I was waiting, to make sure William had not been admitted there. When the lady returned, she was wheeling a large trolley. “I do apologise Mrs Freer,” she said, “There isn’t just one document – there is all this…” There were two huge boxes full of papers which had been brought to the record office by the Tayleurs’ solicitors. No-one had opened them since – they were still tied with Victorian tape and very, very dusty.

It took me some time to work through everything. That was where I found the 1859 inventory – all the furniture and paintings I mention in the book were really in the house, including the case of fish and insects that Noel liked so much.

And that is where I found the affidavits from William’s doctors and Mr Kitson, describing his bizarre behaviour during that terrible week in January 1858. He really did visit Mr Kitson to make a new will, and ask whether it was possible to draw up a document in case he lost his mind. The doctor did actually have to fetch Mr Kitson from church to apologise because William claimed he had offended him. I had to imagine the other events of that awful week.

Amongst the papers I did find a clue which could explain why William lost his sanity so suddenly. There was a list of questions that had been put to Mary Ellen about his care, and one asked whether he had ever been treated with mercury. She had answered yes. Did William suffer from syphilis? It is possible as mercury was used to treat this disease, but it was used for other ailments as well. The Victorians knew that patients with syphilis often went insane, but did not connect the mercury treatment with this problem. I believe William went mad as a direct result of mercury poisoning, although I do hint at syphilis in the book so the readers can make up their own minds.
Patients with mental illness were often treated well in the 1850s. John Charles Bucknill really was the superintendent of the Exminster Asylum and his approach, based on respect, treatment, fresh air and occupational therapy, was just as I described. The other leading alienists of the day shared his views. But conditions in the asylums declined during the 1860s and 1870s because of the huge numbers of patients that were being sent on from the workhouses and private homes. The asylums became hopelessly overcrowded and staff resorted to restraints and straightjackets once again.

As I explained in the book, the purpose of the county asylums was to provide care for the poor; families with any wealth were expected to make their own arrangements. But this was no easy matter, and private “madhouses” were difficult to find. These had to be licensed, and in Devon in the 1850s I could only find two places with a licence. One was a workhouse, (so clearly not appropriate for the wealthy Tayleurs) and the other was a private house in Plympton which had received very poor reports from the Lunacy Commission. As I described in the book, Mary Ellen had very few choices for her husband’s care.
If a private establishment could be found, it was by no means certain that this would be run by enlightened staff who adhered to the humane, modern methods employed by Bucknill and his colleagues. Bucknill himself disapproved of mentally ill patients being cared for at home, and insisted that the asylum was the only place where they would receive the correct treatment. He admitted all patients himself, so that he could assess their needs exactly. The asylum at Exminster consequently became overcrowded. It was built for 400 patients, but by the end of the century it was housing 4000.

It would appear that other families leased houses near to the asylum for their relatives and employed Dr Bucknill in a private capacity, just as the Tayleurs decided to do. The census return shows another “lunatic” living a few doors from William in Kenton.

I found these books most useful and totally absorbing:

“Inconvenient People – Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors of Victorian England” by Sarah Wise. Published by The Bodley Head 2012.

“The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine and a Man-Made Epidemic” by Dan Olmstead and Mark Blaxill. Published by Thomas Dunne Books 2010.

“The Most Dreadful Visitation – Male Madness in Victorian Fiction” by Valerie Pedlar. Published by Liverpool University Press 2006.

I also read “Human Traces” by Sebastian Faulks because it depicted the atmosphere inside an asylum so vividly.

Divorce in the Victorian Era.

I have found it hard to understand why Emma Tayleur risked absolutely everything to indulge in an affair with Lord Arthur Lennox in 1849. The effect of divorce on women was brutal and devastating. Women owned nothing at all – not even the bottles and boxes on their dressing tables. No matter how big their dowries were when they married, husbands legally appropriated everything from the moment they walked back up the aisle.

Lennox, of course, risked nothing. I have found no mention of Emma in any biographical article about him, although I did spot a family tree which listed Albert Gresley as his son! (Was Albert his son? I don’t think so. I think Albert must have had a strong family resemblance to William or the Tayleur family would not have taken over his care. I played on the resemblance in the book.)

The story of the affair can be found in the report of the divorce hearing in the House of Lords, which was just like a trial. The News of the World got hold of the story and published it in lurid detail. I have used the facts more or less exactly, except for the account of William coming home from Torquay and being told by the servants on his return about Lennox’s night time visit. What actually happened was that the butler wrote to William as soon as the two servants told him they had found Lennox in their mistress’s bed. William was staying at Oaklands with his parents because his father had been very ill. As soon as he received the letter he set off for London, but must have sent instructions that Emma should leave the house before he arrived. He did not see her or speak to her before the hearing, and perhaps he never saw her again.

I found her on the 1851 census, living in London with her brother and baby Albert. She describes herself as “wife of the proprietor” so perhaps William allowed them to live in one of his properties. Her death certificate shows a different address – the York Place house that I use in the book. Her death certificate is very interesting. Her name appears as Emma Heathcote (her maiden name) and she is described as “wife of ____ Heathcote”. It appears that the scandal and shame were so terrible, even her death certificate must attempt to disguise the truth.

Divorce in the early 1850s was hugely expensive, and it was necessary to obtain an individual Act of Parliament in order to end a marriage. I wondered how much it had cost, and found the answer in “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens. Stephen Blackpool was married to a drunken prostitute and asked his employer, Mr Josiah Bounderby, why rich people could divorce whereas the poor could not. Bounderby explained that divorce could cost from one thousand to fifteen hundred pounds, or perhaps twice that. (So from about £65000 to £195000 in today’s money.)

In 1857 the divorce laws changed. The Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce quicker and cheaper, and available to the middle classes. One of these divorces is described by Kate Summerscale in “Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – the Private Diary of a Victorian Lady”. Published by Bloomsbury 2012.

What happened to baby Albert?

I do not know what contact Albert had with his brothers after he was sent away with his mother when he was only a few days old. He was cared for by his mother’s brother Charles Heathcote when she died. Charles Heathcote was the manager of the Bank Quay foundry in Warrington and so worked closely with Edward Tayleur, the member of the family who was running both foundries after his father retired. Charles Heathcote, like Charles Tayleur, died soon after the disastrous wreck of the ship, and this seems to be the time Albert went to live with his uncle Edward.

Albert certainly suffered throughout his life from the circumstances of his birth. On his marriage certificate he names his brother Charles William Tayleur as his father, so clearly there were still sensitive issues about his parenthood. The family papers emphasise his continuous poor health. He did try to make a career in the merchant navy and did obtain a certificate of competency, but the doctors insisted that the sea voyage had wrecked his health and he must not work again.

In the book he was declared bankrupt, and this was true. Charles really did take on the lease of his Teddington house so that he could remain there. William did leave him £2000 in his first will and the family did increase this to £5000, presumably in an attempt to clear his debts. But poor Albert was the victim of a tragic situation. He died shortly after the man who refused to believe he was his son.