A few weeks ago, some colleagues and I went down to London (from our institutions in Glasgow) to start the archive groundwork for our first chapters. Among other things, I’m looking at the provision of care for people with epilepsy from about 1900-1939, which during this period meant the building of ‘colonies’. These were separate residential institutions which focused on moral therapy over pharmaceuticals–effectively, working outdoors on farms rather than being dosed on bromides and left to rot in asylums and workhouses. London Metropolitan Archives, in Islington, is the repository for all things local and administrative in the City of London. I was going there to view the records of the National Society for Epileptics, a Society founded in part by neurologist, medical pioneer and messy note-keeper John Hughlings Jackson. Jackson was a huge figure in research on epilepsy; it therefore followed that his society, with its links to the Charlfont Colony (now a major research centre) would be a good place to start.

I quickly discovered that they were linked to the ubiquitous Charity Organisation Society who were on the administrative board of just about anything they could get their hands on..The Colony was hit by a major scandal in 1919: a colonist was found dead. John Bull, the magazine famous for being sued by David Lloyd George for libel, published an article which accused an attendant of bodily throwing a colonist out of bed, thus causing the colonist to have a fit and die as a result of cardiac arrest. The Coroner ruled the death as being non-suspicious, but John Bull argued that it was the Coroner who was suspicious as the inquiry was conduced without a jury and on the evidence of a medical officer who was three miles away having his breakfast at the time of death.  Then, John Bull argued, there was more. As well as throwing Colonists from their beds, John Bull accused the attendants of starving the Colonists and working them to the ground, while the attendants themselves feasted on butter. John Bull called for an inquest into the death, and broader investigation into the Colony. The Board wasn’t impressed, and conducted an internal investigation–not into the death per se, but into which of the Colonists had spoken to the press. They noted that the Colonist making the accusation of food shortages was on reprimand by the attendant in question.

A second article was published, following the first. The magazine reported that the relatives of the deceased had visiting the Colony was were told that the death was of natural causes, but no more. The Director of the Colony had informed the relatives that nothing was to be done and quickly shook them off before returning to duty. John Bull  therefore saw this as a sign of guilt on the Colony’s part and once more called for an inquest. However, the attendant accused had by then gone missing, absconded from the Colony following charges of petty larceny. John Bull once again accused the Colony of administering a cover-up, further revealing that the attendant was wanted by the Buckinghamshire courts for carrying on illicit relations with one of the male Colonists. It gets worse (or better, if you write for John Bull): having appeared at court, the attendant had all charges dropped against him due to the no-show of the accuser. The ex-Colonist was found in a workhouse in Brighton, under the care of the Guardians, and could have been sent for at any time. Rather than postpone the hearing, the Judge ruled a verdict of Not Guilty. The magazine therefore hinted that by returning such a verdict to the runaway attendant, the Judge was in the same league as the Coroner: he’d been bribed by the Board to keep the Colony’s reputation afloat.


Perhaps John Bull Magazine really had it in for the COS?