This book has the subtitle “A guide for Family historians” so before reviewing it I have to confess to being a local history researcher who will occasionally wander into genealogical research. With no real specialist expertise I looked at this volume to throw some light on medical records that could be accessed easily. This was not really the book for me as it started a not particularly coherent review of mental health provision by period and it then took until page 147 before the author offered us a chapter on “Sources”.

At that stage, various source types were presented in greater or lesser detail – some with access to specific contact details or the relevant online links. But the extent of contact sources was again variable. Presumably there was an assumption that readers might know of the principle of local and national records offices and archives. But to this reader the level of knowledge already held by the projected readers that the author was recognising and aiming to support was unclear. The key issue when searching medical records is that due to confidentiality under GDPR access is restricted by the “hundred year rule” and the author failed to clearly explain how that operated and records still accessed for some individuals.

Expect before the sources a review of the type and nature of institutions that were used to house the mentally ill or incapacitated. Higgs’ first chapters are presented in broad brush date order. Each included institution type and the legislation under which they all might operate. Differences would be drawn between provision an England, Ireland and Scotland – albeit with varying amounts of detail. Along the way there would be descriptions of terminology or classifications used. There might be references in places to evolving medical understanding or practices. Overall, this meant that although basic information might be the chapters seemed at best a hard read and worst garbled.

Perhaps the key information needed might be in there somewhere but not obviously with the correct level of detail., Because basic principles of funding and therefore access to treatment places was not made clear in advance, rules and exceptions were introduced at seemingly odd places in the text. In the absence of specialist facilities – or insufficient places (recognised) vulnerable people would be housed and treated elsewhere. There was no clear explanation of what workhouses and poor houses were and where their records might (or not) be available either causing further confusion, Overall, I suspect that it would have been hard to follow the various period chapters without a strong previous understanding of overall welfare provision and where it might be located.

Throughout the text – which might already include case or institution examples there are a large number of “Case histories” of individual patients that have been derived from medical or other records. It should be said that it was not always obvious why these samples were selected or located in the specific chapters. So their interest would lie more in them as historic information rather than for the application they had to the book’s intention. The book was interspersed with a number of photos and images of various institutions – these might be of interest if they were family applicable to a reader.

Overall, I felt that the author had not clearly identified who her target readers might be some genealogists have a very impressive understanding of record sources. Her resume of the background to institutional provision was not as assured as it might have been and her selected samples of cases and places – albeit with an attempt to give wider national coverage – seemed inconsistent. But the impression left was that as she had written the broad format of this book she had forgotten it should lead to the requirement to understand the relevant records and where to access them. So I would describe this book as disappointing – recognising that with much of the information included presented in a more systematic way the book might be of real use to genealogists learning their way.

Hilary White 3/3

Tracing Your Ancestors in Lunatic Asylums by Michelle Higgs
Pen & Sword Family History 9781526744852 pbk Oct 2019