Freda and Charlotte Mew

Andrew Roberts

A Newhaven Journeyman and

Survivors History Group

life stories project


Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was known to American readers as the English recluse poet. In this article, I suggest reasons that may have induced Charlotte and her family to avoid publicity. Recently discovered case notes (HO4/E2) of Charlotte's sister, Freda (1879-1958), a patient in the Isle of Wight Lunatic Asylum, are used to reconstruct Freda's story. This is related to Charlotte's sympathetic writings about the humanity of lunatics and idiots, exploring the similarities of character in fact and fiction.

My account begins in America where Charlotte Mew's image as a recluse poet was well known and led to research to discover the life she had kept so secret. Back in the United Kingdom, a memoir published in 1953 made the first penetration of the family secrecy as it revealed the effect that "eugenics" thinking had on the lives of Charlotte and her other sister, Anne (1873-1927). Guided by this insight, I use Charlotte's fictional writings to explore the significance she attached to her secret family. I then use Freda's case notes to see what can be reconstructed from them of Freda's personality inside the asylum, before concluding by using Charlotte's poetry to suggest what Freda might have been like outside the asylum.

In the first part of the twentieth century, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and his school were demonstrating the relationship between individual consciousness and the "collective conscience" (Durkheim 1893, pp 79-80). The relationship between personal identity and general history was an issue on which Charlotte herself wrote essays (e.g. Mew, 1913). Here I am specifically concerned with Charlotte's perception of who she and her family are in relation to one of the dominant collective fears of the time: the fear of racial degeneracy.

Eugenics, or healthy breeding, is used here as a shorthand term for a profound and complex culture seen as scientific during much of Charlotte's life. Freda and Charlotte's story reveals both the cultural fear in which the lives of mental patients were wrapped during the ascendancy of scientific eugenics, and Charlotte's courage in writing about the humanity of insanity. Freda's case notes and Charlotte's poems provide us with alternative visions or narratives.

In looking at the progress of Freda's case as recorded in her case notes, I would suggest that it is shaped by a medical paradigm (Kuhn, T.S. 1962 p.10) congruent with the scientific culture relating to hereditary degeneracy. In terms of some recent methodological theory (Lewis, B. 2010 and 2011), we can view this as one narrative (story) coexisting with others. The analysis of Charlotte's poetry is my attempt to reconstruct another story, one concerned, in Peter Barham and Robert Hayward's terms, with the "person" rather than the "patient" (Barham, P. and Hayward, R. 1991). Adapting the concepts used by Erving Goffman to describe the moral career of a mental patient (Goffman 1961), we could speak of a person stage that can be inferred from the poetry and a pre-patient and inpatient stage inferred from the case notes and the poetry read as commentary. I suggest, however, that in the patient stage the person waits to reborn.

The picture above, taken in November 1884, shows Freda Mew (aged 5 and half). Charlotte Mew (aged 15) and Caroline Frances Anne Mew (Anne) (aged eleven). Davidow, M. 1978 page 442 "courtesy Peter, John and Richard Mew".


I am the editor of an online index of lunatic asylums and mental hospitals (Asylums Index 2001). My interest in Charlotte Mew began on Sunday 12.12.2004 when I received an email from Betty Falkenberg (1929-2010) in Massachusetts, USA. She had a commission to write a biography of Charlotte and wanted advice about researching the asylum confinement of two of her siblings: Freda, and their elder brother Henry Herne Mew (1865-1901). I had not heard of Charlotte Mew, but my mind was trapped as soon as I read some of her poems.

Betty and I worked together on an online biography of Charlotte and her family (Roberts and Falkenberg 2005 -) and planned to meet in London in September 2005. Betty's health prevented that and she died after a long infirmity in July 2010.

This personal dialogue between the USA and the United Kingdom is typical of the whole process by which Charlotte Mew's biography has been re-constructed. Charlotte never went to America but the role of Americans in her reception was explored by Betty in PN Review (2005) under the title "Charlotte Mew in America"

The first substantial research into the life of Charlotte Mew was conducted by Mary Davidow (1917-1987) of Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, who completed her Ph.D thesis on Charlotte in 1960.

From 1922, Charlotte Mew's poetry was much better known in the United States than in Britain because it was featured in anthologies compiled by Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977) that were widely used in United States schools and colleges. It was one of these that inspired Mary Davidow (Davidow , M.C. 1960 p.v).

The war poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was introduced to Charlotte in 1919. Whilst promoting his own work in America in 1920, Sassoon read aloud to Untermeyer a poetic monologue by Charlotte of a material, sensuous, woman towards God (Mew, C. 1916d and Falkenberg, B. 2005). This, Charlotte's longest poem, provoked a devout printer in 1916 to refuse to set her first book of poetry into type. Another had to be found (Monro, A. 1953 p. xvi). Sensuality and religion were not the only subjects on which Charlotte was prepared to be controversial. She commented to her publisher

" I think your printer must be the spiritual brother of the Editors who refused Ken because they 'believed in the segregation of the feeble-minded'." (CM/HO 9.2.1916)

In 1921, an American edition of Charlotte's poetry was published. This was reviewed by Untermeyer in The New York Evening Post on 23.7.1921.

Untermeyer determined to publish a selection of Charlotte's shorter poems in his anthologies. These, however, were noted for their biographical introductions to the lives of the poets and in September 1921 Charlotte firmly refused to supply any biographical information. Untermeyer found his way round the problem in his 1925 anthology by introducing Charlotte Mew with an essay in tribute describing her as an exceedingly reticent and hermit-like poet. (Falkenberg 2005 p.36).

Untermeyer's anthologies after Charlotte's death said

"Little is generally known of her life except that it was a long struggle not only with poverty but with adversity and private sorrows that finally overcame her... Though she loved the country, she was forced to live almost continually in London, in the very heart of Bloomsbury, becoming more and more of a recluse." (Untermeyer, L. 1936, p. 224)


Charlotte Mew's suicide on 24.3.1928 was followed in 1929 by the republication of her poems and the publication of a new book of poems by the Poetry Bookshop in London. Little, however, was revealed about who she was in the few published obituaries. Alida Monro (previously Klementaski. 1892-1969), of the Poetry Bookshop, wrote in her introductory note to the new book of poems

"Charlotte Mew's dislike of publicity was extreme and her defiant reserve, in later years, placed every obstacle in the way of those who desired to secure her friendship" (Monro, A. 1929 p.8)

Alida planned to write a memoir of Charlotte and carefully preserved whatever manuscripts she could. Family misfortunes and a world war ensured that the memoir did not appear until 1953, as an introduction to Charlotte Mew's Collected Poems (Mew, C. 1953, pp vii-xx).

Alida's memories began to explain why the Mew family were so reclusive. When Alida met her (1915), Charlotte lived with her mother and sister Anne at 9 Gordon Street, Gordon Square (destroyed by bombs in 1940-1941). It was "tall and narrow, dark and gaunt inside". The Mews tried to keep from visitors the knowledge that the upper part of the house was let to lodgers. Charlotte's mother was "sent to bed" on the evenings when Alida visited. She was "a tiny woman, scarcely more than four feet, very shrivelled and with tiny claw-like hands". Anne Mew was Charlotte's "inseparable companion". (Monro, A. 1953 pp iiix-ix)

Alida tells us that "Ma" had two other children, a boy and a girl, but

"I never met the youngest sister or the brother, and only after Charlotte's death did I hear from an intimate friend that they had gone out of their minds many years before and were both in asylums. The friend who spoke of them, told me that the third sister, Freda, was as remarkable as the other two and was 'like a flame'. Their sad condition was a constant torment to Charlotte" (Monro, A. 1953 p. ix)

The intimate friend may have been Charlotte's Quaker school-friend Ethel Oliver (1868- 19??), who was one of the executers of Charlotte's will. Charlotte wrote to her as "my dear" and when she concludes a letter "Love to thee who understands...", thou will not need to be a Quaker to feel the sensitive touch of "thee". This letter was in April 1902, twelve or more years after her brother Henry entered an asylum, and just twelve months after his death, nine years after the death of the nurse who had mothered the Mew children, three years after the death of their father, and at a time when Freda, "perfectly stuporous", dribbling and soiling herself, was being given treatment only used when "the ordinary routine treatment of insanity" had failed. Grief had numbed Charlotte but, in Paris, her emotions had been touched by the "lilies-of-the-valley, pinks, and lilacs" on sale everywhere. "Up to now" she wrote "I have had no sensations worth recounting. Perhaps I have worn them out..." (CM/EO 18.4.1902) Ethel was a friend with whom Charlotte could confide and one suspects Ethel took much of what she knew of Charlotte to her grave.

But although Charlotte kept a large part of her family secret from Alida, she did not keep quiet about having insanity in the family and the fear that Anne and she had of it. Alida says

"She and her sister had both made up their minds early in life, she told me, that they would never marry for fear of passing on the mental taint that was in their heredity" (Monro, A. 1953, p.xiii)

And this despite, or because, of Charlotte's great love of children. Her "Madeleine in church" (1916d) says that "if there were fifty heavens God could not give us back the child who went or never came"

The first part of Charlotte and Anne's life was shaped by the family's objective of perpetuating itself. Henry, Charlotte, Anne and Freda carried forward the names of relatives that would otherwise have been lost, and, with the names, endowments. I would suggest that their twentieth century lives were shaped by their decision to extinguish the family line, to exterminate its taint.

Taint is, at one and the same time, a physical and moral term. A stain, a blemish; a spot or trace of some bad or undesirable quality are all taints. Having murdered her mother on 23.9.1796, Mary Lamb (1764-1847) came to terms with herself and believed she was "absolved in heaven from all taint of the deed in which she had been the agent" (Talford, T. N. 1848 quoted Procter, B.W. 1866). That was the moral cleaning. Physical ablution was not so easy. "There was an hereditary taint of insanity in the family" and on the day she killed her mother, Mary's "dreadful disorder ... broke out afresh in a sudden burst of acute madness". (Procter, B.W. 1866)

During Charlotte Mew's lifetime, these cultural fears became a central feature of much scientific thought. The French psychiatrists Moreau de Tours (1804-1884) and Benedict Augustin Morel (1809-1873) argued that the hereditary transmission of insanity demonstrated that the human race is in danger of deteriorating morally and physically. In 1860, Morel coined the term démence precoce (early dementia) for what psychiatrists now call schizophrenia. Morel did not restrict the causes of degeneration to hereditary, but argued that when physical and moral causes combined it was particularly dangerous. His law of progressivity suggested that the

"first generation of a degenerate family might be merely nervous, the second would tend to be neurotic, the third psychotic, while the fourth consisted of idiots and died out" (Ackernecht, E. H. 1959 p.54)

As degenerative diseases and families increased "modern society was inevitably approaching extinction". Careful scientific observation might help avoid this calamity as "stigmata" (signs) of degeneration developed in the bodies of degenerates. (Ackernecht, E. H. 1959 p.54)

In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, arguing that evolution was possible because there was a selection of naturally occurring variations through the survival of those best adapted to their circumstances. As Darwin's theories became established, so did a range of applications to human society. A Sunday School primer in 1901 wrote

"We often hear it said that the care we bestow on the hopelessly sick, the insane, and the feeble-minded is in opposition to what Darwin taught about the Survival of the Fittest, and that it does harm". (Martineau, C.A. 1901, pp 119-120)

But the social conclusion was not that a compassionate society should not care for "the hopelessly sick, the insane, and the feeble-minded", but that they should not perpetuate their taint. In October 1901, Darwin's cousin Francis Galton (1822-1911) lectured on "The possible improvement of the human breed under the existing conditions of law and sentiment", a project he called "race improvement", to be achieved by "eugenics" (healthy breeding). (Galton, F. 1901, Searle, G.R. 1976, p.9) The emphasis was on preventing the degenerate from breeding. An article in Morning Post of 16.10.1909 said this:

"Since experience has shown that a defective person marrying runs the risk of perpetuating a race of defectives, a moral obligation to abstain clearly lies upon the individual, and moral obligations can be enforced by others if the individual is incapable of appreciating them. As Dr. Inge has pointed out in this connection, the laws of heredity are Divine laws..." (Oxford 1909)

The secret family

The photograph of Charlotte Mew (aged 26) on the left was taken in August 1896 at what Mary Davidow describes as "the beginning of her career as a writer" (Davidow, M. 1978 page 443).

Charlotte's earliest published work (July 1894) was a story in volume two of The Yellow Book. The story features a succession of walks through the tight and deprived streets of Clerkenwell, east of the Mew's family homes in respectable Bloomsbury. The unnamed places in the story are easily recognised as one walks the same streets today. It includes this description of an event in the (then new) Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer in Exmouth Street:

"Two girls holding each other's hands came in and stood in deep shadow behind the farthest rows of high-backed chairs by the door. The younger rolled her head from side to side; her shifting eyes and ceaseless imbecile grimaces chilled my blood. The other, who stood praying, turned suddenly (the place but for the flaring alter lights was dark) and kissed the dreadful creature by her side. I shuddered, and yet her face wore no look of loathing nor pity. The expression was a divine one of habitual love. She wiped the idiot's lips and stroked the shaking hands in hers, to quiet the sad hysterical caresses she would not check. It was a page of gospel which the old man with his back to it might never read. A sublime and ghastly scene." (Mew, C. 1894, pp 75-76 in Mew, C. 1981)

Charlotte describes the younger sister in the same repulsive way that can be found in text books and reports right through to the middle of the twentieth century. For example, the 1946 Report of the Care of Children Committee complained about the "motley collection" of people it found in workhouses. In one room, with children of workhouse inmates, there was

"a Mongol idiot, aged four, of gross appearance, for whom there was apparently no accommodation elsewhere. A family of five normal children, aged about six to fifteen... were sleeping in the same room as a three year old hydrocephalic idiot, of very unsightly type, whose bed was screened of in the corner... We found a number of institutions in which normal children were sleeping with low grade mentally defective children..." (Cmnd 6922 paragraphs 140 and 142).

It is a feature of Charlotte Mew's writing that she describes mental defect with the full hideousness of contemporary science and culture. We receive the same offending shock when she describes asylum patients as the "incarnate wages of man's sin" (Mew, C. 1916c. See below). In much of her writing, Charlotte confronts us with double or multiple visions. Here the images of popular culture, science and practised religion are confronted with another reality. Charlotte declares that the love between the two sisters is "divine". It is a "gospel" (good news) that the priest at the alter may not perceive, but it is there for us to see in this "sublime and ghastly scene". To see the girls, she has "looked away from the mumbling priest" whose "attention... was distracting mine" (Mew, C. 1894, p.75 in Mew, C. 1981). Life is not a single vision. There are secrets within it, and one of those secrets was Charlotte's secret family.

The writer of Passed had been told to seek The Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer because of its architecture (p.65). It is in the Italian style favoured by Charlotte Mew's family of architects. Frederick Mew (1832-1898), a younger son of an Isle of Wight hotelier-farmer, married the daughter of Henry Edward Kendall (1805-1885) who built the Sussex County Lunatic Asylum at Haywards Heath in this style between 1856 and 1859. Even better known is King's Cross Station in London, built by her great uncle Lewis Cubbit (1799-1883). Frederick Mew designed the Hampstead Vestry Hall in a rather ornate red-brick version of this style in 1878.

The Mew children grew up in a spacious Georgian house at 30 Doughty Street. Still, today, you can peer into Mecklenburgh Square where

"An Isle of Wight cousin recalls that on one of her visits to London she played in the Square with Freda where they spent a delightful and, for the over-disciplined and repressed Freda, an intoxicatingly joyous afternoon. When they returned to the house, looking as happy children ought to look -- hot and sweaty and dirty - Nurse spanked them for getting into such a state." (Davidow, M.C. 1960 p.29)

"Nurse" was Elizabeth Goodman (about 1825 - 1893). She, not their biological mother, went with the children in the summers to New Fairlee Farm, up the track from Barton village, Newport, Isle of Wight, where their uncle Richard Mew (about 1826 - 1903) farmed, with his wife Fanny (about 1833 - 1891) and their children.

The relation between Frederick Mew's children and the New Fairlee Farm family was close. They were the source of much of Mary Davidow's knowledge, and on Freda's death certificate her father's name is remembered as "Richard" not "Frederick".

The picture of brother Henry Herne Mew on the left was taken in 1880, when he was fifteen years old. Before Charlotte was twenty and Freda 10, Henry appears to have been removed to an asylum. When he died of tuberculosis (aged 35) in Peckham House Lunatic Asylum on 22.3.1901 he was recorded on his death certificate as of "no calling" and of "30 Doughty St". The Mew family moved from Doughty Street to Gordon Street in February 1890, so the entry suggests that Henry entered the Peckham Asylum before then.

Visiting Henry may have provided Charlotte with vivid images of a range of conditions, including imbecility, that she drew on in writing Passed (above). Freda's case notes in 1899 speak of a "family history of insanity". It is probably right to assume that Henry suffered from a psychosis (not imbecility) and was maintained privately in one of the higher class wards at Peckham (See Penelope Fitzgerald's speculations 1988 pp 37-38). But Peckham had different departments and is listed as an "Imbecile Asylum" in which the Westminster Poor Law Union maintained patients between 1885 and 1902. (WEBG/WM/52/1). We should also bear in mind that in the medical paradigm of the time, insanity was expected to degenerate into a form of imbecility, a point we will return to in respect to Freda.

Frederick Mew, aged 65, died after a long and painful illness (probably stomach cancer) on 12.9.1898, when Henry was 33 years old. Charlotte (aged 28) witnessed and reported his death. She and Anne (24/25) remained in London with their mother. Freda (aged 19) was living at New Fairlee Farm. In November 1898, Freda became insane and was sent to a local nursing home called The Limes. From there she was certified and admitted to the private wing of the Isle of Wight County Asylum on Saturday 4.2.1899.

Henry died (aged 35) in the Peckham asylum on 22.3.1901. He had caught tuberculosis, a common asylum disease. Mrs Mew was looked after by Anne and Charlotte until she died, possibly of bowel cancer, on 12.5.1923. After this Charlotte and Anne continued to live together as companions. On 18.6.1927, Anne also died of cancer. Distraught, and deluded that cancer germs were attacking her from the air, Charlotte, swallowed disinfectant in a mental nursing home on 24.3.1928. She was buried with Anne. Anne and Charlotte were 53 and 58, respectively, when they died. Freda lived in the Isle of Wight asylum until she died, aged 78, on 1.3.1958.

Freda Mew from her case notes, previous to admission

The "Case Book" from which Freda's notes were copied was required by the Commissioners in Lunacy, who visited the asylum every year and inspected it. If we include its history of Freda's illness before admission, it covers the eleven years from 1898 to 1909. Initial details had to be entered within seven days of admission. For the first month, entries had to be made at least once a month. Thereafter, they were to be made "in recent or curable cases, once at least in every month, and in chronic cases, subject to little variation, once in every three months" (HO4/E2 Insert). Freda became a chronic case after only four months in the asylum.

From the provisions of the 1890 Lunacy Act (section 4) and Freda's case notes, it is reasonable to infer that her uncle, Richard Mew, signed a petition for her admission and that he had her mother's consent. He would have seen Freda in the fortnight preceding signing and would engage to visit Freda (or appoint someone else to visit her) at least once every six months.

The Case Book records "the course and progress of the case" in a way completely detached from Freda's social circumstances. It does not mention that her father had died just months before her admission to The Limes, or the death of her brother in 1901, or the death of Richard Mew in 1903. There is no mention of visitors and, in fact, no references to external events at all. It is as if her "case" is something that evolves and develops within her, probably as a result of hereditary pre-disposition.

The "supposed cause" of Freda's insanity was "probably hereditary", there being a family history of insanity in her brother [Henry] and "sister". Sister has to refer to Charlotte or Anne, and I infer that it is to Charlotte. Anne was an artist whose mental stability does not appear to have been ever questioned. Charlotte, on the other hand, described herself to Ethel Oliver as having a "queer uncertain mind" (CM/EO 18.4.1902 ). The following extract from a letter from Arthur Tansley (1871-1955) to Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962) compares the mental stability of the Mew sisters they knew. He writes:

"Anne, as you say, was the most stable (and, my wife says, the most human) of the family. It was Freda's tragedy, confirming the fear of insanity in herself that probably determined Charlotte's end. Charlotte herself was never insane (as I am sure you will agree) though she had the mental instability that goes with certain types of genius. Her fear began with her brother's death - he had the same trouble as Freda. As you suggested, Charlotte's end may have been 'for the best', as they say, for she was profoundly unhappy for several years." (AT/SC 27.6.1944)

Reading this it is not difficult to recognise that Charlotte would have identified with Freda and that the narratives related in her poetry and in Freda's case notes are of relevance to both.

The case notes do not say what constituted Freda becoming insane. It happened three months before her admission to the asylum, and so about two months after the death of her father (although this is not mentioned). I assume that her distress became unmanageable at New Fairlee Farm and that she was moved to "The Limes, Newport", which was possibly a house run by a Mrs Weeks at 85 Castle Road, Newport. Details of Freda's "Previous History" were given by "Nurse Sutton, Newport"

In late January 1899 Freda's distress became unmanageable at The Limes. She jumped out of a window in order to "end all". She said "she would commit suicide sooner or later". Arrangements were made for an orderly admission to the private wing of the nearby county asylum. These wings, established under section 255 of the 1890 Lunacy Act, provided fee-paying accommodation in public asylums for those who could afford to pay.

Interviewed by two local doctors, Freda "held her face down and could not be got to look up, playing with her fingers and behaving generally in an abnormal manner". They found it impossible to get her to answer questions except for an occasional yes or no. Patrick Taffe Finn, the assistant superintendent of the asylum, diagnosed her form of mental disorder as acute mania.

Freda's expression was "downcast; rather scowling". She "at times struggles to get through windows" and she "usually has her head down". Her conversation "is limited. When addressed she barely answers, sometimes not at all. She has delusions of persecution at the hands of some Miss" [space]. "At times very stubborn".


Freda Mew from her case notes, after admission

Following the initial observations, the record of Freda's progress, or rather the progress of her "case", continues as follows

February 1899 For the greater part of her days, in her first weeks on the ward, Freda sat with an open book or newspaper, "without apparently reading", "hiding her face". She never spoke on her own initiative, and "barely answers when spoken to". From what she did say, the doctor concluded she had "delusions of persecution".

By March 1899 Freda was not speaking at all and she continued silently withdrawn for the next eleven years. She took not the "least notice of other people" - Sometimes, however, she would suddenly act decisively. At night she could be "very troublesome", jumping out of bed and rushing for the windows. Sometimes, in the day, she "seizes article of clothing the nurses have on and struggles to get them saying they are hers", but she still "will not answer when spoken to". She was occasionally very excitable for periods of hours "during which she will scratch and bite". Still looking for "signs of improvement" in May, they found "very little". She was becoming "very thin".

Case notes at first weekly, then monthly, became quarterly in the summer of 1899. As we have seen, this means that (after four months), Freda was regarded as a chronic case. The best that could be said for the next year is that Freda put on weight.. In May 1900 the case note say

"For the last three months" [Freda] "has scarcely spoken a word" and "takes not the slightest notice of anything said to her".

As 1901 moves into 1902, Freda sits listlessly and dribbles, "perfectly stuporous". She has "dirty habits", wetting and soiling herself. At this stage the doctors decided to try a relatively new treatment advocated for "patients who had not benefited by the ordinary routine treatment of insanity". Feeding thyroid, as a tablet, started a fever and, in some cases, relieved the mental illness (Bruce, L.C. 1895). Freda's case notes show no improvement.

For four years [1902-1906] the case notes seem to tell the same story. Freda always sits in the same place, never speaks and never moves unless told to, except when she kicks other patients or staff. A young woman in her early twenties, she is described as "utterly demented".

In 1906, the notes change. At first Freda sits "doubled up" in the chair but, from 1907, she spends all day in bed. She resists any kind of examination, but her body appears to be wasting away. No organic disease can be found, but it is difficult to tell because Freda kicks and bites anyone who comes near. By October 1907 she is "extremely emaciated", even though she "eats ravenously like an animal". Throughout 1908 she "lies curled up and will not say a word or take any notice when addressed. In feeble health". Only two entries are made, this one in January and another in October that says she is "exactly the same".

In 1909, like a sleep-dazed fawn entering a woodland clearing, another Freda emerges. For years she had notes like the one in May "Lies in bed and never speaks - is spiteful and bites strikes, at [times?]. Feeble health." In August, she still refuses to speak and "is spiteful at times", but she has changed position. She "sits in [the] airing court with a fixed stare". By November she "has a funny way of getting up suddenly and dancing across room or airing court - has been up daily and is all the better for it." And on that, hopeful note, the case notes end.

It is, of course, complete coincidence that, at about this time, life began to look up for Charlotte and Anne as well. A few days before the last case note was written, Charlotte had a poem published with the verse

Yet you would wake and want, you said, The little whirr of wings, the clear Gay notes, the wind... (Mew, C. 13.11.1909)

What Freda might have been from Charlotte's poetry

Had you walked through the private ward in 1902 you would have recognised Freda as the dribbling idiot sitting listlessly in her favourite corner. In the medical language of the day, she was suffering from dementia - the state of stupidity that one is not born with (which is amentia) but which follows as a natural consequence of mania, or agitated madness. Following the French démence precoce, already discussed, German doctors called the whole process, from agitation to stupidity, dementia praecox (early dementia) (Kraepelin, E. 1883).

In one of Charlotte's poems, she meets the patients from the asylum "On the Asylum Road" (Mew, C. 1916c). The patients, are the "incarnate wages of man's sin" - A reference to the recent discovery that syphilis was the cause of General Paralysis of the Insane (LCC 1913), a disease that destroyed many in early 20th century asylums. In "Ken" (Mew, C. 1916b) she follows Ken on his life's journey to the asylum. In this, the most controversial of the asylum poems, she suggests that the asylum itself destroyed the person. This was the poem that editors refused to publish.

Both poems put mad people in another world to the sane - But the world of mental illness is one of different perceptions, not an entirely negative world.

It is also a world, that Charlotte has been to, and in which she wrote some of her poetry. A verse she wrote "In Nunhead Cemetery", after Henry's death, was, she said "a lapse from the sanity and self-control of what precedes it. The mind and senses can stand no more" (Mew, C. 1916a). Charlotte says that the people from the asylum are the "saddest crowd that you will ever pass" (Mew, C. 1916c). She is not romanticising mental illness, but she is listening to the voices, within and without.

In reading Freda's case notes, one is aware that Freda and the staff live in mentally different worlds. Charlotte describes this mutual lack of perception as windows of clouded glass (Mew, C. 1916c). It appears that the mad cannot see into the sane, or the sane inhabit the world of the mad. Even though we crack jokes with one another on the asylum road, we are divided from one another by the same dark glass that is used in the asylum.

"Sometimes, in his evil fits, you could not move him from his chair - You did not look at him as he sat there, biting his rosary to bits." (Mew, C. 1916b)

This description of Ken is so like Freda, and when Charlotte says "you did not look at him" it is an accusation. You did not look at what Ken was doing, you did not try to understand why he was biting his rosary to bits. Perhaps people did not try to understand why Freda was trying to get through the asylum windows.

Ken's evil fits are an intense sensitivity to meaning: "You did not look at him as he sat there, biting his rosary to bits, while pointing to the Christ" [on a crucifix] "he tried to say 'take it away'. Nothing was dead: he said "a bird" if he picked up a broken wing".

Ken's horror of death and of death images is matched by an affirmation of life and its images. Like Freda, "he scarcely spoke". He walked weirdly "groping, with knarred, high-lifted feet and arms thrust out as if to beat always against a threat of bars", and his neighbours regretted sitting next to him in church "he fidgets so, with his poor wits". But as he walked along the street, more often than not, a child just higher than his knee trotted beside him. Everyday he went to see the deer, and when he went to church it was to see the lights. Through "his dim long twilight", Charlotte writes, "this, at least, shone clear". The children and the deer "belonged to him".

But Ken got on people's nerves and "when they took Ken to that place, I did not look after he called and turned on me". The winter passed with Ken in the asylum, and as the spring woke, Charlotte wonders, in "that red brick barn upon the hill - can one own the deer, and does one walk with children still as one did here - and if some night when you have not seen any light they cannot move you from your chair, what happens there?".

The sensitivity to meaning that Charlotte describes in Ken is something she often writes about in herself. It is a sensitivity I experienced in my companions when I first became a patient in a mental hospital. We should not romanticise something that can lead people to kill themselves, but neither should we refuse to listen to it. Reading Freda's notes, I wonder if someone came along who listened to her, and maybe that was a part of her rebirth in the airing court. There is a note of sympathy in her last case note that is absent from all that precedes.

Acknowledgments A short version of this article was published in Time Together, the house magazine of "Together for Mental Well Being", Winter 2009, pp 20-21. The help of Richard Smout, County Archivist, Isle of Wight, Sue Oatley, Assistant Archivist and Tony Martin, Information Governance Manager, Isle of Wight NHS is gratefully acknowledged with respect to finding and gaining access to Freda's records (HO4/E2). Sadie Gower was a meticulous and perceptive critic of the earlier version and without the inspiration of Betty Falkenberg, Charlotte and Freda Mew nothing would have been written. David Kessel gave me medical advice about long dead people. I hope the many others who have helped my research will accept anonymous thanks.

Bibliography and notes

1890 Lunacy Act: 53 Victoria c. 5 1890 Lunacy Act "An Act to consolidate certain of the Enactments respecting Lunatics". Royal Assent 29.3.1890. London . HMSO 172 pages. This was the main Act governing asylums in England and Wales from 1890 to 1959.

Ackernecht, E. H. 1959 (2nd edition revised 1968) A Short History of Psychiatry Translated by Dr Sula Wolff. Hafner, New York. First published in German in 1957

Asylums Index 2001- Index of Lunatic Asylums and Mental Hospitals

AT/SC 27.6.1944 Letter from Arthur Tansley to Sydney C. Cockerell concerning the sanity of the Mew sisters. Original in The Poetry Collection, University of Buffalo, New York. Extract from Digital collection of Betty Falkenberg

Barham, P. and Hayward, R. 1991 From the Mental Patient to the Person London: Routledge

Bruce, L.C. 1895 "Observations on the effect of thyroid feeding in some forms of insanity. By Lewis C. Bruce, M.D. Paper read on Thursday 8.11.1894 at a meeting of the Scottish Division of the Medico-Psychological Association in Edinburgh. Journal of Mental Science January 1895 41: pp 50-71 and discussion pp 169-172 . The quotation is from page 172.

CM/EO 18.4.1902 Letter from Charlotte Mew to Ethel Oliver, postmarked 18.4.1902 from 26 rue de Turin. Original in The Poetry Collection, University of Buffalo, New York. Typed copy Davidow, M.C. 1960 pp 282-285

CM/HO 9.2.1916 Letter from Charlotte Mew to Harold Monro, dated 9.2.1916 from 9 Gordon Street. Original in The Poetry Collection, University of Buffalo, New York. Typed copy Davidow, M.C. 1960 pp 315-316

Cmnd 6922: Report of the Care of Children Committee Presented to Parliament September 1946. London. HMSO

Davidow, M.C. 1960 Charlotte Mew: Biography and Criticism. Dissertation: Brown University 1960

Davidow, M.C. 1978 "Charlotte Mew and the Shadow of Thomas Hardy" Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 81 (1978): pages 437-447

Durkheim 1893 The Division of Labour in Society. English translation by George Simpson 1933.

Falkenberg, B. November 2005 "Charlotte Mew in America" PN Review 166: November - December 2005 pages 36-39. [I used a manuscript, provided by Betty, which includes references]

Fitzgerald, P. 1988 Charlotte Mew and Her Friends. New York: Addison Wesley

Galton, F. 1901 "The possible improvement of the human breed under the existing conditions of law and sentiment" Nature Available at

Goffman E. 1961 "The moral career of the mental patient" in Asylums. Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961.

HO4/E2 Case book (female - indexed) of admissions between 1898 - 1902. Whitecroft County Hospital, Newport [Which was the Isle of Wight (County) Lunatic Asylum (Later Mental Hospital) Sandy Lane Newport from 1896 to 1950. Isle of Wight Record Office. HO4/E2 Insert. A loose sheet inside this volume which may be contemporary. It is headed "Case Book (By order of the Commissioners in Lunacy)"

Hunter, R.A. and Macalpine, I. 1974 Psychiatry for the Poor. 1851 Colney Hatch Asylum-Friern Hospital 1973. A medical and social history. Dawsons of Pall Mall

Kuhn, T.S. 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago.

Kraepelin, E. 1883 Kompendium der Psychiatrie (later editions: Psychiatrie: Ein Lehrbuch für Studierende und Ärzte - Psychiatry: A Textbook for Students and Doctors). Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926) established the orthodox classification of psychiatric diseases based on clusters of symptoms (syndromes) with alleged underlying physical causes. His major groups were dementia praecox and manic-depressive psychosis.

LCC 1913 Annual Report of the Asylums Committee of London County Council 1913 reporting that of 40 Colney Hatch (later Friern) patients diagnosed as suffering from General Paralysis of the Insane, 38 gave a positive reaction to the Wasserman test for syphilis. Quoted Hunter and Macalpine p. 211. Frederick Walker Mott (1853-1926) put forward the thesis in 1902: "no syphilis, no general paralysis" (Lancet, 23.8.1902, p. 525).

Lewis, B. 2010 PowerPoint: "Narrative Psychiatry: How Stories Shape Clinical Encounters" by Bradley Lewis, New York University Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

Lewis, B. 2011 Narrative Psychiatry: How stories can shape clinical practice Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Martineau, C.A. 1901, Voices of Nature: And Lessons From Science London (Exeter Hall). Sunday School Association.

Mew, C. 1894 "Passed" The Yellow Book. An Illustrated Quarterly Bodley Head 1894-1897. Editor Henry Harland. Volume 2, July 1894

Mew, C. 13.11.1909 "Requiescat" The Nation 13.11.1909. Republished Mew, C. 1929 p.40

Mew, C. 1913 "Men and Trees", published in The Englishwoman in two parts, February and March 1913

Mew, C. 1916 The Farmer's Bride, Poetry Bookshop, London. Individual poems referred to are (a) "In Nunhead Cemetery" pp 15-17, (b) "Ken" pp 24-26, (c) "On the Asylum Road" p.31, (d ) "Madeleine in Church" pp 34-40

Mew, C. 1921a The Farmer's Bride. New edition with eleven new poems London: The Poetry bookshop. 59 pages.

Mew, C. 1921b Saturday Market New York, The Macmillan company. 59 pages [250 sets of sheets of the Poetry Bookshop's The Farmer's Bride. New edition were imported and bound with the title Saturday Market]

Mew, C. 1929 The Rambling Sailor London: The Poetry Bookshop.

Mew, C. 1953 Collected Poems of Charlotte Mew - With a Biographical Memoir by Alida Monro. London: Duckworth.

Mew, C. 1981 Charlotte Mew: Collected Poems and Prose. Edited with an Introduction by Val Warner. Manchester: Carcanet Press in association with Virago,

Monro, A. 1929 "Introductory Note" to Mew, C. 1929 The Rambling Sailor pp 7-8 [Initialled "A.K."]

Monro, A. 1953 "Charlotte Mew - A Memoir, by Alida Monro" in Mew, C. 1953 Collected Poems pp vii-xx

Oxford 1909: "Reprinted from the Morning Post of October 16th, 1909, by kind permission of The Editor." Leaflet published by the Oxford branch of the National Association for Promoting the Welfare of the Feeble-minded. Text available at

Procter, B.W. 1866 Charles Lamb: A Memoir by Barry Cornwall [Procter's pen-name], London: Edward Moxon & Co.

Roberts, Andrew and Falkenberg, Betty, 2005 - Charlotte Mew Chronology with mental, historical and geographical connections linking with her own words. Middlesex University resource available at The text of most of Charlotte Mew's writing quoted will be found on this website.

Searle, G.R. 1976 Eugenics and Politics in Britain, 1900-1914 Series: Science in history; 3. Leyden : Noordhoff International Publishing. v and 147 pages. Available at

Talfourd, T. N. 1848 Final Memorials of Charles Lamb; consisting chiefly of his Letters not before published, with sketches of some of his companions London: E. Moxon.

Untermeyer, L. 23.7.1921 Review of Charlotte Mew's Saturday Market in The New York Evening Post. The article was expanded to become an introductory essay to Charlotte Mew's poems in the 1925 edition of Modern British Poetry

Untermeyer, L. 1922 Modern American and British Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer New York, Harcourt, Brace and company.

Untermeyer, L. 1925 Modern British Poetry: A critical anthology, edited by Louis Untermeyer. Revised and enlarged. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company. [Contained an "expanded group of Mew's poems, with the extended Tribute"]

Untermeyer, L. 1936 Modern British Poetry, A critical anthology, edited by Louis Untermeyer. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company. Fourth, revised, edition.

Warner, V. 1975 "Mary Magdalene and the Bride. The Work of Charlotte Mew" Poetry Nation volume 4. Available at

Warner, V. 1981 "Introduction" and "Bibliographical Note" in Mew, C. 1981 Charlotte Mew: Collected Poems and Prose. pages ix-xxiv

Warner, V. 1997/2003 "Introduction" and bibliographical material in Mew, C. 1987/2003 Charlotte Mew: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, Second impression 2003, pages viii-xxv

WEBG/WM/52/1: Westminster Union Registers of patients maintained by the Union in imbecile asylums 1885-1895 and 1896 - 1902. Metropolitan Archives

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Charlotte Mew chronology

Originally published September 2012. This is a development of the shorter article of 2009.





The secret family

Freda Mew from her case notes, previous to admission

Freda Mew from her case notes, after admission

What Freda might have been from Charlotte's poetry

Bibliography and notes