We often see statues and paintings and memorials dedicated to Kings and Queens and Politicians and Generals and Wealthy Blokes and Slayers of Dragons and of Presidents. Honouring the dead is an important act of human compassion. You don’t have to be rich or an empress to be remembered, my mum was neither of these and she has a tiny plaque in the East London cemetery with her name on and her date of birth and death.
To honour the dead stresses that all life is important, regardless of social class, but as we well know some lives are more important than others. My mum was never going to get a stone statue outside Hackney Town Hall, she only worked all her life from the age of 12, filled their bombs full of explosives in the war, got bombed every day for the duration of the war, worked full time, brought up three children, never had a day sick, went to the doctor’s once and died of breast cancer six months later.
She never sent thousands of workers to their deaths, or impoverished countless men, women and children, or dumped nuclear waste into the sea, or exploited children in Africa. She just lived, worked and died. But is remembered.
The five thousand mentally ill patients of Prestwich Asylum buried in an anonymous unmarked mass grave in the churchyard at St Mary’s, Prestwich have not been honoured. ‘They lie, ten deep, with just a thin coating of soil and quicklime separating them’.
Social class permeates every sickening aspect of capitalism, even the dead. Working class and mentally ill, what use does capital have of you? You won’t even get a tiny brass plaque, dumped in a hole hidden away in death as you were in life.
‘An obscure building in Ancoats holds one of the great historical archives of the nation’. The Ancoats archives tell the lives of thousands of people who spent time in Prestwich asylum. From these records Eric Northey has reconstructed the stories of some of the people discarded into soil and quicklime. His play ‘Telling Lives’ is a conglomeration of song, poetry, conventional dialogue and monologue. He calls it a ‘Brechtian fiction’. In the play some of the names are real while others are fictional. Ann Warburton – real, Lily Handley – real, William Stubbins – real, William McVeaty – real, are all buried in the unmarked mass grave.
Having had the misfortune to visit Prestwich Hospital, my ex being a psychiatric nurse at the time working there, it was one of the most saddening place I have even been. The smell of urine and bleach, screams of desperation, lifeless shufflings, broken panes, peeling paint and locked wards.
Prestwich began its life full of hope and optimism, part of a countrywide network of state asylums, set in attractive, rural surroundings, well provisioned and staffed. In 1850 it was built at a cost of £87,979. 5s. 1d. It employed ‘house stewards’, a chaplain, tailors (plural), shoemakers, bakers, carpenters (I think they mean joiners because I was told as an apprentice that only Jesus was a carpenter, the rest of us are joiners), plumbers, engineers and a ‘host of domestic staff’. The asylum ran its own farm, made furniture, worked the forge, kitchen garden and library. It had over 100 acres of parkland, a summer house, bowling green and croquet court. Mechanical constraint was frowned upon.
The First World War slaughtered many a doctor and worker alike. Soldiers returned home with broken minds and bodies, the asylum system never recovered, evolving into the chemical restraint and electric shocking of the 1980s. Prestwich Asylum is now a Tesco.