Discovering GB Bartlett

Maxine digs deep into the archives to uncover the poignant story of one of the patients at Chiswick House private asylum.

Credit - Wellcome Library

Who was G B Bartlett?

Amongst the scrawled pages of letters written by Chiswick House patients, the neat, legible and relatively coherent hand of GB Bartlett stands out.


There are two letters from Bartlett in the private asylum’s archive, the first dated May 7, 1925. The second is incomplete and is missing at least the first page. These letters were both addressed to acquaintances outside of the asylum rather than the staff. I wonder if they were ever sent?


After reading these pages, I was intrigued about who this man was, how he had ended up here and what had happened to him. So I set about searching for Mr Bartlett’s case notes. Unfortunately the archive holds only male patient notes up to January 1925 so I found nothing. But Bartlett had left enough clues in his letters for me to embark on a poignant journey of discovery.

First clues…

The first letter is addressed to ‘Drennan’ and begins with congratulations on Drennan’s university rag week in honour of the Prince of Wales. There are references to South Africa and Bartlett also states that he has been sent to the asylum by his wife, but he believes there is nothing wrong with his ‘mental equipment’. A mistrust of the Scots is evident and also concerns that his wife will harm their children. It is clear from his words that Bartlett was well-educated and possibly working in education, and despite what he felt, showed signs of paranoia and delusions.


From here I discovered that Edward, Prince of Wales toured South Africa in May 1925 and I was able to track down a Professor Matthew Drennan (the intended recipient of Bartlett’s first letter), an anatomy lecturer at Cape Town College (home of South Africa’s first medical school) from 1913. Drennan became head of the department and remained there until 1955 by which time it had become the University of Cape Town. Interestingly Drennan was Scottish and had been trained at the University of Edinburgh. At this time Edinburgh was an elite medical school and was considered by many to be at the peak of scientific research.

Student, Professor, Husband…

And it was in South Africa that I found our man. George Bertram Bartlett had also worked at Cape Town University, as a professor of pathology from 1920 until 1924. This University of Cape Town pathology blog looks at some of his reports from the time.

G B Bartlett handwritten pathological report

G B Bartlett handwritten pathological report


George was born in Dorset in April 1880 and after attending private school studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University. From there he worked at the London Hospital (now the Royal London Hospital), becoming assistant director of the Pathological Institute there, and a lecturer in pathological histology at the hospital’s medical college. Looking at marriage records, George appears to have married Annie Sinclair Jenkinson in the summer of 1916 and they had at least one child. He refers to his wife as ‘Paddy’ in his letters.


During the First World War, George served with an infantry regiment and then the Royal Army Medical Corps as a pathologist at two different hospitals in Egypt. His work is mentioned in a London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine blog post.

The Great War is known to have caused psychological trauma to thousands of men and women. Could George have been one of them?

I wonder what George experienced in Africa during World War I? It seems that at least two of his brothers died during the bloody conflict.  And the Great War is known to have caused psychological trauma to thousands of men and women. Could George have been one of them? Or maybe his troubles began when he and his wife were living in South Africa? Or did he endure a lifelong struggle with his mental health?

Signs of his illness…

In his second letter, George really warms to his theme of anti-Scottish feeling, mentioning high-achieving Scottish medical officer Sir Andrew Balfour (who had also been based in Africa) and the asylum’s own Dr Macaulay along the way.


“The Scotch really hope to impose their devil worship ideas on the world and to compel their acceptance. They turn out from Edinburgh and Glasgow a mass of ill trained doctors deliberately taught a ‘Psychology’ which may be summed up as pornographic sexualism.”


“These Scotch lads have fairly well swamped the medical show in London: they nobbled me in a most unscrupulous manner and have bottled me in here. I am very angry about it. I do not know what rot Paddy filled them up with but I do know that when I saw them there was nothing wrong with my mental equipment. I am not a lunatic in medical, legal or clerical sense and have now been tied down for over three months. This is England!!!! I wonder if Bolshevism is the only way out from this kind of thing; it strikes me as the limit.”

It seems likely that George’s illness would be diagnosed as delusional disorder today, or maybe even schizophrenia

There is also much talk of devil worship in Africa. Without the doctors’ notes we know little about the extent of Bartlett’s symptoms and how long he stayed at Chiswick House. It seems likely that George’s illness would be diagnosed as delusional disorder today, or maybe even schizophrenia, both forms of psychosis. It remains a difficult illness to treat, with a combination of medication and psychological therapies used to varying degrees of success. At Chiswick House in the early 20th century the focus was on fresh air and therapeutic methods.

Happy ending…?

There are no records of George holding another job after he left Cape Town, and he died in June 1944 (aged 64) at Herrison, Charminster, Dorset. His British Medical Journal obituary says: “After retiring from active work he lived at Hove, and spent much time in open-air pursuits.”


I was feeling rather hopeful for Professor Bartlett until I looked more closely at where he died. His wife still lived at their Hove address at the time of his death; however George was back in his home county of Dorset. And rather than visiting family, I fear that George had not beaten his illness at all. Rather than the pretty Dorset village I was imagining, the only Herrison I have found is Herrison Hospital: the huge Dorset County Asylum which provided accommodation and shelter for people with mental illness and learning disabilities between 1863 and 1992.


Compared to the comfortable, genteel atmosphere of Chiswick House, Herrison seems a harsher, much more institutional environment. I’m still hoping to discover that pretty little village and a happier ending to GB Bartlett’s story.

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