Mental Health Museum: Discovering Mary Frances Heaton other narratives

Illustrator Paige Lyons discovers the challenges and rewards of trying to uncover narratives at the Mental Health Museum, Wakefield, during her time on the Exploring Collections – Patient Artwork Project course.

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Medical records – illustration by Paige Lyons

Diving into the collection at Wakefield’s Mental Health Collection I was struck like most people to discover the small but significant collection by Mary Frances Heaton, who was a patient at the West Riding Asylum from 1837 to 1873. Being an illustrator my interests lie in all things narrative
and I was keen to learn about the lives and experiences of the people who spent time in the asylum. Finding personal antidotes was difficult, hints of stories here and there, mixed in with medical medical reports and admission documents – it was definitely research you could spend
along time on.

Collectively, Mary Frances Heaton story had the most information relating to her personal experience. Interestingly, there wasn’t many medical reports kept about Mary which I was a little disappointed about as in the reports there was of her, I read she was referred to as ‘Miss H’ hinting to the fact she was well known amongst the staff and doctors.

Mary from Doncaster, was admitted to asylum over causing a disturbance in a local church. She called out the Mayor who owed her money for music lessons that she had been giving to his children for sometime. After going to trial in court, she was admitted and unfortunately spent the rest of her life in asylum care before dying in 1878. Mary disagreed with her admittance and her treatment and in her time at the asylum tried to vocalise this, even at one point trying to smuggle a letter out in a patients clothes who was being discharged. She turned to creative expression in the form of her samplers which she spent days stitching in her room on. Her samplers are packed with information, stories, symbols, numerical’s, and even receipts of payments which all hint to Mary’s story, voice and experience.

It’s easy to think that Mary was put in the asylum for merely speaking out but looking closely at reports on Mary by medical staff, which contained details of ‘visions’ she had, there seemed to be an element of her accepting that she had some struggles with her mental health. Regardless of Mary’s mental and physical state, she wanted to share her side of the story in relation to the incident that led her to being admitted and protest her injustice. In a sampler to the ‘British Government’ she gives a detailed account of this and how she should be able to tell her story of
how she felt unfairly treated in court and denied opportunity to get bail from friends.

Gathering Mary’s story I discovered there was lots of gaps and unconfirmed evidence in her story, this created multiple views of Mary and her story. Most recently a Blue Plaque has been put up in Mary’s name as part of ‘The Forgotten Women of Wakefield’ project which also lead to some local news coverage. I found this and other representations differed, and differed from what maybe I thought of her, which I came to conclusion that regardless to if I agreed with Mary’s admission or not that this shouldn’t disregard her story of injustice or allude to the fact that she didn’t have difficulties with her mental health.

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Mary Francis Heaton – illustration by Paige Lyons

When looking broadly at how people were treated in asylums, personal voice and experiences were heavily missing. This was due to how people were viewed who went in the asylums and how asylums were ran, like institutions.

Mary used a craft to her advantage to document and voice her protest against how she felt, but she also recorded personal moments in her time in the asylum which created some record of Mary’s own experiences.
Being a millennial, I have seen the change in how we are looking after our mental health and wellbeing more and more, and I’m also aware of how many platforms and spaces there are for me to express my own views, stories and opinions if I felt I wanted to.

Thinking about Mary and her experience I couldn’t help thinking ‘What would Mary do now ?’. She seems a strong minded and obviously talented creative woman of her time, I could imagine Mary on Instagram now, in the local newspapers, organising some creative protest events like yarn bombing and stitched signs. I feel like she would also be a person of change, and continue to challenge points of view around mental health.

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