A chance discovery in the archives has prompted us to add a short coda to the series of posts we published about Robert Cowtan last autumn, material from which has been reworked by the author Aislinn Hunter to form the preface to Illustrious Company. While a patient at Bethlem’s countryside convalescent establishment Witley House, Cowtan walked six or seven miles, maybe more, to pay an unsolicited visit on Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the late 1870s. It will be remembered that for patients transferred to Witley, the associated prospect of imminent discharge from the Hospital, as well as the rural charm and relaxed treatment regime intrinsic to it, made it a longed-for destination among many of the Hospital’s residents. Cowtan was among this number, and was discharged recovered from Bethlem Hospital in 1878 after a stay of nearly a year. After a period of remission, he returned to stay another year in 1880, eventually being discharged relieved (better, in other words, though not entirely well). Thereafter his name disappears entirely from Bethlem’s record – or so we thought until recently.
Consulting a slim volume of late Victorian voluntary admissions to the Hospital, we recently happened across the details of a middle-aged woman by the name of Jessie Mary Cowtan. Jessie spent four months of 1893 in Bethlem, three of those at Witley, before being discharged recovered. Her notes reveal that her father had been “insane for many years”, from which we may deduce that matters did not improve for Robert Cowtan after his departure from Bethlem. In a letter of thanks to the Physician Superintendent preserved in her records (photographed below), Jessie writes movingly of “beautiful Witley”, presumably unconscious of the pleasure her father once derived from precisely the same surroundings.