“The Reverend Robert Stainton became unwell in 1877, reportedly during a fortnights mission to Kendal.
The Reverend Stainton’s health eventually got to crisis point later that year while staying with his brother-in-law Richard Hayton Davis, at 26 Regent Parade, Harrogate, Yorkshire. He was admitted to the Friend’s Retreat, near York on the 19th December 1877. At that stage he had not eaten for 6 days and was physically as well as mentally unwell. The Friend’s Retreat was established by the Society of Friends in the 1790’s as a mental hospital with humane methods of treatment, as the society was displeased with the treatment their members received in lunatic asylums of the day. It took on private fee paying patients, not connected with the Society of Friends, like the Rev. Stainton, to help fund it.
His referring doctors, Dr Alan Bealey who saw the Rev. on the 16th December 1877 at 26 Regent Parade, Harrogate, and Dr William Short who saw the Rev. on the 18th December 1877 at Linton Lodge, Church Square, Harrogate, declared him of unsound mind. They stated that it was impossible to get him to speak or take food. They stated that his whole manner and mode of life was totally changed, he was distressed and depressed and was under the delusion that he had committed some great sin and that his eternal salvation was impossible. He would not accept food as he believed that he could not pay for it. His admission records describe him and his condition more fully.
He was described having a distressed, restless, frightened expression of countenance. He had long brown hair just turning grey, his eyes were grey and his lips were thick and heavy. He was in a state of acute delirious mania, muttering unintelligibly to himself and was in a very depressed state of mind. He refused to answer questions or to take food. He was described as slightly suicidal but not dangerous to others. His condition was thought to have been brought on by overwork in the Ministry.
Several newspapers both in Sheffield and his home town of Hawick reported on his illness.
“Great sympathy has been aroused by the knowledge that the Rev. Robert Stainton’s health is, for the present, completely broken down as the result of the last twelve years of almost super human labour among us. At home and abroad in public and in private, as a preacher, a platform orator, a pastor, a consoler, a friend of every one who needed kindly or wise council. Mr Stainton has laboured with all intensity of which we rarely have an example. I know that many of his friends have remonstrated and warned him that he was going at apace that must, if persisted in, break down even the nerves of steel. But the claims made upon him were incessant, and he could never forbear to respond to them. Never unhappily, we see the result of attempting to do in ten years what would have been full work for twenty years. Mr Stainton’s nervous system is so deranged, and he has been reduced to such a state of prostration, that his life has been in the most imminent danger. The last report that reached me indicated a shade of improvement, and keeps alive the hope of his restoration. All who desire the spiritual and moral benefit of our population, which the labours of Mr Stainton has been so largely instrumental in promoting have remain fervently to pray for his recovery.” – Sheffield Independent, 29th December 1877
He was treated in the Friends Retreat firstly with food, usually tea, milk, beef, tea, brandy and eggs. He became stronger physically, but was still troubled in his mind. He would sit still for hours without moving and whisper to himself. His progress was also reported in several newspapers both in Sheffield and Hawick.
“The Rev. R. Stainton – To the Editor – Having heard that there are being circulated in the town distressing reports concerning the Rev. R. Stainton, I shall be glad it you will kindly make known, through the medium of your widely read paper, the fact that on Saturday last Mrs. Stainton informed her friends that the Rev. gentleman’s health was so far improved as to admit of her leaving him for a few days. By doing so you will greatly oblige Mr Stainton’s numerous friends, and also yours faithfully, Henry Outram, Secretary Garden Street Congregational Church. Canal Works, Sheffield, Jan. 15, 1878.” – Sheffield Independent, 16th January 1878
“The Rev. Robert Stainton: We learn that our townsman, the Rev. Robert Stainton, is recovering from his recent severe illness.” – Hawick Express, 13th April 1878
By March 1878 he was out and about walking in the grounds and writing letters to his wife, who visited often. Though in July 1878 he again started talking about suicide and apparently expressed a wish to drown himself. He was granted leave in August 1878 to visit Scarborough with his wife and on his return he was reported to be taking more interest in things. In October 1878 he appears to have talked his way past the gatekeeper and escaped, but was quickly brought back to the Retreat. He relapsed after this, but was again allowed to go to Scarborough in August 1879 and returned considerably improved. He was released for a month on trial in November 1879, and in December his leave was extended for 3 months. He was discharged on the 23rd March 1880 at his wife’s request, status ‘relieved’. He had been in the Friends Retreat for 2 years and 3 months, and on discharge was described as ‘continuing to improve, though demented to a considerable extent’.
The Rev. Stainton had given up his congregation by 1879, and Rev. Isaac Hall of Nottingham took over at Garden Street Congregational Church in January 1879. Sadly, despite his discharge from the Friend’s retreat in 1880, he had not fully recovered from his mental breakdown. In the 1881 he with his wife Eliza were staying at The Cottage, Matlock Bridge, near Matlock Bank, Derbyshire and is described as a former congregational minister, and as an imbecile. His wife could not cope with his continued illness and on the 4th May 1881 he was admitted to the East Riding Lunatic Asylum, later known as Broadgate Hospital, at Walkington. He was admitted as a private patient.
His referring doctors, Dr William Dyson and Dr A. C. Chalmers described him as looking wild, sullen and gloomy often standing continually. He was also described as slovenly and dirty. His admission record indicates that he had never been well since his discharge from the Friends Retreat some 14 months prior. He was not in a good way on admission and is described as a man of middle size, spare build and an intelligent cast of features, but also that his hair and beard were extremely long, dirty and matted, he was also thin and weak. His mental state was no better. He is described as being conscious of his surroundings and recent events, but that he would stand like a statue in the centre of the room for hours at a time, never speaking except to answer questions, and seeming to be absorbed in the contemplation of something. His treatment at Walkington Asylum started with being barbered, bathed, and fed. Though while he initially improved physically he is described in his case notes as being morose, very quiet sometimes silent, suspicious, withdrawn, and restless. Over the years that he stayed at Walkington his health became feeble; he got ulcers on his feet, chilblains and remained mentally unchanged, often being described as demented. At the request of his wife, Eliza, he was transferred to Hull Borough Lunatic Asylum, at Willerby on the 1st July 1889. He had been at Walkington Asylum for just over 8 years, and was discharged with a status of ‘not improved’. It is not known why he was transferred, Willerby is about 6 miles from Walkington and not really any closer to Sheffield where Eliza Hayton Stainton was living at the time.
Hull History Centre holds the admission registers for the Hull Borough Lunatic Asylum at Willerby (later known as De La Pole hospital) but not patient records. Unfortunately the admission registers for non-pauper lunatics, like the Rev. Robert Stainton, are bundled 1885-1918. Therefore although the Rev. was admitted in 1889, the records will not be available under freedom of information until 2019. His stay at Willerby was not long, on the 31st May 1890, 10 months after his admission to Willerby Asylum, the Rev. Robert Stainton passed away. His death certificate states that he died of atrophy of the brain and cardiac weakness. He has been ill following his mental breakdown for over 12 years. The Rev. Robert Stainton’s obituaries speak briefly about his illness, describing it as a period of darkness that could happen to anyone. He was still well loved and thought highly of at his death in 1890, despite being away from Sheffield for over 12 years, and I think this stands as testimony to his incredibly strong character and personality. One (presently unknown) newspaper quoted after his death; “Friends of all degrees warned him that such a course of endless labour would break him down, but he would cheerfully reply ‘Better wear out than rust out’ and he went on working with an energy and zeal that seemed unabated.”
1. Ms. Jennifer Clark, Australia
2. British Newspaper Archives- Sheffield Independent, 16th January 1878; Hawick Express, 13th April 1878; Sheffield Independent, 29th December 1877