Things are never so bad

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My paternal grandmother was fond of maxims and one of her favourites was “things are never so bad they can’t get worse”, by which she meant that things are not as bad as they seem.  To some, this sounds like a bit depressing, but it is a simple fact that, at any given point, things can get worse, or they can get better. Somehow this phrase seems appropriate to Lil’s extraordinary life as, whatever life threw at her, she just somehow kept on going. 

By the summer of 1897, Lil’s husband’s mental health had deteriorated to the point where he was no longer capable, nor willing, to carry out his general practice work nor other charitable commitments in the local community.  The Chaldecott and Brock partnership was dissolved, and he resigned from the board of Dorking Cottage Hospital and the Dorking Swimming Bath Company.

Lil herself was also trying to cope with the grief of another stillbirth without emotional support from her husband and her brother, now a celebrated mountaineer and author, who had left Oxford to live permanently in Switzerland[i].  Mercifully, she does seem to have received some support from the wider Brock family.  Her brother-in-law Walter had returned to Guernsey to assume the mantle of rector of the parish of St Pierre-du-Bois, succeeding both his father and grandfather, and had taken on the role of head of the family.  Closer to home, two of her Brock sisters-in-law still lived Dorking, with Mary married to John Bovill, a wealthy Dorking merchant, and Elsie was married to local solicitor William John Down. 

The lack of a proper income was quickly becoming an issue and, unable to afford schooling for her son, Lil decided that he should be put forward for a cadetship in the Royal Navy.  He was duly accepted, being placed 23rd out of the 63 successful candidates that year[ii].    

England’s Pride and Glory [iii]

During the relatively peaceful reign of Queen Victoria, Britain had developed the largest navy and mercantile marine in the world and British sailors were highly regarded as custodians of Nelson’s perceived virtues of courage, resourcefulness, and devotion to duty.   The replacement of sail with steam power, along with important reforms within the Royal Navy, had created a modern service, with a career structure for officers and men.   Between 1815 and 1914, the period known as Pax Britannica, the main role of the Royal Navy was not so much providing men to fight in wars, but to act as a seaborne policing force, ensuring the world’s trade routes were free from hazards, as well as important duties such as polar exploration, drawing up charts and supressing piracy, slavery, and smuggling.

Lil would have been very much relieved that her eldest son would now be taken care of, educated, and was hopefully on a path towards an officer commission and a well-respected career in what was known as the ‘Senior Service’. 

Meanwhile, Dr Brock had become so emaciated that his brother Walter had travelled back to England from Guernsey to arrange for him to be admitted to Guy’s Hospital in London for treatment.  However, as Dr Brock could not be persuaded to take food voluntarily, an Urgency Order was quickly signed authorising his removal to Bethlem Hospital for three month’s treatment as an in-patient.  That day, Dr Brock weighed just 7st (less than 45kg)[iv].

Bethlem Hospital, from which derives the word ‘bedlam’, meaning uproar and confusion, is the oldest charitable institution for the insane in the world.  At the time of Dr Brock’s admission, the hospital could accommodate 300 patients, was fitted with every modern convenience, including warm air central heating, hot water, and a state-of-the-art electric bell emergency call system[v].  Baedeker’s Guide[vi] at the end of the 19th century states that: “The hospital is now used as a charitable institution for persons of unsound mind of the educated classes whose means are insufficient to provide for their proper treatment elsewhere, and admits mainly acute and curable cases.”  The guide goes on to recommend that professional men, who could apply to the Resident Physician to visit, would find the hospital “exceedingly interesting”. 

Bethlem Hospital in 1896[vii]

In 2009 I contact the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and received through the post photocopies of my grandfather’s admission papers and medical record.  These make extremely harrowing reading as, for the first three months he was force-fed up through a tube up to four times a day.  However, by November 1897 he appeared to be improving as he’d put on a little weight, was looking better, and seemed less depressed.  Nevertheless, a three-month extension to his confinement was granted[viii].

Back at home in Dorking, the younger Brock children were growing up fast and the elder daughters were beginning take part in community events.   Lilian and Sissie appeared in a series of Tableaux Vivant (a static scene presented on stage creating living pictures which were very popular in the late 19th century) put on by the local branch of the Church of England Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays.  Nine-year-old Lillian excelled in the “prettiest of the series ‘How does my lady’s garden grow?’ [when she] stood in the foreground watering-can in her hand apparently watering the garden consisting of human flowers”[ix].  Later in the evening Lillian appeared with three of her friends in “a pathetic picture ‘Waifs and strays’”[x] .  For their mother, sitting in the audience that evening, that proud and joyous moment would no doubt have been tinged with apprehension and anxiety over what the future held for her and the children.

In February 1898, a further three month’s extension was granted for Dr Brock’s treatment and, at last, he seemed to be making slow progress as he was taking food voluntarily and was able to read to pass the time.  Although he was still under 24-hour observation, his wife was allowed to visit him once a week[xi].

At 6:25am on Tuesday 12th April 1898 Dr Brock was found dead in bed.  He had cut his throat and bled to death[xii].

A telegram was immediately sent to Dorking informing Lil of her husband’s death and summoning her to the hospital.  An urgent investigation was mounted as a surgical scalpel had been found in Dr Brock’s hand and another knife was in his waistcoat pocket.  The pocket cases of all medical officers in the hospital were examined and all their knives were in place in their respective cases.  The hospital’s own surgical knives were also found to be complete[xiii].

When Lil arrived at the hospital later that morning, Dr Robert Percy Smith, the superintendent medical officer, interviewed her but she initially denied any knowledge of how her husband had obtained the knives[xiv]

Later, in conversation with Dr Smith, she confessed that her husband had asked her to bring up his private pocket dressing case as he’d wanted a knife ‘for the purpose of cutting his corns’.  Lil said she brought the dressing case to him on 28th March, and when he had taken two from the case saying he would keep them, she told him he shouldn’t have them but had assumed the authorities would find the knives and confiscate them[xv]

Giving evidence at the inquest three days later, Lil admitted she provided the knives and, when she asked for them back the following week, her husband said he had not got them.  Under oath she confirmed she had not mentioned the knives to any member of staff at any point and added that she did not think he would do anything to himself as he had seemed so much better recently.  She also stated that she had never believed that he was as ill as she had been told he was[xvi].

The inquest recorded a verdict of ‘Suicide during temporary insanity and no remissness on the part of the hospital authorities’[xvii]

Surrey Advertiser 16 Apr 1898[xviii]

Following her latest bereavement, Lil took her daughters to live in Guernsey, ostensibly because her husband still had relatives there, although I am sure she would not wish to remain anywhere near Dorking for fear of local gossip as, of course, her husband had been a prominent member of the community.  Mental illness and suicide were strictly taboo subjects and, until 1961, English law perceived suicide as an immoral, criminal offence against God and also against the Crown.

Dr Brock had not made a will, so his brother-in-law William Down, a solicitor, took charge of sorting his financial affairs.  Lil was already in Guernsey by the time the Grant of Letters of Administration was eventually issued allowing her to inherit her husband’s finite assets, and her brother in Switzerland would send her financial support whenever he was able[xix].

At the time of the 1901 census, Lil was staying in a house in the Village de Putron, near St Peter’s Port, Guernsey, with daughters Lillian aged 12 and Sissie aged 9.  For many years I was unable to conclude why Helen, the youngest, was not part of the household.  It was not until I was able to visit Guernsey in 2009 that I could confirm that little Helen died of heart failure in May 1899 aged just 5.

Lil’s whole life was tainted with almost unbelievable sadness and loss, but I take a little comfort from a line in her brother Will’s biography: “Only in 1904 did a legacy from an American aunt enable her to spread her wings and to indulge in the two hobbies of what seems to have been an exceptionally lively mind – gardening and photography”[xx]

Sadly, Lil would not have much time to enjoy her new-found hobbies as she died suddenly at the home of her sister-in-law Amy Baynes (nee Brock) in Minchinhampton, in the Cotswolds, on 22nd October 1906.  Her death certificate is not very forthcoming stating the cause was “Internal Haemorrhage Shock”, which seems somewhat vague and inconclusive[xxi].  Lil was not yet 50 years old.

Cameron, Lil and little Helen are commemorated in lead letters on the rear of a large stone cross at the entrance of the churchyard of St Pierre-du-Bois in Guernsey. The original monument is dedicated to Cameron’s parents, Frances and Carey Brock, and I suspect other names were added several years later as their daughter Mabel and Carey’s sister are also commemorated on each side respectively, but the year of Lil’s death has been recorded incorrectly. It is a simple, yet imposing monument located on the south side of a very pretty stone church, although I was both surprised and delighted to find their names remembered, but it seems poignant that my great grandparents and their youngest daughter are tucked around the back, out of the way.

Footnote: After their mother’s death, Lil’s two surviving daughters returned to live with relatives in Dorking.  Soon after, Lilian was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and died the following year in a sanatorium and Sissie, who I remember well, married in 1915 but was widowed days later, however that’s for another story… 

[i] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[ii] Army and Navy Gazette 14 August 1897 © The British Library Board via

[iii] England’s Pride and Glory by Thomas Davidson 1894 Object: BHC1811 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

[iv] Bethelm Hospital Archives: Alexander Cameron Brock’s medical records

[v] Ibid

[vi] Baedeker’s Guide: London and its Environs – 1900 edition

[vii] The Queen’s London: A Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis – Image in the public domain

[viii] Bethlem Hospital Archives: Alexander Cameron Brock’s medical records

[ix] West Surrey Times 14 Jan 1898 © The British Library Board via

[x] West Surrey Times 14 Jan 1898 © The British Library Board via

[xi] Bethlem Hospital Archives: Alexander Cameron Brock’s medical records

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Surrey Advertiser 16 Apr 1898 The British Library Board via

[xix] An Eccentric in the Alps the Story of the Rev. W.A.B. Coolidge the Great Victorian Mountaineer by Ronald W. Clark | Published by Museum Press, 1959

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Elizabeth Brevoort Brock’s Death certificate