Inherited Craziness
A place to share all the nuts found on my family tree

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Press Gangs and the King’s Shilling

Colindale Hospital around 1920

As family stories go, this has to be one of the best (as in the myth is about as far away from the truth as it's possible to get), but also one of the saddest. 

Throughout her life, my mother recounted this story so many times it would be impossible to count: The story went that her grandfather, Job Sweeney, had been "press ganged" into the navy no less than three times. Once would be unlucky, you'd have thought. Anyway, this account, undoubtedly passed down to her by her grandmother, Eliza Louisa Sweeney (née Tompson), was embellished with the assertion that Job liked his drink rather too much, hence was always in the pub and the worse for wear and, therefore, had been tricked, in serial fashion, into taking the King's Shilling. All absolute poppycock, of course.

As I say, I'd heard and nodded along to the retelling of this story umpteen times, but had never really considered or questioned it. It wasn't until I met the current 'him indoors' who knows his military history, who immediately said "wrong century", that it became obvious that the whole thing was invention.

With hindsight, I can see where it will have come from. Job's father was a dock labourer (sometimes listed as a stevedore); his great-grandfather a mariner and many of their ancestors had been sailors, ship's carpenters and shipwrights. Eliza Louisa's family had run pubs around the London docks area. They will have grown up with 'press gang' stories and other seafaring folklore.

My great-grandfather, Job Sweeney, son of John Henry Charles Sweeney and Susannah Harvey, was born on 6 Feb 1870 and baptised, on 11 May 1871, at the church of St John, Limehouse Fields (which was bombed on 19 Sep 1940 and subsequently demolished). He'd married Eliza Louisa Tompson at St Anthony, Stepney on On 5 Jan 1893. 

My mother won't have known her grandfather, as he had died on 6 December 1924, aged 54, when she would have been only a few months old.

Having spent his entire life in the East End, it was finding that his death had been registered in Hendon that made me dig further in order to solve the mystery. It even crossed my mind that holidays 'At His Majesty's Pleasure' might well have explained these absences that we were all led to believe were when he was 'at sea', but it was not so. Having ordered his death certificate, this confirmed that the actual place of death was Colindale Hospital.

Built originally as the The Central London District Sick Asylum in 1898-1900 - to provide care for the sick poor in London, separate from the workhouse - in 1919, it was taken over by The Metropolitan Asylums Board and used as male TB sanatorium. The cause of Job Sweeney's death was given as 'Pulmonary Tuberculosis, Certified by Marcus Patterson MD.' 

Dr. Marcus Sinclair Paterson (1870–1932) was the medical superintendent of the Colindale Hospital for Pulmonary Tuberculosis, Hendon. "Here Paterson made valuable innovations in the symptomatic treatment of advanced cases", says his obituary in the BMJ. He developed a system of treatment called 'graduated labour'. "He has described how his observations on out-patients led him to the idea of introducing manual work, as well as walking, into the sanatorium regime, with the hope of fitting his patients for immediate return to their work, and of successfully meeting the charge that sanatoriums turned out work-shy loafers." (Not unlike the attitude to the sick today.)

(Looks like we can see who was originally responsible for ideas that led to the much maligned, ineffective and unsafe Graded exercise therapy (GET) too.)

So, I think we can deduce that the "press gang" story was made up to explain a series of absences, which were probably stays for 'treatment' - forced work when you're already too ill to do your normal work - at the sanatorium. And the saddest part of all is that this tells us that, so strong was the social stigma attached to TB that families preferred to paint their nearest and dearest as 'feckless, drunken, work-shy', etc., rather than admit they had an infectious, then incurable, disease undoubtedly contracted through no fault of their own. 

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