Friday, 22 June 2018

Physically and mentally challenged in the 19th century: Alex Matheson (1880-1946)

I've been busy mining the British Newspaper Archives on Find My Past as my subscription ticks down to its expiry in a couple of weeks. Like many members of genealogical societies, up until now, I've enjoyed a 50 per cent savings on my FMP subscription. Sadly, FMP announced early this year they were inexplicably nding that. Since FMP bills Canadians in US dollars (they apparently don't feel the Commonwealth love), I am girding myself for their renewal offer, which I don't think I'll be able to afford.

But I digress.

One of my big finds is a story about how my great grandfather tried to get help for my physically and mentally challenged great uncle, Alex. Frank went to his local parish council looking for help for his son.

The following account appeared in the 19 Feb 1896 edition of the Forres Elgin and Nairn Gazette, Northern Review and Advertiser:

This recounts bureaucracy at its 19th century finest. Frank's petition for relief was refused because of geographic reasons, oh, and because he started the action in the name of his son, since Alex "was insane he could not sue". 

In the 1891 census, he
is called an imbecile. He was also blind. Was he born blind, or did an early illness cause blindness? I don't know. I don't know why he was called an imbecile. Perhaps he was most likely what we now call developmentally delayed. Certainly his blindness would have contributed to being developmentally delayed. 

I can't begin to fathom the life poor Alex endured in an age when there were no supports for people with mental and physical challenges.

My great grandfather Frank Gillanders Matheson was a railway plate layer, earning little. In fact, by 1896 my grandfather, Alex's younger brother, was already an apprentice on the railroad and living away from home, as a 12 year old boy.

Like all parents, Frank wanted the best for all of his children and needed help for his son. I wonder if he ever got it. This is the only story I've found about what I'm sure were herculean efforts on his part. 

When his father sought relief in 1896, Alex was 15 years old. My great grandparents then had five living children, including two young ones, who were almost certainly still at home then.

Did Alex live at home in Aviemore/Nethy Bridge with my great grandmother until she died in 1922? When he died at age 65 in 1946, from arteriosclerosis and myocarditis, he was living in Inverness in an institution called The Firs. His death was reported by his older half-sister, Catherine Graham.

How lucky in a way are those with physical and mental challenges in the 21st century. 

The never ending story continues....

© Margaret Dougherty 2016-2018 All rights reserved


  1. What an interesting story, it's wonderful that you were able to find such detail in the local newspapers, so much for privacy in the days gone past.

  2. Thanks so much, Sandra. I only just found this news item a few days before I published this post. Fascinating stuff. People will be finding items about us in 100 years. You can count on that.

  3. Very interesting reading Margaret. It must have been hell back then.