Emily: A Portsmouth Story of Mental Health in the Great War

We present the opening chapter of Emily, Christine Lawrence‘s novel set in the Portsmouth Borough Asylum in the latter years of World War I. Based on real-life stories and events from the time, it was written following her involvement in a group of research volunteers last year that explored life in the asylum. Funded by the Heritage Lottery, the group worked with the Good Mental Health Co-operative and looked at original patient records and hospital reports from the Borough of Portsmouth Lunatic Asylum, exploring books, articles and other sources linked to the Portsmouth and Hampshire area. The group worked with other local projects to examine life during that period and commemorating the sacrifices made during the Great War. The outcome of the research was a pamphlet and online hub which contains a good deal of information. The aim of the project was to raise awareness generally about the social history of mental health care, and to help reduce stigma and discrimination today. 

I was lucky enough to be a part of this research group and during the process wrote several monologues based on the lives of those who were patients in the asylum at the time. Once the project was completed I decided to continue with developing one of the monologues into a novel. Emily is a fictional character but she could have been one of those women treated in the asylum in 1917. Her story is typical of the time but is purely fictional.

When I opened my eyes I was back in my room. Feeling trapped, the walls closed in, the stain on the ceiling in the shape of a crib, mocking. I closed my eyes again, trying to shut out the pain. It was still there, deep in the core of me.

Noises roused me again. It was nurse Paxton. Maud was her name although I knew her as Paxton, Briefly a thought brought a giggle to my throat, take out the letter u and she would be Mad like me. I turned to face her, wondering why she was beside my bed and not out in the ward doing her duties. She was smiling down at me, something I always felt uneasy about. It usually meant something bad was about to happen when they smiled at you.

I didn’t want to tell her; the least you talk the better, I’d learnt. But when she reached for my hand something shifted in me. The hard lump of ice around my heart melted just for that moment, but long enough to let her in.

‘Emily.’ She squeezed my hand. ‘It’s alright, you’re safe.’

Those few words were all it took to release the flow of tears and my story. She handed me a linen handkerchief to mop my face as I spoke, in bursts of memory between sobs at first, then gradually my tears seemed dispersed as I told her my plight and how I came to be in the asylum.


At the start of the war, The Great War, they called it now, there had been a feeling across the Portsmouth town of determination, patriotism, a belief that it would be a wonderful thing to take part in, that it would be all over in a flash. The young men wanted to rush in and be a part of it, their biggest fear that they would miss the fun, the adventure of a lifetime. The older men weren’t so enthusiastic, knowing the hardships to come but the women were swept along with it all and pushed their young men to go.

I hadn’t pushed Billy. I needed him here – we planned to marry soon. The only things that had stopped me saying yes before were Pa and my three brothers, the two eldest working with Pa in his butcher shop and the youngest still at school.

Ma had already gone – even before the war started she went. She was sorely missed by me, the only girl. Working as a skivvy in the big house was hard but made even harder when I had to start all over again when I got home at night. A house full of men and boys, not one of them able to wash, cook nor clean so it was down to me. No wonder Ma gave up and left us as soon as she could. Death took her away and I wanted to follow her.

It was a struggle keeping the family fed and the house cleaned when I was working six days a week as house-maid for Mrs. Cartwright. She lived in a big house near the seafront. I should have given the job up but the thought of being nothing but a house-wife replacement for Ma was too much. Even the butcher’s shop was flagging, and Pa was struggling to make a living any more.

He remarried too soon. He said we’d be better off, he needed a woman to support him, stop him worrying about us so he could focus on the shop. He said I wouldn’t have to work so hard with a woman in the home. She wanted me to call her Ma but I couldn’t do that. She weren’t my Ma and never would be. I called her Kate. She was the devil. The devil with two sons who moved in with her. Things changed from the day she moved in. Instead of it making things easier, it was worse, with her putting her two boys first over me and my three brothers. They were spoiled by her and we were forgotten.

When the war started, the eldest two of my brothers, Edward and Harry, and her two, Jimmy and Eddie, went to the front. Percy was too young for the war. Even though many went who lied about their age, he looked younger than his fifteen years and wouldn’t have got away with it. Edward and Harry looked so handsome in their uniforms and I admit I was proud, my heart bursting to see them march away with all the other lads I knew. I didn’t know Billy was going until I saw him in the crowd, waving at me. My heart broke that day, wishing I’d told him about the baby.

The town was too quiet with all the young men gone. Our house was too quiet without the boys there. Kate was the devil. She was sweet to me in front of Pa but it was all for show. When he was down the pub she would push me into the scullery to wring out the sheets and scrub the floor. She’d pinch me if I tarried and more than once she used the hot poker to get me working faster. Once she hit me across the back with it. Luckily for her, that time it wasn’t hot or it would have singed my clothes and then Pa would have noticed. That was why she waited til it had cooled I think.

Billy’s ma came round to tell me he’d been killed. It must have been a mistake I thought.  He couldn’t die, not now that he was going to be a father.

Still I didn’t tell anyone I was with-child. Carrying on knowing what I knew and not telling anyone kept it unreal. I could go through each day and not think about what would happen to me. I kept my secret, feeling it grow gradually into a real person inside me – Billy’s little baby – and it must be a boy, it must. I could see him running on the beach, a tiny replica of Billy, his hair, his smile, his laugh.


Mrs. Cartwright let me go when I got too big and could no longer hide my belly.

Pa was a good man – he could have thrown me out – any other man would have. He held my hand and told me what a fool I was. ‘You’re a bloody foolish girl,’ he’d said and then had walked down the garden, lighting his pipe to talk to his dead wife. Later he told Kate. She looked at me in disgust behind his back.

‘We’ll look after you, girl,’ Pa smiled at me and nodded to Kate.

‘Of course,’ she replied.

When I got so big that I could hardly walk to the corner shop, Kate still made me do the heavy work. I could see the pain in Pa’s face every time he looked at me – the shame in his eyes cut through me. I tried to tell him that it would have been different if the war hadn’t come but I couldn’t find the words.

My time was only a few weeks away when I fell. The floor in the scullery was wet from the washing. I slipped and down I went. It happened when Pa was at work and Kate took it upon herself to get the neighbours to help me onto the cart and push me all the way to the Workhouse Infirmary.

I shuddered the day we entered those gates, the building red-bricked and sullen, its blank windows gazing at me in judgement.


Pain was pulling me down, like I was sinking into some sort of hell. This can’t be real, I remember thinking. I couldn’t describe the pain, not really, just that pulling sensation. They say you don’t ever remember labour pains but I will never forget them even though I have no words to describe them. I would go through it all over again to hold my child, if only for a moment, to smell his warm, baby-born skin, to kiss his tiny fingers. The pain that ripped me apart when they took him away at the workhouse was deeper by far than the physical pain of his birth.

The attendant was kind to me. Looking back, her kindness was only a mask she wore to make me feel at ease. I remember being in a haze of love, floating above my truckle bed, dreaming of my baby boy and me, running along the shore together. His cries brought me to my senses. I felt the tugging of my now empty womb as I opened my eyes in time to see the back of the attendant disappear through the door at the end of the long row of beds, my son in her arms.

My scream was endless.


Image entitled ‘Bellevue Hospital, New York City: women patients (mentally i’ by the Wellcome Trust re-used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.