Mary Frances Heaton: Embroidery and the Insane

Mary Frances Heaton was a piano mistress from Doncaster who was admitted to the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield in the mid-nineteenth century, whilst little is known about her life or her stay at the asylum a lot can be understood about her experiences from the samplers she embroidered during her stay at the asylum. 

Upon her arrival at the asylum Mary was diagnosed as suffering from delusions of grandeur (believing she was in some way special or important), claiming she had an affair with her employer, Lord Seymour. Although she was believed to be insane and dangerous, Mary didn’t accept this diagnosis and chose to express her discontent in her needlework by sewing messages into patients’ clothing and embroidering samplers. She also chose direct her concerns and the injustice she felt to the monarch; the sampler below is addressed directly to Queen Victoria and explains that — in her eyes — she wasn’t mad.

Sampler produced by Mary around 1851/52, addressing her concerns to Queen Victoria. Image from the Mental Health Museum.

The second sampler shown here recounts portions of her life including her distress at her tragic situation, More tragic perhaps, is the fact that her story was not an isolated event; madness was an easy label to assign to a woman of this era. Embroidery is often overlooked as a form of art owing to its history as a feminine pastime, but Mary’s work acts as a reminder that it can be used to produce powerful and moving works of art, as well as an insight into the thoughts and passions of the women who produced them. It is evident from the intricate nature of these pieces that she was proud of this work and determined to document her experiences of injustice, making Mary’s life a fascinating insight into what the West Riding Lunatic Asylum was like in the Victorian period. 

Sampler addressed to the government about her confinement. Image from the Mental Health Museum.

Unfortunately, we will never be able to fully understand Mary’s real mental state. As was commonplace in the nineteenth century, women were often confined for no real reason, or they were confined because it was convenient to the people (usually husbands or male family members) responsible for them. If Mary’s accusations of an illicit affair were true, her employer’s word would be enough to condemn her to the asylum where she remained for around 40 years. Whilst it remains unclear whether Mary really was ‘mad’, it is clear that she was able to provide a unique insight into the life of a Victorian patient. 

By Emma

Further Reading:

David Scrimgeour, Proper People: Early Asylum Life in the Words of Those Who Were There (Yorkshire: Scrimgeour, 2015)

[For detail on the West Riding Lunatic Asylum]: Jennifer Wallis, Investigating the Body in the Victorian Asylum: Doctors, Patients and Practices (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

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