William Gent (1879-1949)

William Gent, b 1879 (3rd son of John Gent b 1848)

Wm & ME 660
Margaret Gent (nee Goddard) and her husband William Gent

At this point our story overlaps with that of the Goddard family.

Sometime before 1908 William Gent met a huntsman, Tom Goddard, who worked for the local hunt in Whittle le Woods. We think that Tom took him to meet his family in Devon and according to family legend he there met Tom’s sister Margaret Evelyn Goddard. Tom was to die of cancer of the pancreas in January 1909 so may have been showing signs of his illness at this time and it is possible that Margaret Evelyn travelled to Whittle le Woods to nurse her brother, thus getting to know our ancestor William.

William Gent, aged 29 married Margaret Evelyn, aged 29 on 24 August 1908 four days after her brother Tom, aged 28 had been married to Sarah Barker Hutchinson, aged 21. We wondered why they didn’t have a double wedding and share the expenses. It would have been easier if guests had travelled a great distance to be there. We could find no wedding reports in the local newspapers of the time.

Tom died on 22 January 1909 aged 28 and was buried 25 January 1909 at St John the Evangelist, Whittle le Woods having been married for just five months.

[link to Tom’s plaque in Goddard story]

Margaret Evelyn had none of her own family living around her at this time and William decided to seek work in St Helens. His place of residence on his marriage certificate is Christ Church, Eccleston (occupation Asylum Attendant) and Margaret Evelyn’s residence is Whittle le Woods.

After their marriage they lived in Elephant Lane, St Helens.  William worked firstly as an engineer in the laundry department and then as an asylum attendant at Rainhill Asylum.

William & son Norman in Uniform of Rainhill Asylum c1930 300
Father and son, William and Norman, in psychiatric nurses uniform of Rainhill Asylum c 1930

Rainhill Asylum opened in January 1851 as a place where comfort of mind and body could be obtained. No mechanical restraints were used, as had been the custom in the ‘madhouses’ of previous years, even though there were no suitable drugs to subdue violent patients and solitary confinement was a last resort. Many of the early patients were pauper lunatics transferred from other asylums who might be charging 15 shillings a week whereas Rainhill charged 7/7d. Workhouses also took the opportunity to get rid of difficult cases. At that time it was thought that drunkenness was the major cause of mental disease and too much religion was the second. However, it is interesting to note that beer and ale were an accepted part of the patients’ diet, probably because it was safer to drink than water.

During this time the causes of insanity were divided into moral or physical. Poverty and domestic distress, remorse after seduction and even excitement on visiting the “Great Exhibition” were cited in the first category. Physical insanity could be caused by intemperance and debauchery, fever (including acute rheumatism), thyroid imbalances, syphilis and childbirth.

The Asylum was largely self-supporting with inmates helping with cleaning, sewing and washing. They also worked on the farm and ornamental gardens, in the bakery, and as tailors, plumbers and blacksmiths. Later, reward schemes would include many activities such as concerts, bowling (both an American style bowling alley and a bowling green laid by the patients), cricket, dancing and their own brass band.

In an 1849 lecture Dr John Conolly recommended a therapy of patience, kindness and gentleness, together with a policy of non-restraint. He condemned general bleeding but approved of leeching. He also approved of baths and the occasional use of electricity.

In 1883 opium was the main sedative, given to provide a night’s sleep but other treatments like bromides, tartar emetics and cold showers were useless for acute mania. According to Dr J H Wilson drugs such as bichloride of mercury, Indian hemp and strychnine were found to be of little use in therapy. However, case records show that patients were often given extra nourishment in the form of beef tea, wine or port, sometimes through a stomach pump.

William Gent was working at Rainhill Asylum at the time of the “great porridge strike” in 1913. The staff often worked an 80 hour week which was thought to be fair by the authorities because many duties were light, for example supervising recreational activities like cricket and football. Free food was provided during working hours and therefore any deterioration in the quality of food was regarded as a wage cut. When a new menu replaced meat with oatmeal porridge on 6 April 1913, 35 attendants refused to eat the porridge, to return to the wards or, indeed, to leave the breakfast room. The strike was a success but they were later made to apologise or face disciplinary action.

At the time of the First World War, Rainhill Asylum was extremely over-crowded with 2395 patients. 110 staff had been called up and 4 out of the 6 medical staff had joined the RAMC. In the first 9 months of 1918 there were 498 deaths, 119 of which were from tuberculosis and the remainder from the Spanish flu epidemic.

The Mental Treatment Act of 1930 changed the term ‘Asylum’ into ‘Hospital’ and in 1934 patients were admitted on a voluntary basis. In 1936 Rainhill Hospital was the largest psychiatric hospital in Europe. The main forms of mental disorder at that time were described as primary dementia and melancholia, however, it was only after the Second World War that new drugs, electro convulsive therapy and pre-frontal leucotomy started the major improvements in psychiatric care.

Elephant Lane merged
Elephant Lane, St Helens c1930
(left) William, Margaret Evelyn & Jim Gent at the front of the house in Elephant Lane
(right) Alice, Agnes, William, Margaret Evelyn & Jim Gent with Paddy the dog in the back yard, Elephant Lane

William Gent died 16 February 1949 aged 69 and Margaret Evelyn Gent died 6 February 1955, aged 76 in Egremont.


Margaret Evelyn and William Gent had 4 sons.