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In mid-March Susan Adams and I went to Powys Achives in Llandrindod Wells to see some of their extensive archive relating to the Mid-Wales Hospital, Talgarth. Weeks after our visit we are still moved and inspired by the images, reports and narratives we viewed. The visit gave strong historical roots to our project working with people who wish to share their own recollections of the former hospital.

We were particularly interested in patient records as the experiences of this group are harder to find than the more dominant narratives of those in positions of relative power. So we requested to view patient registers of discharges and deaths. We were aware that we could only view records pre 1923, which exceed the 100 year limitation on access.

One of the items in the archives is a beautifully coloured architect’s ground plan from around 1900 (Giles, Gough and Trollope). Our photo above has been adapted to show the actual ground it represents as we see it now.  ‘The map is not the territory’ (Gregory Bateson, 1988)

We viewed five registers: three for male and two for female patients, each containing hundreds of records documenting date and reason for admission, observations of general health, family involved, and ‘Mental state on Admission’. Daily records are not kept but entries are made at key moments, such as improvement or deterioration of health. Many people are discharged as recovered, but equally, many records conclude with a death certificate.

Medical entries were of course made by staff members, so although patients’ accounts of difficulties they experience are given, it is only through rare inclusions such as letters that we get their direct words. All the records are in English, despite the fact that the Mid-Wales Hospital was built partly to provide care in Welsh. In 1842, clinicians in Gloucester, where many people from Wales were sent, had raised concerns that they could not treat people effectively, not being able to speak or understand the language. English would have been the dominant or official language, but would Welsh have been spoken on a day to day basis? The archive team suggested that we might be able to find out more about this by looking into the 1911 Census records for the Talgarth area.

We saw hundreds of astounding photographs, full of vitality, conveying such a strong sense of the person depicted. We do not yet have permission to share any of these, though we will continue to have contacts with Powys Archives about potential for this. ­In the meantime, Susan has made a drawing inspired by what we witnessed.

Faced with so much material – faces emerging from the page, then lost in a blur as we turn to the next – it’s tempting to look for the ‘special’ stories – maybe some-one from our home areas, the man or woman of colour, the children, the people whose voices come through the letters. But of course each page and each story is special, deserving time and attention. It will take us some time to process everything, and to begin to find ways of honouring those past people and experiences whilst respecting Powys Archives’ guidance about confidentiality.

Glenside Museum have faced these dilemmas and have chosen to share photographs and stories. In one of their Instagram posts they write: ‘Historically museums such as ours tended to omit patients’ stories and concentrate on the place and the staff. This made our ability to talk about patient care very one-sided. It also added to stigma as it suggests there is no value in their story and some sort of shame in having been in such a hospital. Just as there is no shame in having cancer or a broken leg, there is no shame in having had poor mental health’.

 In a following post we will share more about how other communities, museums and archives deal with sensitive material, and try to learn from their approaches, but for now, more about Powys Archives…

The Archive team were curious about the work of former artist in residence at Mid Wales Hospital, Tessa Waite, and whether she had any documentation of the artworks and exhibition she co-ordinated at the Wyeside Arts Centre in Builth Wells as part of her 4 years residency in the early 1990s. We were able to ask her about that recently. Apparently the artworks were either returned to the owners, or if they were unwanted, were destroyed after an agreed and appropriate length of time. She does not think she has any photographs of the exhibition, but will check her records.

We had heard that many patients were buried in unmarked graves near the chapel, but had not been able to verify the source of this information. Thanks to the support of the Archive staff we viewed parts of the Register of Burials up to the 100 year cut off date of 2023. From this we could see that there are indeed at least 1000 unmarked graves there. With more research and access to redacted archives, exact numbers could be discovered, but for us now, the information we have will be crucial to the course of the project and response to the site.

At the very end of our visit we were able to cross reference from the Register of Burials back to the Register of Discharges and Deaths and learnt the name of one woman who is buried there. There was no photograph and we cannot share her name, but we will not forget her and hope to find a way to honour her and all the others.

With warm thanks to the team at Powys Archives for their support so far.