The Memory of Captain Blake

June 6, 2019

Here is my latest offering in what is fast becoming a series of blogs about memorials!

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Photo Copyright: Nicola Samuel (2019)


This memorial plaque can be found inside the church of St Sulien and St Mael in Corwen, Denbighshire. It begins:


Captain Blake died, age 41, on 7th January 1874 at Cape Coast Castle on the west coast of Africa as the result of “excessive exertion and exposure” and being “struck down with violent African fever”.

The memorial is unusual in that it gives a very detailed account of Captain Blake’s career but does not name his wife or children except to say “This tablet was erected to the best of husbands and fathers, by his sorrowing widow.” Also, rather oddly, an identical plaque to the one in Corwen can be found in St Matthew’s Church, Windsor in New South Wales, Australia. The sheer wordiness of the memorial and the difficulty of having an identical memorial produced and sent to Australia show that Captain Blake’s “sorrowing widow” must have spent a great deal of money and effort on having the two plaques erected.

Captain Blake came from a family with a tradition of naval service and joined the navy as a cadet at the age of about 14. He was initially assigned to HMS Hound which was, at the time, deployed off the west coast of Africa intercepting ships as part of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron. The Squadron functioned from 1807 to 1867 to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by intercepting slave ships and freeing slaves.

His subsequent career in the navy, described in such detail in the memorial plaque, epitomises military service at the height of the British Empire, taking him, as it did, around the world and involving him in a number of regional conflicts. He served in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, China, New Zealand, South America, Australia and the Pacific. He was at the bombardment of Sveaborg, a fortress in Helsinki harbour, during the Crimean War. Then he took part in the Second Opium War in China and from there went to New Zealand and took part in the First Taranaki War. Here he was seriously wounded, as the memorial explains, “by a gun-shot wound in the breast, which up to the time of his lamented death caused him much suffering, the bullet lodged near his heart, and being only extracted at the post-mortem examination held on his remains at Cape Coast Castle.”

His career ended as it had begun, with service in West Africa. This time, though, he wasn’t freeing slaves but taking part in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War, a battle with the native Ashanti tribe over control of land in the newly established British Gold Coast colony. He was “struck down with violent African fever” while taking part in the campaign and was carried back to Cape Coast Castle, but died aboard HMS Victor Emanuel and was buried on shore on 27th January 1874, as reported in this article from South Wales Daily News.

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Nothing in the plaque gives any clue as to Captain Blake’s connections to Corwen or Windsor, New South Wales. So what made these two places significant enough for Captain Blake’s widow to go to the trouble and expense of erecting the plaques?

Blake’s wife, Henrietta, was born Henrietta Fitzgerald in Windsor, New South Wales in 1846 and was baptised in St Matthew’s Church. It is likely that this is the church Henrietta attended as a child. Henrietta met Captain Blake while he was stationed in Australia serving on HMS Falcon and they married in Australia but not in this church. They married on January 4th, 1868 in St Johns Church, Darlinghurst (in the middle of Sydney). Henrietta never returned to live in Australia after she left for England with Blake and it is not clear that the church in Windsor had any special significance to Captain Blake himself. As Henrietta is not mentioned by name in the memorial, it does seem slightly odd that Captain Blake should be commemorated in the Windsor church with a plaque that gives no clues as to how he is connected to the place.

So what about the connection to Corwen? Blake was promoted to the rank of captain in 1867 and he and his new wife left for Britain in 1868. His memorial indicates that he wasn’t posted to another ship until April 1873 so, for this 5 year period, the couple were able to lead a normal family life on shore. Their first child, George Hans Sotheby, was born in 1868 in London and their second, Henrietta Rosa, in Devon in 1870. They were living in Devon at the time of the 1871 census but, by the time their third child was born on New Years’ Day 1872, they were living in Corwen.

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Extract from Corwen parish register from microfilm copy held by Denbighshire Archives (MF191). [Original held by Gwynedd Archives in Dolgellau reference no: Z/PE/19/6]

The image above shows the record for the baptism of William Lascelles Fitzgerald Blake in Corwen in 1872. As the record shows, the family were living at Glanalwen at the time, a farm just outside Corwen. Henrietta and the children were living at Glanalwen at the time of Captain Blake’s death. The photograph below shows what remains of the farm buildings.

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Photo Copyright: C. M. Brennan (2019)

The erection of the memorial plaque in 1875 was reported in the local press as seen in the cutting below from the Wrexham Guardian of September 25th.

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It is not clear what brought the Blake family to Corwen in the first place, they don’t appear to have had any family connection to the area for instance. After Captain Blake’s death, Henrietta and the children left Corwen and moved to the Norwood area of South London. Henrietta stayed in this area for the rest of her life, dying there in 1913, having never remarried.

Elisabeth A. Parfitt

Dementia care in the North Wales Hospital

May 20, 2019

This week is Dementia Action Week. Run by the Alzheimer’s Society it aims to unite people, workplaces, schools and communities to take action and improve the lives of people living with dementia. Staff working on the ‘Unlocking the Asylum’ project, took this as an opportunity to look into dementia care in the North Wales Hospital.

In the first annual reports of the hospital (1850-1860), dementia is listed as one of the main five diagnosis’s given to patients. But dementia meant something quite different in the 19th century from what it does today. Dementia, basically, was a broader term used for disorders that affected the brain. By the end of the 19th century, the term became restricted to those suffering with a loss of cognitive ability (the ability of the brain to process, retrieve, and store information).

The most common dementia was named, in 1910, after Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist. In 1906, Alzheimer, who looked at post-mortem brains of affected younger people, published the first case, a 50 year old woman with dementia symptoms. After her death, Alzheimer saw the microscopic plaques and tangles now known as the hallmarks of the disease.

Having studied the case notes of a handful of those patients diagnosed with dementia during the mid to late 19th century, there are some symptoms relatable to our modern understanding of dementia- some have problems with their memory, and difficulties with comprehension, reflection and understanding…

Case File 1885, Patient diagnosed with Dementia- I have seen Margaret Jones on two occasions...she sits with her hands clenched, stares in a vacant unmeaning way, cannot be made to answer questions and refuses to do any act required of her. She looks dejected and sullen.

Case File 1885, Patient diagnosed with Dementia- I have seen Margaret Jones on two occasions…she sits with her hands clenched, stares in a vacant unmeaning way, cannot be made to answer questions and refuses to do any act required of her. She looks dejected and sullen.

Case File 1885- Patient diagnosed with Dementia

Case File 1885- Patient diagnosed with Dementia

Of the 25,000 post 1948 patient files currently listed, 1700 were diagnosed with some form of dementia between 1948 and 1995. It was described as Dementia, Pre Senile dementia, Senile dementia, Post infarct dementia, early dementia, organic dementia, chronic dementia, Arteriosclerotic dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Huntington’s chorea and Parkinson’s disease. Today the number has risen considerably- the Alzheimer’s society predict that by 2021, 1 million people in the UK will be living with the condition. This may be due partly to the fact that we are living longer and partly because we have a better understanding of the condition resulting in more diagnoses.

As there was, and still is no cure for dementia, patients were admitted to the hospital mainly to help relieve the symptoms of the condition and were often prescribed anti-depressant medication. However there is also evidence that patients were admitted for short stays in order to give their carers a much needed break, as the disease became more and more unmanageable. It is also evident from studying these files, that it was very rare for patients with the condition to be given Electro Convulsive treatment.

Post 1948 patient file with a diagnosis of dementia

Post 1948 patient file with a diagnosis of dementia

The field of dementia care has changed beyond recognition even in the last 25 years since the closure of the hospital. In part this has been driven by the sheer numbers of people whose lives are now affected by dementia. Also, it was much less spoken about in its own right, as it is today, as it was assumed to be a condition that affected older people in psychiatric care. Of course today we know that dementia does not just affect the elderly, the Alzheimer’s Society state that 40,000 people under the age of 65 in the UK now live with early onset dementia.

Following a recent course to become Dementia Friends, staff at Denbighshire Archives learnt about the types of dementia, the most common is Alzheimer’s but diseases also include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, Pick’s disease and Frontotemporal dementia. Being a Dementia Friend simply means learning more about dementia, putting yourself in the shoes of someone living with the condition, and turning your understanding into action.

Thankfully today it’s very much talked about and recognised, thanks to the work of the Alzheimer’s society in raising awareness of the condition. Let’s hope with ongoing research and medical advances, a cure can be found for the condition in the near future.

Dementia Friends

Dementia Friends

Please note that due to NHS regulations records of patients containing sensitive personal information are closed to the public for 100 years. These records may be available to researchers who belong to an academic institution upon request. If you are interested in using the North Wales Hospital collection for academic research please contact us.

More information about becoming a dementia friend is available here.

More information about the Alzheimer’s society can be found here.

Rhian Evans- Project Support Officer ‘Unlocking the Asylum’