The Durham Sewells
By Jean Cooper
This article was originally published in the August 2007 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
My family boasts many men named Abraham Sewell, several in every generation until recent times. In the days when I was trying to make even more sense of these generations of similarly named ancestors, one Abraham came up on a search and, as is often the case, posed more questions than solutions.
Abraham Sewell was clearly named as an ‘inmate’ at Broadmoor asylum in the 1871 census. I know the language is no longer acceptable, but this was the accepted usage then. Now, Abraham would be a ‘patient’, not an ‘inmate’.
Abraham is listed as a shoemaker, born in County Durham. In that case, I thought he must be connected, or be a part of my family. My feelings at this time were of sadness for a soul who had been obviously proven to have acted as criminally insane, placed so far from home and family. I could not find, or did not recognise, the information that would give me the beginning of Abraham’s life.
Thanks to Genes Reunited, I did link up with Roger Redfearn and his wife Brenda, a Sewell prior to her marriage to Roger. It transpires that Brenda is a direct descendant of Abraham and although the Redfearns had information about Abraham up to his marriage, they did not have the end of his life. Who would think to look in Buckinghamshire for a Durham shoemaker, particularly in Broadmoor!
So, as far as we know, Abraham Sewell was born in 1811/12 in Cockfield to (yes, another one) Abraham Sewell and his wife Jane Littlefair. Abraham Senior was born in the Barnard Castle area, a farmer. Abraham Junior was the 6th child of 9. My ancestor was the second child, John.
On 16th November 1851, Abraham married Ann Harll, a widow. I have the certificate for the marriage, which took place in the Parish Church in Barnoldswick. Ann’s father is listed as Mark Scott, a ship’s carpenter, her residence as Cutler’s Hall (I think a registration district). Abraham’s residence was Berry Edge, but at that time his parents were living in Cabin House, Hamsterley. However, some of eldest brother George’s family lived at Berry Edge, before their move to Hartlepool. Abraham put his mark to the certificate, but Ann could write her name. Abraham was 40 when he married - I wonder if he had illness before his marriage resulting in a late partnership being formed?
Robert Mark Sewell was born on 3rd October 1852, registered at Shotley Bridge. Shortly after Robert’s birth, they must have moved in with Abraham and Jane. The best way to describe the tragic incident that followed is to quote from the Durham Chronicle of 18th and 25th March 1853.:
“Human weakness of another sort led to a particularly brutal murder and assault at Cabin House, Lynesack and Softley, in March 1853.
Abraham Sewell rose at 5a.m. and started to attack his mother, Jane, with a rolling pin. When his father Abraham tried to intervene, he felled him with a poker, then continued the attack on his mother with the poker and a knife, leaving his mother fatally injured and his father unconscious. He left by a window and threatened 2 neighbours. After being chased away by a neighbour with a loaded gun, he was finally taken into custody, still in his nightshirt at Blackett’s public house in Wham. He was singing a Ranter’s hymn and taking and praying irrationally.” (Sewell family also lived Wham)
At his trial he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to Bensham Asylum. We know that Bensham Asylum subsequently closed and inmates were transferred to Dunstan Asylum, but we do not know how he eventually ended up in Broadmoor which was a considerable distance away.
Little Robert was less than 6 months old, his mother and himself could so easily have been victims too, he could also have killed his father who died 3 years later aged 91 from old age. Jane was 81, her cause of death “wilful murder, killed by son Abraham Sewell by striking her with a poker on the head and chest”.
I cannot imagine the impact this had, not only on the tight knit community, but particularly on the Sewell family. Nine adult children lost their mother and I do not know how many grandchildren lost their grandmother. As most of the family continued to live on in Hamsterley and the surrounding area, I can only assume the support of friends and neighbours was significant. My sympathy briefly left Abraham entirely in defence of my poor 4x great grandmother, surely a frail elderly lady at 81.
Abraham died in 29 November 1882, aged 70, his cause of death being cancer of the lower bowel. I wonder if Abraham knew what he had done?
Abraham’s wife Ann continued to live in the local area to her in-laws, she did not marry again, but kept the Sewell name and described herself as “Hannah”, a widow once more. She did have more children, but presumably could not remarry as her husband was, in fact, still alive. Baby Robert did later marry and carried on this strand of the Sewells. Hannah’s second child, born in 1863, was described as having Abraham Sewell as father (Thanks to Julie Errington). Another mystery?
I have been in touch with Broadmoor, I would dearly love to see Abraham’s patient records and I believe there is the chance there may also be a photograph. However, I have been told that what records have been documented so far are of staff working at the hospital, not patients, also that the hospital museum has closed.
My own feelings on the matter took me by surprise. I have a colleague, also a genealogist, who with black humour advises other work colleagues to move all sharp implements away from me! The humour helps. Repeatedly I am struck by how fresh an emotion can be when finding out about a relative in trouble, or a child dying, etc. Or is this just me? Would this tragedy have happened just the same if the protagonists had had our medical information, treatment and understanding??? We will never know, but I hold them all in prayer, especially Broadmoor Abraham.
So, I can’t find out anything more …unless of course, someone out there knows otherwise…..
With special thanks to Roger and Brenda Redfearn.
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