“On the night of Nov 6th Sr Mary Elizabeth passed to her rest. She had been resident at Heigham Hall since 1886” says the Community Diary for November 1942, and a lifetime is encapsulated in those words. Heigham Hall was a private home for those suffering from mental illness, and Sr Mary Elizabeth spent most of her life there. Why, we may never discover.
Born in 1854 in Beccles, Mary Elizabeth Rix was the youngest child of a local solicitor, Samuel Wilton Rix and his wife Elizabeth. Mary grew up in Suffolk, living in Wangford in 1861 with her parents and 5 of her siblings, who were aged between 26 and 9; by 1871 the family had moved to Beccles, where Mary and her older sister Grace were the only children still at home. A granddaughter, Edith aged 5, was also there. At some point in the late 1870s, or early 1880s, Mary joined the Community, where she was professed as a choir Sister on August 29th 1882. The previous year, she had been registered in the Census living in Caernarvon Road, Norwich, at our Cottage Home Refuge, working with the first Sr Elizabeth, Sr Lucy and Eliza Collins, who was employed as housekeeper and cook. There are 6 women registered there, training for domestic service. One of them, Alice Amis or Ames, may have been the Alice Ames who joined our Third Order as Sr Ann Faith. At this stage, Sr Mary Elizabeth must have been able to manage Community life, and the work that entailed. I cannot imagine she would have been professed otherwise, although I could be wrong. Whether there were any signs of mental strain at this point is impossible to tell. Whatever the reasons, Sr Mary Elizabeth went to Heigham Hall, in Norwich, in 1886 and remained there until her death over 50 years later.
Census data bears this out; I think I’ve found her in the 1891 and 1901 Censuses, when the patients were registered with their initials only; the 1911 and 1921 Census both have her registered there, as does the 1939 register. How Sr Mary Elizabeth was cared for, the nature of her treatment, what exactly caused her to go there: none of this I know. Neither do I know who paid, although as she had her own income, she may well have paid herself. Many Sisters in the earlier years of the Community paid money to the Community, as they could afford, and kept their own resources. In some cases, this may have been money the Sister had a life interest in only. Sr Mary Elizabeth’s probate record states that she left effects of £360 1s; her nephew, Shelly William Rix, was her executor.
Sr Mary Elizabeth was in the Community for over 60 years; for 56 of those years, she was resident at Heigham Hall. Without knowing the nature of her illness, or what the treatment was, I do not know what capacity she had, or how able she was; how much she was able to pursue her faith, and her daily prayers. I would assume that there was a chaplain and some spiritual sustenance. I’ve no idea what kind of life she led there. She is listed in the census as ‘patient’, one among many. But that is not to say she could not have had any kind of ministry; God can work in many ways, and works through those who suffer, and through those who are ‘one among many’.
The 1901 Census has the following entry for who I think is Sr Mary Elizabeth: M. E. R., Inmate, Single, no occupation, birthplace unknown, lunatic. In 1911, the Hall is down as Heigham Hall for Lunatics; by 1921, the name has changed to Heigham Hall Mental Hospital. The word ‘lunatic’, now thankfully not used, seems very damning, condemning a person – or, at least, so it does to me, now; it may not have been used in that way at the time. But the dropping of the word gives some sense of changing attitudes towards mental illness, as well as greater understanding. I can only offer the hope that, as time moves on, that understanding continues to increase, not only amongst those suffering from mental ill health, and not only among those working with those who suffer but, also, amongst the general population; so that suffering is not increased by any sense of shame or need to hide, or made worse by unhelpful reactions from others. Had Sr Mary Elizabeth been alive now, her life would have been very different, even if she had still suffered for all those decades. I can only respond to her story by praying for those who may suffer in similar ways today.