Two of four daughters of John Bowes-Lyon (the Queen Mother’s older brother), Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were born in 1919 and 1926; Katherine is only three months younger than her cousin Elizabeth, the girl who would one day be crowned Queen.
From the ages of 15 and 22, respectively, they were sent to live at the Royal Earlswood Hospital, an institution for the learning disabled in Surrey, which was built in 1855 as an ‘Asylum for Idiots’.
The Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in Redhill, Surrey was cruelly known as The National Asylum for Idiots Credit: Rex Features
While their two other sisters enjoyed lives of privilege and inclusion in the social world of the aristocracy and the royal family, Katherine and Nerissa were all but forgotten.The two sisters seemed to be aware of their royal connections; when royal events were shown on television, they would curtsy to the screen.In 1963, Burke’s Peerage, the guidebook to aristocratic lineage, recorded the sisters as having died in 1940 and 1961. Nerissa actually died in 1986, and Katherine was moved into a home in the community when the Royal Earlswood was closed down in 1997.The film explores the harsh realities of life inside former asylums like the Royal Earlswood through the personal testimony of former residents, their families and the staff who worked there and cared for the Queen’s cousins.Through their accounts, and with the insight of medical historians, the programme examines the changing attitudes to learning disability in British society.
What a terrible dreadful shame that two sisters should be treated like this, and so close to royalty, the people who did this should be ashamed.
Five cousins of the Queen were admitted to a mental hospital outside London in 1941. For 125 pounds a month the monarch’s cousins lived at the Royal Earlswood Hospital at Redhill in Surrey. At the Royal Earlswood Institution they lived in stark conditions and had few clothes of their own, often having to share underwear with the 230 other residents. But the drastic measure was deemed necessary as in 1923 their aunt Elizabeth married the future King George VI — and their cousin Princess Elizabeth would later become Queen.
Katherine Bowes-Lyon, 60, was a niece of the Queen Mother, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Katherine Bowes-Lyon’s sister, Nerissa, died in the same hospital at the age of 57. In those less enlightened days, having anyone in the family with “mental deficiencies” was often a source of shame. But for the royals, particularly in an era when monarchies had been over-thrown across the world, there were fears it could be disastrous.
Three other women, three sisters who were the Queen’s second cousins were admitted to the hospital at the same time as the Bowes-Lyon sisters. Two of them, Etheldreda and Idonea Fane, shared the same ward as Katherine Bowes-Lyon. Etheldreda, Idonea, and Bowes-Lyon were described as not fully aware of their relationship.
“They were aware of a long kinship–but they had a mental age of young children and a memory that came and went,” the spokesman said. He said Rosemary Fane died in 1972. The mother of the Fane sisters was a sister of Katherine Bowes-Lyon’s mother, who was a sister-in-law of the Queen Mother.
The Queen Mother, who was president of the Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults, found out in 1980 that her two nieces were alive and in hospital. The society’s general secretary Sir Brian Rixsaid. told reporters that the Queen Mother had thought earlier both sisters were dead. Once she found out they were alive, she was “very supportive”. Actually, in research, she sent them an initial 4 digit cheque for Christmas and Birthday presents. No other money was mentioned.
Both Bowes-Lyon sisters, daughters of the Queen Mother’s brother, John, are described as having died unmarried by the 1963 edition of Burke’s Peerage, which lists the British aristocracy. The book says Katherine died in 1961 and Nerissa in 1940. Buckingham Palace declined to comment but the Royal Earlswood Hospital issued a statement, saying:
“We can confirm that Katherine Bowes-Lyon had been a resident at this hospital since 1941.” “She was severely mentally handicapped but had no physical disabilities. Miss Bowes-Lyon lead the same sort of daily routine as many of the other 400 residents at the hospital,” the statement said.
The hospital was responding to a report about the sisters that appeared in The Sun, a London tabloid in 2001. The Sun devoted its front page to the story. Pictures of Katherine Bowes-Lyon were also splashed on the front pages of other popular dailies. The Sun ran a picture of what it said was Nerissa Bowes-Lyon’s grave in Redhill Cemetery near the mental hospital. The grave was marked only by a plastic tag with the woman’s surname and a number. Lady Elizabeth Anson, niece of the two sisters, issued a statement to the BBC on behalf of the Bowes-Lyon family saying “there was no attempt at a coverup” and many family members had visited the sisters.
She said her aunt was “a very vague person who often, didn’t fill out the forms that Burke’s Peerage sent her, either properly or completely.” , The hospital spokesman, who insisted on anonymity, said Monday: “Katherine Bowes-Lyon had been a resident at this hospital since 1941. She is severely mentally handicapped but had no physical disabilities. “She was in a seven-bed ward with other residents of her own age and is in no way restricted. “
I am just gobsmacked.