Gene Surfing

Adventures in Family History

The Devon Lunatic Asylum

bullshot bulletMy mother had never heard of her great-aunt, Elizabeth Ann Burnell – which is odd because these are the same names given to my sister – so when I came across census records relating to her family I had to take a closer look.

Burnell Country

Heading-Burnell Country

My mother’s branch of the Burnell family came originally from Exmoor in West Somerset.

Elizabeth Ann was born in Highbridge, Somerset in 1855, the eldest daughter of  James Burnell and Jane Lethby.

[a copy of their original marriage certificate was found in the possessions of my great aunt Dorothy when she died]

James was a sadler, and was born into a farming family from Wootton Courtney on Exmoor.

However by 1561 he had moved to Highbridge, and a generation later the family was in Bristol.

The Burnell Family

George Burnell 001My great-grandfather, George Burnell (b.1862)  was the younger brother of Elizabeth.

He was a warehouseman and then later a shipping clerk in Bedminster, Bristol.

He married twice and had children from both marriages.

George and Daisy were from his first marriage to Matilda Garland.

Dorothy and my grandfather Walter James were from his second Marriage to Alice Coombes.

But for now we will investigate great, great-aunt Elizabeth.

 Elizabeth Ann

In the census of 1871 Elizabeth is 15 and a servant (general assistant) at the College Street school in Burnham, Somerset.

Elizabeth Burnell 1871

It sounds as if she was working in one of the boarding houses for the pupils.

In 1881 she was an asylum nurse – one of many – at the Devon County Lunatic Asylum in Exminster, Devon.

Elizabeth Burnell 1881

The census says Highbridge, Devon which is incorrect.

But Elizabeth Ann Burnell does not appear in the 1891 census.

So she has either got married, or had died – as it turns out she did both!

The Asylum

Devon Lunatic AsylumTracing Elizabeth, however was quite tricky – but I did eventually find a marriage record for her using Rule#1.

In order to find her husband, I had to go through all of the male staff of about the same age at the Asylum and check for a marriage record – a search for Elizabeth Burnell on her own did not return any results.

In 1881, just after the census, Elizabeth married Charles Edmonds at St. Thomas, Exeter, Devon.

Charles was a baker employed at the asylum, and later a cook in the Royal Navy and then a shopkeeper back in Dawlish. where his father had a shop.

Their first child, George Frederick, was born back in Highbridge in 1882 (or late 1881), so perhaps Elizabeth had returned there specifically or they were just visiting.

If Charles had already joined the navy then he may have been away at the time.


Sadly Elizabeth died in July 1890 so did not appear on the next census in 1891 – but Charles does, and his wife.

Charles married again in 1891 [before the census] but in this census there is also another son shown, William.

William was born in early 1890 just months before Elizabeth died so he is also the child of Charles and Elizabeth.

Possibly she died as a result of the birth – I will get the death record one day and find out.

Charles remarried only 6 months after the death of Elizabeth, but he was a single parent with two young children.

Charles’ second wife, Annie Augusta Moyle, was born 1866 in the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall and was about 10 years younger than Charles.

She had married a widower with 2 young children but did not appear to have any children herself.

So both the sons of Charles Edmonds were from his first marriage to Elizabeth.

Charles = Elizabeth Ann Burnell
  George Edmonds = Rovena Granville Moyles
    Winifred Edmonds = Clifford Taylor
    Rovena Grenfell Edmonds [1] = Henry Curnow
    Georgina Edmonds
  William Edmonds = Ethel Pleace [2]

[1] George Edmonds

George Edmonds married Rovena Granville Moyle at the age of 19 in 1901.

She was the younger sister of his step-mother Annie and was born in 1876 – so she was 6 years older than George.

They had 5 children, three surviving in the 1911 census.

One of their children was Rovena Grenfell, not to be confused with her mother Rovena Grenville.

This appears to be something of a family tradition – for more information visit Moyles Heritage

[2] William Edmonds

The other son William was a gardener and I think he married Edith Elizabeth Pleace in 1920.

bullshot bulletGeorge and William were therefore my first cousins, twice removed.
And my mother knew nothing of this.

 Chris Sidney 2014


One response to “The Devon Lunatic Asylum

  1. Sophie May Lewis August 9, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    I have just come across your website whilst researching my own family history – it appears we are connected! Charles Edmond’s wife Annie (Anne Augusta) Moyle and her sister/his daughter-in-law Rovena Granville Moyle were younger sisters of my GG-Grandmother Mary Elizabeth Alexandra Moyle (born 1863, Isles of Scilly). I have more information on her family at my website
    I am very keen to find out any more information on Rovena’s family, particularly what happened to her children and whether Rovena may have gone to Bradford. The ‘Grenfell/Granville’ name was indeed a family tradition, with the name coming from a maiden name of a Mary Grenfell who married a Richard Moyle in Cornwall in 1779. My father’s generation seems to have been the first not to use it (in my direct line at least).
    Please do get in touch!
    Sophie May Lewis (West Sussex, England)


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