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Siddy Burgum; his Astonishing Story

I have become used to hearing about "lost" relations. Families drift apart, mysterious adoptions; its all part of the intrigue of family history. Hidden skeletons are part of the fascination. The story you are about to read fits into my "unbelievable" category. It is a story wrapped in the atmosphere of Dickens and the Victorian era. Imagine, if you will, the "olden days" and an East London family making their way in the world. It is a large family, with various brothers and sisters growing up and going out to work.

One day tragedy strikes. One of the sons is seriously injured. The injuries include a major blow to the brain. The family look after the young man who gradually recovers from his physical injuries. However, the blow to the head has caused permanent damage and the young man is prone to violent outbursts. The parents increasingly find it impossible to look after their son, who is eventually institutionalised.

Locked away in a mental hospital, the young man receives visits from his family. However, the parents grow old and die. The young man's brothers and sisters occasionally visit him, but over the years the visits become less and less frequent. Years turn into decades. Memories fade........... This story is all the more remarkable to me for two reasons. First of all, this is no Dickensian story. It took place in the twentieth century ! Secondly, it took place in my family! My father, John Burgum, takes up the story..............

A Tearful Reunion

It began with a telephone call saying that William Whittington Burgum, my father (Doug's grandfather), was very poorly. Dad is 95 years old this December and we were told he was weak with bronchial pneumonia. We dropped everything and rushed down to Canewdon, in Essex, to see him. Our visit helped raise his spirits and soon "the old man" was gaining strength and well on his way to recovery. Laying there ill, Dad had thought about his life, about his late wife Rose and about his brothers and sisters most of whom had passed away. He also wondered about "Siddy" and wondered what might have become of him.
Sidney Lawrence Burgum was born at Poplar, East London, on 9th February 1906. He was the seventh of ten children belonging to Fred and Mary Burgum. (The others were Frederick, Nell, Harry, George, Cecil, William (my Dad), Ethel, Mabel and Edward). In the 1920's, Siddy worked for Tate and Lyle in East London. (picture right). In 1926, in a tragic accident, a sack of sugar fell on him causing physical and mental damage. His parents wanted to keep him at home, but it became far too much for them. Siddy was committed to a mental home at Goodmayes Hospital, in Essex. To start with the visits were fairly regular. The parents died and the brothers and sisters carried on visiting now and again, but they too had commitments to their own growing families and gradually, over the years, the number of visits fell away. We are probably saying there were no or few visits for about 30 years!
Now my father lay ill and wondered about his brother Siddy. What had become of him? We had heard the story, of course; the bag of sugar, the terrible injuries. Siddy had been locked away over seventy years ago. If he were still alive, he would be 93 years old. My father grew stronger and brighter and my wife and I returned to our home in the Forest of Dean. There I talked to my son Douglas. He, of course, runs the Burgum Family History Society. I told him his granddad was feeling a lot better and then told him about Siddy. Was there anyway of finding out what had happened to Siddy? Doug rang the hospital, who refused to give out any information over the telephone. He then wrote to Goodmayes Hospital, explained who he was and asked for information about Siddy. Was he still alive? Several weeks later, Doug rang me. Siddy was still alive! The nurses were amazed and delighted to learn that Siddy still had surviving relatives.

My cousin, Billy Rolston (AA 071), son of the only surviving sister (Mabel Burgum) paid a visit to the hospital to get the lay of the land, so to speak. The nurses asked Siddy if he had any brothers or sisters. He recalled "Whitty" (my father), Mabel and Nell Storey (sister, since passed on). Billy Rolston and I planned the reunion. He would bring his mother Mabel and I would bring my father, Whit. We would meet in the reception of the hospital on Monday 21st September (1998). The previous evening we broke the news to my Dad. "Thank Douglas for me", he kept saying. "Thank Douglas."

Even the staff were excited about the idea of having a visit from Siddy's relations. One of the nurses took us to the ward and said that Siddy was a very good patient, albeit that he has good days and bad days (but then, don't we all). We were armed with sweets and were shown into a very large room (more like a ballroom) where the other inmates sat around. We were led to a large bay window with lots of armchairs and there sat Siddy. We recognised him as a Burgum straight away. There were kisses and cuddles and he smiled a lot. We all had tears in our eyes. Trying to converse with him, we would like to think that he had flashes of memory. Who can tell? Siddy was enjoying the sweets and sat there, smartly dressed. My father sat beside him, holding his hand. The nurses told us of the outings he had been on to various parts of the country. They told us about the barbecues and the family parties. We were given a photograph, ironically taken two weeks before in Southend, not far from Canewdon! My father is now looking forward to his next visit to Siddy. (He is also keen to make BURGUM 2000, the Burgum reunion !). Sitting there at the hospital, watching my father with Siddy and Mabel, it was amazing to think that this family trio of two brothers and a sister had nearly 276 years between them. What a reunion!

A follow-up article was published in the BURGUM FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Journal, volume 37, Spring 1999. It was written by Kevin Burgum (age 14 at the time), a cousin of mine, who is the son of Dan and Val Burgum (AA 032). He takes up the story.....

Grandad visits Siddy Again!

On Saturday 12th December 1998, Siddy was visited by the Burgums for the second time in three months. He was again visited by Whittington Burgum (my grandad), but this time "Whit" went with me and my dad, Daniel Burgum. The day started with me going to training at 9:00 a.m. with my local football club, Benfleet Villa. Later, when I was washing back at my house in Thundersley, Essex, Dad said to me "Hurry up, we're going out!"

I asked him where we were going and he replied "We're going to see my Uncle Sid." I later found out that this was going to be the first time Dad was going to see him, let alone me meet him. At around 11:00 a.m. Dad and I left to collect Grandad from his Canewdon house. When we arrived at Grandad's house he was ready and waiting to go. He knew he was going out for the day, but he didn't know where he was going. My father had been sent an invitation via my Uncle John for the Mary Ward Christmas Party which is the ward in which Siddy is an in-patient.

As the distance was too far for Uncle John to travel from his home in the Forest of Dean, he thought my dad would be interested in going. As luck would have it, my father was not working that night (he works night shifts, sending newspapers around the world) and he thought it would be a nice early Christmas surprise for Grandad. From his house we drove straight to the Goodmayes Hospital, near Ilford, London. As we went past the Ford Motor Plant in Dagenham, Grandad realised where he was and commented on how near Siddy's hospital was. My Dad replied "That's where we're going". Grandad remembered back to when he was a young man living nearby when the area was just field after field.

On our arrival at Goodmayes Hospital, Dad drove in the entrance that Grandad said Uncle John had used to park in on their first visit. Dad got out and asked a nurse if this was the entrance for the Mary Ward. She saw Grandad sitting in the car with me and said that it would save us a long walk if we parked right outside the ward. As we walked up to the door we could hear loud music with someone singing along to it. Dad opened the door of the ward and we saw two ladies dancing in top hats and tails, with a walking stick which was being spun around. There was also a man in his sixties singing along with the old-fashioned music that was being played. The man was wearing a party hat and everyone there seemed to be having a good time. Grandad walked over to this man who had the same facial features as him. This man's face lit up and Grandad said "Hello Sid". This was when me and Dad realised who this man was - it was Siddy!

Me and Dad introduced ourselves and Grandad explained to him who we were. Sid smiled again and took my hand. He didn't seem to want to let go of it, so I let him hold it for a few minutes. Meanwhile the ladies who were dancing had finished their routine and went into a room while the gentleman singing went around to the nurses who sung along with him. They were songs that both Dad and Grandad knew from when they lived in the East End of London. Grandad was reminded of the good old days which he had spent with his brother when they were young men and spent nights out together. I noticed that Dad had forgotten to give Siddy the present that we had for him. I pulled it out of a bag and opened it for him because he had trouble doing it himself. You have to remember that Siddy was ninety-two years old ! We had got him a large jar of chocolates. He seemed to be very grateful for receiving them out of their wrappers. While we had been doing this, the two dancers who had been on earlier had changed their costumes and were performing another dance routine.

After that dance, the nurses in the ward brought round food such as sandwiches and cakes and other such things. This was followed by trifle and soft drinks. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the food and refreshments. When all this was cleared away the gentleman singer sung again with the dancers doing another dance act in yet another costume. As soon as he finished his song, the raffle began. There must have been at least twenty prizes to be won including a giant teddy-bear, wine, plants, flowers and biscuits. Soon after the raffle, it was announced that it had raised around £110. The Christmas party ended then and it was time to say goodbye to Siddy which was very sad for us because we had all really enjoyed ourselves. Grandad hugged Siddy while Dad and I just shook his hand. As we were just about to walk out of the door, a nurse said "Thanks for coming". She also told us that the party that we had just attended would be the last one at the hospital as it was closing down in May. We were shocked to hear this and asked where they were moving to. We found out they were moving to Forest Gate, about twenety minutes nearer to East London.

Once outside, Dad went in the opposite direction to which I thought we should be going. I aksed him where we were going. "Wait and see" was the answer I received. After a couple of minutes I could see the Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf in the distance. As we were driving past London City Airport which is in the Royal Albert Dock, Grandad asked if that was Tate and Lyle. Dad said it was. I only realised when reading the Burgum Family History Society recently that that was where Siddy was working when he had his terrible accident which put him where he is today. We were now right in the heart of London where Grandad grew up as a boy and a man. The Dome and Canary Wharf were next to us and Grandad couldn't believe how big they both were as he had only ever seen them on television. The Dome looked beautiful at night as there was a line of blue lights around the centre of it.

A few minutes after this we went into a tunnel. Grandad enquired if we were travelling through the Blackwall Tunnel and Dad told him that it was actually the Limehouse Link. Once out, Dad turned down a small lane. We stopped and Dad said "Come on, get out." Grandad said "Do what ?" Dad just laughed. We got out of the car and Grandad could not believe his eyes. I still hadn't a clue where we were and thought we were going to look at the church down the lane. Dad asked if I wanted a drink. "What? In a church?" I asked. "No," Dad said. "In Grandad's old pub, the Five Bells and Bladebone." We went in, ordered a drink and Dad told the barmen that Grandad had owned the pub during the Second World War. They were very interested in what Grandad was telling them about the history of what now they owned. We drank our drinks and decided it was now time to head home to Canewdon. When we arrived back at Grandad's house he thanked us for a lovely day out. I enjoyed the day as much as Grandad did and wouldn't mind visiting Siddy again.

And Finally..... The article below was written about Siddy in volume 38 of the BURGUM FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Journal; Summer 1999.

Siddy Burgum (1906-1999)

In volume 35 of the BURGUM FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Journal, I told you the amazing story of "Siddy". He was the long lost brother of my grandfather and had been institutionalised as a young man after being injured in a tragic accident way back in 1926. (A sack of sugar had fallen on him from a great height, causing physical and mental damage). (After reading this story, I wonder if anyone else might be persuaded to seek out their estranged family. I do not presume to tell you what to do, but if you have family out there, perhaps you should consider looking them up before its too late). On learning this story, I had traced Siddy to a hospital in Essex, where he had spent nearly all his adult life.

In early June this year, my father received a visit from the police to be told formally that Sidney Lawrence Burgum had died on 4th June 1999 at Goodmayes Hospital. A nurse later described how Siddy had sat on the side of his bed, coughed once, then just lay back on his bed and died. His heart had failed.. Siddy had been "locked away" for seventy-three years, although he had been taken out on visits. Just a few weeks before, Siddy had been taken to Southend-on-Sea where the nurse had taken him for his favourite "tipple", a glass of sherry. Siddy had insisted on buying the nurse one too! Siddy also bought a new baseball hat on that visit.

One time, the nurses recall, Siddy escaped from Goodmayes. He simply walked out of the hospital! The police searched and searched, scouring the streets in the area. Naturally, they were looking for a man wandering the streets or looking suspicious, but to no avail. Siddy was eventually found in Canning Town several miles away, close to where he had lived as a young man. So, why had the police not spotted him? Siddy, it seems had picked up a broom and swept the streets back to where he had lived forty or fifty years before! Of course, the police had passed the road sweeper several times, but had never thought to challenge him! After all, he was just a road sweeper!

Fifty or sixty people attended Siddy's funeral that took place at the hospital chapel, in Goodmayes. Danny Burgum and his son Kevin attended. Danny's brother Charlie went, as did Billy and Iris Rolston (AA 071). Siddy's sister Mabel and his brother Whit (my grandfather) also went. "It was a fantastic service," Dan told me. "One of the nicest I've been to." Siddy had been a regular church-goer and most of the congregation was from the church or his hospital ward. My grandfather told Dan he wanted to go up to the coffin and touch it. "Go on then," Dan told him, "He's your brother. You go up there." Whit went up with his sister, Mabel. On top of the coffin lay the baseball cap Siddy had got in Southend just a few weeks before. Mabel picked up the cap, folded it up and gave it to my Grandfather. "Go on," she said. "You take it."

To me, the discovery of Siddy has been a strange story. He was locked away over seventy years ago and gradually the family lost contact with him. His brothers and sisters moved away, got married and had their own families, leaving it to their mother and father (Fred and Mary) to visit Siddy. Fred and Mary grew old and died and the visits stopped. When my grandfather (Whit Burgum) grew ill last August, he lay in his bed and wondered what had become of his brother Sid. I then made the enquiries that led us to find that Sidney Lawrence Burgum was still living at Goodmayes Hospital. The fact that my grandfather was able to rediscover his brother again is, in my opinion, a wonderful and remarkable thing. (After all, they were both in their nineties). Clearly, Siddy thought so too. The nurses said that since the visits, Siddy had become more content, gentler and mellow. He, too, had found his family again. Siddy died, but he did not die alone. He had been reunited with his family and he will live on in their memories.