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The Surrey Asylums : A Short History


The first time I saw an old asylum was back when I was a child, growing up in Devon. Wonford House was just down the road from my school growing up, and it was spoken of in slightly feared and respectful tones by those who had need to go there. It’s still a working psychiatric unit, and really quite beautiful and grand in its way.

Wonford House, Devon

A few mentions recently at work about the history of the asylums in Surrey got me pondering. Which led to too much time spent on the internet reading. Which led to this blog, again it is – as all the others – purely for my own amusement! It’s a history of geography and architecture and people, and of stigma and walls. And countless lives. Literally countless. The records are patchy when they are present, and people lived and died in the hundreds of thousands.

In the late 19th Century, the number of people deemed to be “insane” and in need of help was increasing; or being cynical there were now laws decreeing the treatment that people should have. The London County Council had responsibility for looking after these patients and thought it healthier, not to mention cheaper, to build asylums out of London.

Springfield Hospital, Tooting

They were especially needed as the First Surrey County Asylum, pictured above – now known as Springfield Hospital in Tooting – was getting overcrowded.
This led to the purchase of areas of land in Surrey. One of them what was then called Horton Manor, a large estate near Epsom consisting of about 1000 acres of land. The Manor House had been built in 1712 and was owned by James Trotter, who had the great title High Sheriff Of Surrey. It was bought from Sir Thomas Buxton in 1896 for about £35,000 – a huge sum at the time – with a view to building six huge asylums, each holding about 2000 patients.

1890 Map of Horton Estate

This is an 1890 map of the Horton Estate before the hospitals were built, showing the manor house and surrounding fields.

In the end, 5 were built; in order, The Manor Hospital, Horton Asylum, St Ebbas Hospital, Longrove Hospital, and West Park Hospital. These hospitals became known as ‘The Epsom Cluster’ and received patients from all over London. It was, at its peak, one of the biggest concentration of people with mental health problems in the world.

‘The Epsom Cluster’

The Manor Hospital was built to help people with learning disabilities; St Ebbas was initially built to help people with epilepsy and also children. The other three were meant to be general asylums looking after all kinds of mental health problems. However, all of them developed and evolved over the decades with different names and specialities.

The Manor Hospital

The Manor Hospital, using the old manor house, was the “Sixth Surrey County Asylum.” This is a picture of the manor house in about 1890 before the transformation to a hospital began.

Manor House 1890

The Manor Hospital opened to patients in 1899. The original house was used as the admin buildings, and the rest was mostly single storey cheaply built buildings. Ward names included Grant, Kestral and Miller. They was initially made with timber and metal sheets, which was only supposed to be temporary, for a maximum of 15 years – however they were used until the 1970s. This, I suppose, is one of many examples of inpatient psychiatric units not being fit for purpose.

Ward at Manor Hospital

It was designed by William C Clifford Smith, an architect employee by London City Council. It opened in 1899 and was originally just for women, but men started to be placed there – they were patients, but they were made to work at the pumping and power station. Using patients for work was common in many asylums; in many cases it would have been called therapeutic.

Administrative Office, Manor Hospital

Like the Horton Asylum below, the hospital was quickly made into a war hospital in 1916. One can only imagine what it was like for the many hundreds of patients there when the war started, and where they were made to go.

After the war it was made into a hospital for what was described as ‘mental defectives’ and tried, more than others at the time, to rehabilitate people and give them skills. The ‘Sherwood Training Unit’ was established in 1965 to provide some vocational training for young people with learning disabilities – it was located in one of the old pumping rooms and boiler room. The patients were trained to do practical things – making chain link fencing and brushes, wood turning, welding and drilling.

The hospital closed in 1996; the last place to close was Pine Lodge, a day centre for people with learning disabilities. It became derelict and was left for many years to fall apart – this person had a good time exploring the ruins! As with most of the hospitals in prime south east commuter land, the unsightly villas were demolished and the land sold for development. The main house still exists and is a collection of smart flats – called Manor Park.

Manor Park

Horton Asylum

The “Commisioners In Lunacy” was a public body set up in 1845 as part of the Lunacy Act, and part of its remit was to ensure somewhere for patients to go. The Commisioners asked George Thomas Hine to be their “consultant architect” and design a new asylum to be the second of the Epsom Cluster of psychiatric hospitals, and the 7th of the Surrey County Asylums. For Horton Asylum, Hine used a “compact arrow” plan similar to that used at Bexley Asylum. It opened in 1902.

The hospital was huge, and had a lovely chapel.

Church at Horton Hospital

Water Tower at Horton Hospital

Cobbler Unit at Horton Hospital

During WWI, the Asylum was quickly turned into Horton War Hospital, overseen by Lt Colonel JR Lord, looking after wounded soldiers – the 2143 patients were transferred to the other asylums around the area.

Pic during World War I at Horton Hospital

King George and Mary visited in 1916, and over 40,000 people were treated over the course of the war. However, as soon as the war was finished, the hospital was again redesignated as Horton Mental Hospital. Similar work was done at the hospital during WW2. This is a picture of people posing outside the hospital – whether staff or patient, I don’t know.

Pic during World War II at Horton Hospital

In the 1960s the hospital was notable for its use of music therapy. Henry Rollin was a psychiatrist who was the superintendent at Horton Hospital from 1948, and bought in music, dance, and sport to the hospital. This article that he wrote about music therapy is just great and mentions Burton and Shakespeare. He was obviously a well read man.

Dr. Henry R. Rollin

His obituary is lovely, and mentions his love of salt beef which is obviously a great touch.

“Doctors and their patients, may I remind them, are not packets of soap-flakes that can be moved from one shelf to the next shelf or from one shop to the next shop with impunity … Do I sound disenchanted, disillusioned, or even a trifle paranoid? I am. I bloody well am.”

Apt. And still sadly relevant.

At its peak in the 1970s there were almost 1500 patients staying at Horton Hospital, but beds decreased over the next decade as more and more people were looked after in the community instead.

An interesting part of the history of this hospital is its connection with malaria research. It was thought, before the use of penicillin, that infecting people who had “general paresis of the insane” or “dementia paralytica”, or what we now call tertiary syphilis – with malaria was helpful. The theory behind this is that the fever caused by the malaria would help destroy the spirochaetes in the brain. Julius Wagner-Jauregg won a Nobel Prize for this in 1927 only the second psychiatrist to have done so. The hospital was an important site for this at the time – it was called The Ministry Of Health Malaria Laboratory and it was made the WHO’s regional malaria centre for Europe. It even had an area where mosquitoes were bred and infected with malaria to send to other therapy centres. About 16,000 people were ‘treated’ at Horton – from what I’ve read it significantly helped about a third of people. The whole program became less and less important as the use of antibiotics was hugely more effective. The research work into malaria eventually moved to the LSHTM in 1975. The collection of archives are held by LSHTM and The Wellcome Trust. And here is a paper by the wonderfully named European Mosquito Bulletin, about Percy Schute – one of the directors.

A Journal Article by Dr. Henry R. Rollin

This above was written by Henry Rollin himself. It goes some way to explaining just how much of an impact tertiary syphilis used to have.

The hospital received a lot of patients via the criminal justice system in the 1960s, and had at this time more people from the forensic side of psychiatry than any other hospital in the country. Perhaps connected to this, in 1995, The Wolvercote Clinic was opened at the hospital – this was a treatment centre for sex offenders and was notable for its success, having a lower rate of reoffending than other similar projects. It was very unique within Europe, being a residential treatment program for paedophilia and apparently was actually quite successful in its work – as shown by this paper which implied up to 80% of people going through the program didn’t reoffend, not bad statistics at all when compared to other programs for paedophilia. It was shut in 2002 – a combination of lack of funding, and also seemingly a lack of will for any area to want to take on the patients.

Livingstone Park

Now most of the old hospital site is residential flats, called Livingstone Park. However, the Horton Haven, a rehabilitation centre for people with chronic mental health problems, is still open and run by CNWL mental health trust.

The old boiler house is now a David Lloyd gym. No mention of it’s past as a psychiatric hospital can be found on the website. I wonder if it would put people off their workout.

Old Boiler House now a Gym

The Ewell Epileptic Colony

Ewell Epileptic Colony

Later renamed as St. Ebbas Hospital

The awfully named Ewell Epileptic Colony was opened on 1st July 1904 – it was also designed by William Clifford Smith. It was different to the others; the buildings were smaller and more spaced out, as opposed to the echelon design of the others. they were called villas, I wonder whether to make it seem more homely. The nine villas were named after trees – among others Beech, Holly, and Willow.

A Villa at St. Ebbas Hospital

Unlike the other hospitals in the area that were used during the war, the colony was used after the war for returning servicemen suffering from what was then described, among other things, as neurasthenia. It was used for this until 1927, when it was renamed again as Ewell Mental Hospital. It then became known as St Ebbas Hospital – I don’t know why they chose this name.

They had a patient newsletter called ‘The Trees’ – like the wards. They had writing and art from patients, as well as news about events and the history of the hospital.

The site is still used as a hospital site run by SABP – for CAMHS, and a residential unit for learning disability services at Derby House and Ashmount. The farm is, wonderfully, now Epsom Riding School for the Disabled.

Long Grove Hospital

Long Grove Hospital

Long Grove Asylum was designed again by George Thomas Hine. It was opened in 1905 and renamed Long Grove Mental Hospital in 1918. At its peak it held 2149 patients. Ronnie Kray was one of them. But my favourite bit of trivia about this hospital is that it used to have regular flowers shows, and theatre performances, which I think is great.

Long Grove Hospital was also used to lock up people – the patchy records that exist indicate only women – who had typhoid. Here’s a Telegraph article about it. An example of the sinister side of inpatient psychiatry, and disproportionate affecting women.

Long Grove Hospital

It’s now mostly demolished but there are some flats – the development is called Clarendon Park.

Clarendon Park

West Park Hospital

West Park Hospital

West Park Hospital was the last of the Epsom cluster to be finished; building was also delayed by the war, so it didn’t open until 20th June 1924. It was therefore never called an asylum; the term was going out of favour by then. It was designed by William Clifford Smith and had an opticians and dentist on site.

It was quite popular, as Cane Hospital below was, for exploring and photography when it was abandoned, but it’s all been cleared up for development now except for a few buildings that are still active.

I was there only last week for a meeting. It still has inpatient old age wards, psychotherapy and CAMHS services, and occupational health. It’s main problem is there’s nowhere to get a good coffee. It’s surrounded by residential housing now – called Noble Park.

So that’s the Epsom Cluster!

Here’s a paper specifically talking about the design of asylums, looking in particular at West Park and Long Grove – of the 20 they looked at, 14 are now luxury flats.

Much of the old records have been lost, but the Surrey History Centre in Woking has kept as much as they can, including patient records. There is still interest in keeping the site of the Epsom cluster as a conservation area, as can be seen from these council papers.

Royal Earlswood Asylum For Idiots, Redhill

Royal Earlswood Asylum, Redhill

From 1847 Ann Serena Plumb, Dr John Connely and Reverend Andrew Reed got together to plan an ‘Asylum For Idiots’ to try to improve the care that these patients got. It was originally set up in Park House in Highgate, in 1848, but they soon realised they needed more space after 145 patients were admitted within just one year. An asylum down in Redhill was designed by William Bonython Moffitt. It was built by John Jay – who also built the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament.

Royal Earlswood Asylum, Redhill

Queen Victoria herself gave a significant amount of money to the project – 250 Guineas – and Prince Albert laid the foundation stone in 1853.

The Asylum opened in 1855, and Prince Albert was again there for the ceremony. It was the first time that an asylum had been created specifically to look after people with learning disabilities. Appropriately, John Langdon Down (of Down Syndrome fame) was the medical superintendent there.

The picture below is a print from the 1867 Illustrated London News – ‘The Summer Festival at the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots’.

Summer Festival at Earlswood Asylum

James Henry Pullen was a patient there – he was a hugely gifted artist and woodworker. He was paid a wage by the asylum and had his own workshop, and made furniture for other patients. He was even noticed by the Prince of Wales who sent him ivory to use. Here’s a guardian article about him; and there’s an exhibition about his work now on at the Watts Gallery in Compton.

James Henry Pullen’s woodwork

It was renamed The Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in 1926 – hardly a better name. It closed in 1997 and is now, like most of the others, posh flats.

Earlswood Refurbished Flats

Earlswood Refurbished Flats

Brookwood Hospital, Woking

Brookwood Hospital, Woking

Brookwood was the Second Surrey County Asylum after Springfield, and was designed by Charles Henry Howell. The 150 acres of land were bought for £10,500 in 1860, and the asylum opened on 17th June 1867. It even had a farm, a cobbler, and even a ballroom – sadly distinctly lacking in all psychiatric hospitals I’ve so far set foot in. It was designed to care for ‘pauper lunatics’ whose maintenance was paid for by poor law unions.

Brookwood Hospital, Woking

Fancy Dress Ball at Brookwood Hospital

Here’s a fancy dress ball depicted there in the Illustrated London News in 1881. Looks fun.

Brookwood Hospital, Woking

In 1919 the name was changed to Brookwood Mental Hospital – as with all of the old asylums, language has changed so much over the last 100 years, and now we don’t include ‘mental’ in the names of hospitals and NHS trusts very often.

The two ward names I could find were Florence and Pinel – two figures important in humane medicine.

Here’s an article about the memories of people who worked there – it mentions that there was even a piggery.

It admitted its last patients in 1987, was closed in 1994, and the main building is mostly flats. The building is called Florence Court – a nod to the nursing history, I like to think. This listing shows that the flats are pretty smart now.

The old chapel – which was built in 1903 – is now a Buddhist Centre, and the monks live in what was the mortuary. It’s beautiful and wonderful

Old Chapel of Brookwood Hospital: now a Buddhist Centre

Old Chapel of Brookwood Hospital: now a Buddhist Centre

Cane Hill Asylum, Coulsdon

The third Surrey Pauper Lunatic Asylum, soon renamed the Cane Hill Asylum, opened in 1882. It was designed by Charles Henry Howell. Even by 1888, it had 2000 patients. The mother of Charlie Chaplin was one of them.

Cane Hill Asylum, Coulsdon

Cane Hill Asylum, Coulsdon

It was renamed the Cane Hill Mental Hospital in 1930. As with all the others the patient numbers dropped after the 1970s and the main hospital was closed in 1991. The last secure unit at Coulsdon Cottage Hospital was taken over by SLaM and closed in 2008; the remaining patients moved to River House in Bethlem. Almost all the buildings were then demolished; the clock tower burned down in 2010.

Aerial View

The hospital lay abandoned for many years and was apparently a popular spot to go to photograph. This site has some rather scarey looking pictures. I’m not sure I’d have wanted to go at night.

Cane Hill Asylum

A very cool image of Cane Asylum is used on the cover of the US release of one of my favourite songs ever written – David Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World.

Cane Asylum on cover of David Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World.

I wondered why, and was heartbroken when I found out the likely reason. His half brother Terry was a patient there. He took his life in 1985. I cried when I read about this.

‘One puts oneself through such psychological damage trying to avoid the threat of insanity, you start to approach the very thing that you’re scared of. Because of the tragedy inflicted, especially on my mother’s side of the family, there were too many suicides for my liking – that was something I was terribly fearful of.’

The site is now being redeveloped to make 600 homes. Reserve yours here!!

So that’s a few old hospitals around Surrey! The amount of history and stories that these places have seen is just astonishing. So that’s one England county. Only 47 to go.

Thanks so so much for the good people of the Surrey History Centre for being so lovely showing me how to look stuff up in their archives!

Surrey History Centre

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