It isn’t long since “lunatic asylums” were common-place in the world’s more advanced societies. The taboo of mental illness combined with a lack of understanding of the issue meant sufferers were often isolated from society for long periods – sometimes indefinitely. Take into account the horrifying conditions within and the terrifyingly institutional look of the buildings themselves, and entering the asylum must have evoked the inscription from Dante’s Inferno: Abandon all hope ye who enter…
Severalls Hospital, Colchester
This Edwardian-era asylum was opened in 1913 to house as many as 2000 patients around what was known as the “Echelon plan” – an interconnected network of wards, offices and services within easy reach of one another. Chillingly, doctors were free to experiment seemingly at will and Severalls saw the use of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and even frontal lobotomy as late as the 1950s. In her book Madness in Its Place: Narratives of Severalls Hospital, 1913 to 1997, Diana Gittins paints a bleak and sinister picture of the hospital and its arbitrary interpretation of mental illness. It was not uncommon for such shocking treatments to be dealt out to those without psychiatric problems – moodiness and “youthful defiance” were often enough.
St John’s Hospital (formerly Lincolnshire County Pauper Lunatic Asylum), Bracebridge Heath
Lincolnshire County Asylum was designed in 1848 by John R. Hamilton of Gloucester, assisted by Thomas Percy, Surveyor to the County of Kesteven. The “hospital” opened in 1852 and remained in use until 1989, although the shock treatment and lobotomies had – we hope – ceased some time before then. The building today is an explorer’s paradise, paint peeling from the walls and the grand Victorian features, such as the staircase, still intact.
West Park Asylum, Epsom
West Park Asylum was initially designed in 1906 but slow progress and the outbreak of war postponed the opening until 1923. Like Severalls, West Park could house around 2,000 patients and even had its own railway station at one point – an ominous sign of how many people were being hauled in, perhaps? Interestingly, the station was closed in 1950, around the time ECT and lobotomies were coming to an end, which may be a tacit nod to the discovery of credible scientific techniques in mental health care. Today, the hospital is a huge draw for urban explorers with the extensive and derelict main building, remaining furniture and even a padded cell for the more hardy explorer to try out after the lights have gone down.
Hellingly Hospital, East Sussex
The name says it all – or at least it would without the second two syllables! HELLingly opened in 1903 and like West Park, was also served by a branch line, which brought in mainly coal. This hospital also has a huge ballroom which is one of its main features – strange considering the nature of the establishment! Finally closed in 1994 and handed over to the vandals and arsonists, Hellingly remains a draw for urban explorers who are probably the only people to show this grand and historic building the respect it deserves. To join a community of likeminded people, check out the site’s official Facebook page.