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Peacay .

I worked in an honest-to-goodness victorian lunatic asylum in Surrey UK some years ago which still had the sign 'lunatic asylum' hanging around. It was 5 storeys and housed hundreds and hundreds of patients, some of whom lived there for life (the most depressing were the little old ladies who had got knocked up as chamber maids when they were young and were admitted under the catchall diagnosis of 'moral insanity', but I digress..)
I'm not sure I have anything to say about the architecture per se, or at least, they were reasonable attempts for their time, it seems to me, of trying in some vaguely humane way to deal with a significant problem for which there was scarely any medication around.

The main positive thing I walked away with was that the 19th century actually offered better treatment in the larger society-wide picture than was to become available in the the UK & Oz by the 90s as conservative reports recommended closure of big institutions and replacement with halfway houses in the community. Sounds fab in the telling doesn't it? Get them out of the concrete jungles and help them integrate and so forth.

I suppose you can guess where this is going. The pressure for hospital closure happened to be married to a fiscally conservative outlook such that people were thrown out and the hospital grounds sold off and not nearly enough money was invested to provide social workers, nurses, accommodation and related assistance.

So, frankly speaking, I look on those old monstrosities from so long ago as a rather positive and rational way to cope with psychiatric disorders by government. In comparison anyway..

Thanks John.


Thanks for the story and insight Pecay. Those people did try to get it right, working with the tools and thinking available at that time. And I have no doubts that these places did work for some for some period of time, at least early-on, at least getting people who really needed help up and out and away from the possibly miserable situation they might've been living in in some busted garret or stuffy basement in the East End or wherever. A promise of life on a hill somewhere with a breeze and sun sounds far better than shabby scratchings in coal-soot-soaked Londontown.
But the future is a harsh judge, and I have no doubt that we here in our present will be seen as barbarians in many areas, not the least of which is the treatment of people in our societies who need help to live their live sand aren't given it. (There's the whole thing about letting people starve to death too, but that's another story.)
For the record I did did a little volunteer work (1974) at St. Elizabeth's in D.C., a massive and mostly antiquarian institution on a beautiful piece of somewhat elevated land just outside of the Federal downtown, across the river. A beautiful setting, really, but one of the scariest places I've ever been, on the inside. I understood at the time that you get "used to 'it' ", but I didn't last long enough (I'm sorry to say) to give "it" a try. The one thing I take away from that experience, still, was the jangling of massive key rings that seemed to be on every other person's belt loop--it seemed constant to me, loud in the rooms and hallways that seemed built to create echoes, even over the constant noise. I imagined living there, hearing those bloody keys, hearing them mostly as they receded, moving away, like a taunting reminder that one might never get out of that place. There's just so much that can go wrong in places like that, even when you have no idea that the wrong stuff is happening.

Peacay .

I understand the fear quotient from the imposing buildings and key clanging (and ALL the other 'asylum' noises - like the echoes you mention - that are the stuff of art, horror movies, nightmares &c, of course) but I suppose I'd worked in a bunch of regular hospitals beforehand and my radar was tweaked much more by the disturbed minds within rather than the accommodations.

I arrived penniless and had to do some psych to get my nursing rego passed through so I was thrown in the deep end with the murderers-in-transit-to-Broadmoor, alcoholics in withdrawl and actively psychotic types in the Acute ward, an annexe outside the main building. I was in civvies too, so most people there thought I was a patient (not so bad a thing really).

Looking back, it remains a disturbed period of my life, despite fond memories of people and time away from work. The configuration of rooms and wards and staff-rooms and corridors fade into the background when conversations are about dissuading someone from cutting themselves or breaking the furniture or convincing a poor sod that his food isn't poisoned etc etc.

In my experience, despite the haphazard upkeep of hospitals (of all types) and funding problems and staffing shortages and all the rest of the logistics salted out from under best care initiatives, the vast majority of the people working in those places are trying very hard to do their best and I don't think as much "goes wrong" as could do. It's the nature of people to share and be alert to disasters and difficulties whereas the good work dominates and goes on silently, unseen.


It could be interesting to think about these institutions in relation to Foucault's Madness and Civilization:


Jeff Donlan

They all look like airports to me. I think the spaciousness was part of the treatment. There was some expectation that nature and gardens and ease would help cure the mind. Or, they didn't know what else to try. Greystone was built in lovely wooded hills outside of Morristown. I rode by it any number of times, preferring the downhill trip but disproportionately taking the uphill one.

John F. Ptak

I can see them as airports, or older shopping malls, or even older arcades...mostly I see a biological sumpin' if I squint my eyes.

John F. Ptak

I've never felt particularly chummy with M. Foucault, but I can see your point. Thanks!

James McLaren


I looked long and hard at the plan captioned Cane Hill, the Third Surrey County Pauper Lunatic Asylum, built 1882. I don't think the caption is right, for two reasons:

1. The dating is wrong (note the handwritten annotation top right, which says designed 1884-5.
2. There is a railway line in, captioned Branch from Midland Railway. The Midland Railway never operated lines in or near to Surrey.

Looking at Googlemaps satellite imagery, what I think you have is a plan of High Royds hospital, south of Leeds, which closed in 2003 and is progressively being remodelled into an urban village. High Royds' site was purchased in 1885 and it opened in 1888.

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