mechanised
[beneath the rule a country hides]

Friday, January 30th, 2004

Time:9:43 pm.

........#2 - Runwell



Runwell was one of the very last of the large asylums to be built in Britain, and as such, represents a considerable advance in thinking from institutions like Rauceby or Severalls. In place of a vast main building, the hospital was composed of a series of villas and bungalows - the only structures of any magnitude, the sports hall and admininistration block. As certain sections of the site remain in use, however, I decided to limit myself to a handful of villas on the perimeter.

Access



...................



...................


Design/Architecture



Its layout governed by light, space and balance, Runwell represented a marked shift in approach to the care of the mentally ill. Considerable thought had obviously been given to the need for both protection and personal dignity – a clear product of the recently passed Mental Treatment Act of 1930, with its renewed emphasis on treatment as well as care.

And yet to me the hospital still seemed utterly forbidding – and more than anything, unnerving. At Runwell, each ward was bathed in light, the walls a soothing mixture of blues and pinks - and yet it was Rauceby, with its oppressive corridors and nauseating browns and yellows, that was by far the more welcoming of the two. ..The atmosphere at Runwell was of an uneasy intimacy, with far too great an embrace of the domestic for me to feel comfortable. ..Wards and dormitories invariably featured carpets rather than tiles or linoleum, while each window was framed by ornate curtains, and rooms were rarely larger than the ground floor of an average council house.

Having said that, this discomfort was probably just the result of my own prejudices. Artaud, especially, shows how arbitrary is the distinction between madness and sanity - and perhaps this unease merely reflects my own views on mental illness, my need for this line to be more clearly delineated. Report books reveal that by far the most common symptom of new arrivals was disorientation – expressing itself in everything from violent kicking and screaming to utter paralysis – and clearly the more resemblance the hospital bore to their home, the less the trauma of admittance..



...................



...................



...................



...................


Cells



And yet Runwell afforded me my most astonishing find so far. For some inexplicable reason, one of the cells still contained a bed and mattress, on top of which had been placed a patient’s suitcase, their name written on its side in orange crayon. (I visited every other cell in the complex, yet none contained so much as a single pair of curtains….). The suitcase especially seemed almost childlike, as if the name had been scrawled on its side by an over-protective parent.



...................


Wards/Dormitories:



Elsewhere in the hospital, various pictures and posters had somehow survived too. In one ward, a rather melancholy photograph of some bloodhounds, while in another, a faded picture of a baby, its face bleached and mottled by years of exposure to the cold and damp



...................



...................



...................



...................


Report Books



The thing that most distinguished Runwell from Rauceby, however, was the insight it afforded me into the everyday life of such hospitals. In one particular corridor, I stumbled across ward report books spanning a period of more than fifteen years. There must have been in excess of a hundred volumes, each detailing any incident of significance in the wards at both day and night.



And yet, despite this initial excitement, I was also deeply saddened by this discovery. I struggle to understand how such incredibly personal source material can be treated with such neglect and disinterest. In her book on Severalls, Diana Gittens reports discovering several boxes of records about to be incinerated - yet they would go on to be one of the cornerstones of her work. (Sadly, it’s hard to imagine Runwell or Rauceby being subject to such a last-minute reprieve.)

As a History student, I feel this kind of loss particularly acutely; and I wonder how hard it would be for a local archive to place these items in storage for future reference. The patients of such institutions were already society’s disenfranchised and dispossessed, and they are now being robbed of a history, too.

[On my final visit, I was pleased to see that most of the report books had been removed (I can only assume by the security firm). Whilst such resources clearly belong to historians or to archives, it is at least a relief to know that they will now be beyond the reach of vandals – the suffering of patients no longer open to prurient curiosity and abuse.]



It seems that this particular section of the hospital was devoted largely to the care of the elderly – something which, if the testimonies of my family are anything to go by, is certainly the most traumatic and upsetting aspect of psychiatric care.

The reality of such places, borne out by the report books I studied, is of constant injury, violence, ..patients refusing to eat. "Was found on the floor of her sideroom at 2300hrs; rounds nurse was called as she had lost quite some blood” was by no means an unusual entry. Indeed, accounts of deaths or strokes were particularly harrowing, all the more so for the necessarily banal manner in which they were reported. (though it was fascinating to observe how certain nurses broke with convention and used patients’ first names)



Occasionally, a new arrival would be accompanied by a brief account of their admittance – the most common reason being relieving their partners of the enormous burden of care – but thereafter it became increasingly difficult to learn of a patient’s progress. The narrative of each report book was extremely fractured - certain names resurfacing every few days, while others arrived one morning and were then only mentioned a few weeks later upon their death. It was also heartbreaking to watch certain patients finally giving up on life. In many cases, report books detail an increasing disinterest in others, a steady refusal of food, and then patients are never written of again, presumably having passed away or been moved to a more terminal ward

(Naturally my thoughts turned to my own grandmother and her increasing frailty. Now 85, her independence and confidence is slowly being eroded by illness, and I just hope that she is able to avoid a similar fate.)

Patient Art



On one wall, a peacock - its feathers made up of human hands - while on another, a picture of a particularly turbulent sea (the water an angry blue, the waves stretching up toward the ceiling.)

From my study of the report books, I had assumed that this particular wing was reserved solely for treatment of the elderly, though I suppose it is possible that some accommodation was also made for younger inhabitants or visitors. It’s far more likely, of course, that such outlets were simply provided for patients suffering from particularly advanced degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s. The whole room nevertheless had a kind of innocence to it. Butterfly paintings and simplisitic number and colour charts adorned the walls, and from certain angles it seemed more like a primary school than an asylum.



...................



...................


Music/Theatre



On the floor of one room, I also discovered scripts and plans for a performance of Mother Goose, but again these were simply generic, mass-produced fodder. Certainly, there was little sense of any great care being lavished on the production, as was the case at Severalls or Rauceby. There, tutus and hand-painted sunflowers were scattered across the stage, yet the only remotely personal item yielded by Runwell was an annotated song sheet.



...................



...................


Piano

At one stage, I even ran across some vandals bashing out a tune on a piano; but as they were only about fourteen, they steered well clear of me - deciding to hurl abuse only when safely back outside…



...................


Staff Room



...................



...................



...................



...................


Wards etc.



...................



...................



...................



...................



...................



...................


Graffiti

Given the ease of access, graffiti was surprisingly sparse at Runwell.In one ward, in enormous black letters was written “you will die here”, but there was very little else of note. Interestingly, the few pieces there were usually referred directly to patients or staff. Perhaps scrawled as a final gesture of defiance, Dr. A------- was the subject of a joke about steroids, while one of the nurses also came in for some highly sexualised criticism..



...................

Noose



Perhaps my most chilling encounter was with a small lift on the ground floor. One of the pulleys had been draped over the edge of a wooden support to form a noose. Rather like the suitcase on the bed, it felt as if had been staged by a previous visitor, or one of the final inhabitants on their way out. It simply seemed too perfect a symbol to have fallen into that position from general use.. …



Clothes/Supplies



As with almost every other hospital I’ve visited, there seemed to be no logic whatsoever to the items left behind. To remove almost all mirrors and furniture yet leave behind a piano and snooker table seemed ludicrous. ..Clothes, too, seem to have been deemed unworthy of removal. On the back of one door, an immaculate woolen jacket, while one particularly desolate corridor was home to literally hundreds of technicolor nightgarments.



...................



...................




...................

Animals



Runwell seemed far less popular with wildlife than Rauceby (no doubt because part of the site is still in use) and I encountered only the body of a single jay on my first visit. The second trip was only marginally more eventful, with just one brief flurry of activity. Exploring the wards on the first floor, I came across a pigeon, which flew into a blind panic almost the instant it saw me. I ran out of the room as quickly as I could so as not to give it a heart attack, but it persisted in trying to escape. On several occasions it flew straight into a window – each time falling to the floor and then starting again – though eventually it found a broken pane and disappeared. For once grateful of the handiwork of vandals, I inspected the glass for blood or feathers, but fortunately it seems to have emerged from our encounter more or less unscathed.

...................

________________________________________________________________

home