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Hellingly Hospital - East Sussex [2006]


"It's so difficult to find things to talk about in here. I mean all we can talk about is the hospital. The only life we're practising is this hospital, aren't we? I mean, some of us don't even go out of the ward to be interested in anything.."        

- quoted in Schizophrenia and Human Value  (hospital unknown)**


The hospital's exterior gave little sense of the destruction within: missing tiles, smashed windows, but otherwise reasonably sound. Once inside, however, the damage was staggering. The floors were strewn with timber and light fittings, while broken ceiling tiles covered entire corridors. I remember being startled by a patch of original flooring that someone had exposed - several layers of plaster scraped away to reveal a thin strip of linoleum.


At the time of my visit, Hellingly had lain derelict for over a decade, its final patients discharged in 1994. Designed by GT Hine and opened in 1903, the hospital housed almost two thousand patients at its peak - female patients on the east of the complex, males on the west, with further provision in the form of villas and an isolation hospital elsewhere in the grounds. In recent years, two secure units were added - but unfortunately, I saw little beyond the main building.


I spent only a few hours there before being overwhelmed by the urge to leave. The reasons remain somewhat nebulous, but I departed in a state of profound disorientation, and now have little recollection of the long journey home (just the clumping strudge of soil; the extreme weight of my boots as I pushed my bike across the barren fields). I can only liken it to a sort of vertigo - or perhaps just exhaustion at the desolate spectacle. Unlike other hospitals, Hellingly acted not as balm, but as a reactant or agitator - existing turbulence amplified by the scale of the destruction (and its implications). After a series of flashbacks, I rushed down the stairs and out through the nearest opening. 


"If I meet somebody who isn't or hasn't been in the hospital, then you don't mention that you're psychiatric and hope to God that nobody else mentions it in your family or whatever that meets them later. Because the attitude from people, some of them, they just... you can tell they're embarrassed and don't know what to say or anything... They think it's terrible. I think unless you've had somebody in your family who's had trouble, which a lot of people must have done, but some of course haven't and they have a very strange attitude towards's taboo, you mustn't talk about it."

- quoted in Closing the Asylum * (hospital unknown)


In an attempt at redress, I've spent much of this evening reading the testimonies of people connected with the hospital. Staff and local residents predominate, with the voices of patients understandably more scarce - particularly those diagnosed as schizophrenic or interned for decades. Indeed, I could locate only one former patient of Hellingly - a contributor to a documentary on the asylum era - and so eventually moved on in search of other survivor narratives. The names of the hospitals were rarely disclosed, though with coercion and dehumanisation endemic in the system (alongside, of course, the mitigating forces of love and compassion), each could have just as easily stemmed from Hellingly.  


And yet still I find myself struggling to reconcile the accounts with my own experience of the asylum. The destruction within Hellingly was so great it requires a major imaginative leap to picture the hospital in use. Walking through wards and day rooms (even into cells) what few traces remain of staff and patients were overwhelmed by structural debris.


"Well the hospital's got very good grounds, it's like living in the countryside; it's an old building and it's surrounded by trees and grass, it's got very good grounds and it's very peaceful. We get on with the foreman on the gardens, he doesn't make us work too hard, he has a laugh and a joke with us...I don't know, but it seems the only practical place for people like me; it's the only place where there's any peace and quiet and if you're not quite up to it, people understand that you're maybe a bit slow or you've got your own rate of doing things and it's a bit easier than throwing you in at the deep end and saying, "You get on with it", because they might drown you, mightn't they? They might throw you into some difficult circumstances where you come across things that you can't cope with. I don't know, maybe there is another environment, maybe... But being in a hospital is definitely better than being stuck in a city, somewhere where everything's busy." *


"Well, you asked the question what does the future hold out. Quite honestly just sometimes I feel very suicidal, I don't think the future holds much at all...I'm now 45 and when you can go for..Since this problem first started, virtually my whole life I've been under some strain..and when you can go forty-odd years and nothing much happens to improve your lot, I mean you're virtually in the last third of your life and nothing has been done... There might be a motive in ignoring people with illnesses. I hope that the illness will go away but they hope the person having the illness will go away! ...It's terrible really. It's really negative all this stuff but really that's how it is.... What you do look forward to are the occasional times when you don't feel quite as bad as you did...I do feel better on occasions and I don't know why this is..." ***


"I saw the doctor on the Monday and he said, 'You're going home on Wednesday.'I said I had nowhere to go and he said, 'Well, there's nothing I can do, you're better now and you can go home.'So I was a bit better then, I thought I was just getting kicked out and nowhere to go." *


The clear centrepiece of the hospital was the main hall - and as such had been subject to the most concerted vandalism. And yet somehow it had survived. Large sections of the stage and flooring lay charred, but the essential character of the hall remained. For some reason, fires never seem to have spread further than a few feet, even when started among the tinder sticks of the rafters or beneath the stage. 


"I was a student nurse and staff nurse at Hellingly ....Because of the village-like quality of the hospital it felt like being part of a very large family - with the different generations living side by side. I note that there are references to 'institutionalised staff', however there were some very good, kind, dedicated and skilled staff at Hellingly. I still feel there is a lot to be said for the idea of an institution and the experience of being part of something larger was something both staff and patients shared."


"You get into this routine of taking tablets, relying on tablets for everything. Before I came in here they told us that psychiatry was dependency on tablets. We didn't quite understand this, we thought surely to God we weren't put on Earth to live on tablets all the time. Eventually we threw them away and they locked us up. I mean if you take sleeping pills all your life, you get to a point where you can't sleep at all."


I don't know, I just...more or less...the people who look after us in our ward...well like....they've been working at their job for so long that they know exactly what they're doing. we rely on the nurses you see. We rely on them all the time to decide what we have got to do."  **


"I would always choose to stay where I am because I didn't like the idea of being connected with the hospital. I know it sounds daft but I've always regarded the hospital as being like Colditz..the sort of place you don't want to be, and I also have the general idea that I want to eventually break off from the whole system and be totally independent."***


In all of these hospitals, there is the curious sight of nature and vandals working in concert. The untrammelled growth of a tree grants access to some previously inaccessible quarter (which can then be plundered or attacked). Similarly, a smashed window permits the entry of ivy, which can then go on to consume an entire wall. I myself am often dependent on criminality: it is only when vandals or other lawbreakers have cleared a path - smashing windows, removing boarding - that I am able to gain access. (On this particular afternoon, a protective panel had been removed and I was able to post myself through a narrow opening).


"You find yourself getting bored if everything's done for you, if you're not putting much into life. This is one of the things I feel about the hospital. But the problem is not being able to cope when you have to do things for yourself. That's what brings people in here." **


Doors opening and closing are magnificent - the way they point to unsolved mysteries.    - Robert Bresson

As much as anything else, a visit to a former asylum is about doors. They are more numerous and symbolic here than perhaps anywhere else; and are central to any understanding of such places, operational or derelict. In their many states, doors represent the various forces at play within an asylum: the tension between private and public, choice and compulsion, freedom and authority, interior and exterior, power and impotence, the individual and the institution. Indeed, it is possible to consider one's whole life in terms of doors - yet it was only at Hellingly that I began to pay them any real attention. At first, they were merely identified as points of escape, or monitored for any sign of security - though once it became clear I was alone, my focus began to shift. 


With the hospital empty, almost all interior doors lay open - many artfully positioned by previous visitors - and exploring the hospital was largely effortless - so unobstructed, in fact, I sometimes had the sensation of circuiting endlessly, each ward or corridor leaving me more and more convinced that I would never leave. For patients, of course, most doors would have been closed and secured - many finding themselves in a locked room, on a locked ward, on the locked floor of a locked wing, in a locked building, contained by a secure fence, in a location far removed from the rest of society. Each door I encountered presented me with a choice - a movement towards or away from something - yet for patients most doors in the hospital were the opposite. (There is perhaps no greater illustration of this powerlessness than the small viewing window of a cell door). 


"I saw that the flower beds had gone, which was a great shame. Vandals had been at work up at the main block was where I had spent most of my time at Hellingly. I looked at the dominating water tower and remembered that I used to think there was something in the water to make you ill." 


All really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home - Gaston Bachelard

While doors may be metaphor-rich, the more concrete dimensions of those at Hellingly were of equal interest: the size and shape of their handles, the sounds they made, their rhythm. When I think of my own childhood, I can vividly recall certain doors: the old white one that led to the stairs in my childhood home (the thick gloss paint, the old iron latch with its black, bubbled ridges); the cheap featherweight doors in our council house that slammed and juddered each time a window was left open; the sleek plywood panel behind which I crouched and listened, tape over the seals, as laughter filled the hallway.


The doors at Hellingly were no doubt equally significant for many patients, particularly the high percentage of long-stay inmates (a 1989 report found that more than half of long-stay patients at Warley had been there over twenty years, with similar numbers recorded elsewhere). For these residents, the hospital couldn't be seen as anything other than a home (to avoid this designation feels too cruel, despite asylums meeting few of the criteria). Many of these doors would have been deeply embedded in their psyches; shaping their how they moved, interacted, thought..


"I think [talking]'s not given enough importance and drugs are given too much importance. I think that's one of the things that's wrong. If we have hospitals in future I think they have got to be changed in that sense. I think the whole emphasis has to be altered towards telling people about their problems rather than just turning them into vegetables and leaving them to sort their own problems out." *


In their current state, the doors at Hellingly gave only a partial sense of their former life. Most of the handles had been removed - presumably for scrap - as had any signage; the final leprous coats of paint clinging on in scattered patches. Still, the layout of each door remained clear. By necessity, the inner side of most cell doors had no handle, while the viewing window was usually just a small, circular hole. Surprisingly, given their age and bulk, most doors still opened and closed silently - their leaden drift largely unchanged. 


"It's a bit demoralising... You're sort of tied to the strings of the hospital, the apron strings of the hospital I suppose you could say, you're being treated like a child really, and you prefer to think, "Well, I'd like to be independent and this is OK temporarily but I want to move on eventually and break away from all this." *


With almost all doors leading inward or sideways, after a few hours I began to feel intensely claustrophobic - and can perhaps understand why so many windows were kicked in - vandals not merely smashing glass, but dislodging entire frames - each serving as a necessary portal to the outside world. Eventually, the sight of another row of doors became too much. Rather than an invitation to proceed or to investigate, each open door suggested a departure - no social component or drama - just pure aftermath, my presence utterly redundant. 


"The ward is so depressing. Everybody sitting around. I read a book, someone else talks to himself...I'm angry with myself for not getting on in the world. When I'm at home I think about the front garden...full of weeds...and the more I think about it the more I put it off...full of weeds and the dahlias need standing up with canes. I haven't made much progress." **


In the upper reaches of one annexe, I discovered some ward reports, but damp had rendered them illegible. Nearby were scattered some colour charts and templates, a staff presentation on how to be a good nurse - but very little else. Indeed, the only personal item I found was a birthday card. Addressed to "dear Florrie", it spoke of recovery and taking comfort in the gradual coming of spring.


"You wake up every morning and you think, "Oh, God, I'm a schizophrenic!" If the doctor hadn't told me I'd just have woken up and thought, "Well I'm just going through some sort of illness and I'll probably get over it." But once you get diagnosed, you start thinking all sorts from different corners about the illness and it just gets worse and worse."*


"If it was a nice day, you could go out to the patients' club. It was possible to sit there all day with your tea. The extensive grounds were therapeutic – some days, it was possible to disappear with a packet of cigarettes into the grounds, then return for lunch, then off again." 


"I have medication, I take Depixol, a small amount, and I have a continual fight because I want to be off it... I don't like to think of myself as mentally ill, I like to think that I'll be free of it. But when I've been to hospital - there's a combination of factors, I hadn't taken medication for about a month or six weeks previous to going to hospital again - so there's absolutely conclusive evidence that you needed your medication! That was just a battle I lost!" *


While much of the vandalism made me grimace (mean-spirited graffiti, theft) the more savage aspects also offer a perverse thrill. Smashed glass, upturned radiators - everything amplifies the sense of dislocation, fracture. Even arson, when localised, heightens the sense of fragility, bringing what remains into sharper relief.


"It was upsetting with the friends I had made in the town independent of the hospital. Some of them knew that I had been in hospital, a lot of them didn't. For me to go into hospital and have them visit me, that was upsetting. I felt, if you like, I'd grown in self-confidence in certain things and it was a reduction, it was a step backwards. ...I like people to feel "Oh, he's alright" but I now have to convince them that I'm alright because of that. For me to have this relapse or whatever it was, I then had to re-establish that I'm kind of alright." *


"A gruesome find by a local resident, out walking close to the former Hellingly Hospital on 6 April, finally solved a 14-year mystery. As she made a detour from the main footpath, she came across what appeared to be a human skull in the undergrowth. Police were called and forensic examination found that the remains were those of a 71 year-old man reported missing in August 1988. He had lived in Eastbourne but attended Hellingly Hospital for more than thirty years. His identification was confirmed by the presence of two small holes in the skull. These were the result of a rarely performed brain operation carried out on the man half a century ago to treat his mental health condition. An inquest can now, at long last, take place." - Hellingly Remembered 


"Worse this last week than ever. I suppose we've been in this hospital too long. Everybody's fed up and we're getting on each other's nerves. We're sick of the place and we just want to go home... There's nowhere to go you see. You're in the ward, and can never go out. The only exercise you get is walking up and down on the ward. If I was living in a house by myself which I would have to do because I have nobody except for two old people, I'd go crackers. I'd have nobody to talk to all day. Well I like to see the two old people, what I call my mother and my father, on a weekend, but the place I've moved into, it's impossible."**


As with other asylums, the afterlife of Hellingly is almost as interesting as its years of active use. Stories range from animal sacrifice to entire rooms being painted white overnight. There is also the widely-reported tale of a homeless man living on the ground floor (on one occasion even witnessed sunbathing by previous explorers). I eventually discovered what remained of the man's room. A mattress lay by the door, while the floor was littered with clothes and empty cans, a pulp thriller lying open on a nearby desk. I've no idea whether he was caught by security or unnerved by trespassers - but it was clear that he had long since departed. 


"With schizophrenia you are not living, you are just existing. There is not a lot of future for you, but you come to terms with the illness. I don't like telling anybody but I do accept it. I am labelled for the rest of my life.. I think schizophrenia will always make me a second-class citizen. I go for an interview for a job and the anxiety builds up...I haven't got a future. It's just a matter of waiting for old age and death." *


[At Severalls, I remember a tent pitched in one of the airing courts, and an office nearby containing a mattress, clothes and small bag of tinned food. Given the prevalence of mental illness among those on the street, it seems quite possible that this resident was once a patient - drawn back, perhaps, by the comfort of the familiar, or an awareness of the vast space in which to shelter. Indeed, for someone with few options, staying in a derelict hospital has many advantages - warmth, seclusion and the ability to avoid detection by moving around a vast building - though such a choice says much about the failures of provision elsewhere.]


"I worked at Hellingly 1984-1986 and met my husband there. The staff were as institutionalised as some of the patients and many senior nurses were seen to never leave the social club! We visited several times once it had closed down and before it had been wrecked by vandals. It holds many stories and a heavy atmosphere. I'd like to know what happened to all of the museum artefacts (straight jackets, old ECT equipment, patients' clogs, work equipment, wash bowls, etc.) - all of which shortly before the hospital closed down were on display next to the old hairdressers shop. I remember that one of the nurse tutors was involved in setting it up. Where did it all go? ..When we visited many staff records were left behind."


"I was never got right by the old asylum regimes. They would give me medication by injection..I found that I got a side-effect called akathisia, and I would be extremely restless but sedated at the same time for a week, day and night, after that injection 


I would get paranoid, I would be living rough..I wouldn't be looking after myself, I'd be neglecting myself..I would get returned to the asylum, usually by the police, and that was the nature of my revolving door life. And when I got back into the asylum again they would start me on the injections again." ****


The thought of a long journey home and a growing unease led me to cut short my visit. The storm raging outside was also growing in ferocity, and I became increasingly wary of structural failure, a small section of corridor collapsing a few metres in front of me. I found myself almost paralysed by the sudden sense that I was the only person on site. At one stage, I found myself on the fourth floor looking out across the entire complex, and wondered what on earth I was doing there.



Closing the Asylum: The Mental Patient in Modern Society - Peter Barham (1998) - hospital undisclosed

** Schizophrenia and Human Value - Peter Barham (1984) - hospital undisclosed

*** Relocating Madness: From the Mental Patient to the Person - Peter Barham and Robert Hayward (1991) - hospital undisclosed

**** Mental: A History of the Madhouse - BBC documentary (dir. Chris Boulding) (2010)

All other quotes from Hellingly Remembered (with kind permission from Casper Farrell)

Images of Hellingly from the 1980s from (click for larger image)

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