Highwood Hospital - Brentwood, Essex [2005]

With the hospital closing in phases, and my time in Brentwood limited, I saw only a small part of Highwood before its demolition and conversion. The newest part of the hospital - "Little Highwood", which catered to children with learning difficulties and various complex needs - was the first area to close, and the focus of my single, short visit.

 

The rest of the site - the administration block, former school rooms, and a cluster of long-term geriatric wards – stemmed from the building's beginnings in 1904, though were still in use at the time of my visit, and so remained unexplored. 

Before my visit, I knew little of Highwood's past, and it was certainly the smallest and least conspicuous of the many hospitals that once served the local area. Its squat water tower was invisible from the surrounding streets, while its layout and design were supremely suburban - five oversized cottages prettily arranged around a couple of large greens (perhaps owing something to Ebenezer Howard and his Garden Cities manifesto, which achieved some prominence around this time).  

 

The later addition of "Little Highwood" was similarly unassuming, though far less pleasing - a series of single-storey constructions that more closely resembled the kind of cheap, temporary housing slung up across the country in the immediate postwar years. 

Established by the Metropolitan Asylums Board, Highwood's initial purpose was to treat diseases of the eye among London's poorest children, though it would later expand to include those with T.B. too (as well as serving briefly as a "colony for sane epileptics" between 1918 and 1919).

 

It was intended to treat up to 350 children, with two school rooms and other basic amenities located at the centre of the 28-acre complex. By the end of the 50s, however, there were fewer than forty patients - and so, after the remaining children had been relocated to Braintree, the hospital shifted its provision towards longer-term geriatric care.

 

"Little Highwood" was added to the west of the site in 1940, and functioned initially as an Emergency Medical Scheme (EMS) hospital. After coming under the control of the NHS, and as the needs of the community changed, it eventually became a discrete unit dedicated to children with severe learning difficulties, continuing in this capacity until its closure in 2004.

As with most such places, the buildings had been stripped bare; but careful examination still unearthed a few items of interest – decorative paper, ward reports, even a handful of Christmas cards.

It was only towards the end of my visit that I discovered anything more personal - a folder of ward reports hidden beneath some curtains. Detailing everything from falls to medication schedules, they afforded a rare insight into the patients’ daily routines - a glimpse of life at its most mundane and powerless.

Given the paucity of fittings, I was therefore astonished to stumble across a padded room. In the midst of being stripped (only the lower half remained) its use was unclear - my first thought incarceration; my second, that it may simply have been a relaxation room.

Perhaps the remnants of an earlier tenant, a Beethoven cassette lay unwound on the floor (Symphony no.2 in D major) – but the cell was otherwise completely barren. At once childlike (recalling cushioned playpens) and sinister (every action negated), the atmosphere was extremely discomfiting; and I left almost instantly.