Runwell Hospital - Essex [2004]

Runwell was one of the 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 administration block. As certain sections of the site remain in use, however, I decided to limit myself to a handful of villas on the perimeter.

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 recovery as well as care.

And yet the hospital still left me somewhat unnerved. 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 felt the more welcoming of the two. The atmosphere at Runwell was of an uneasy intimacy, with too great an embrace of the domestic for me to feel comfortable. This discomfort, of course, 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 preconceptions 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..

For some strange 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. The suitcase seemed almost childlike, as if the name had been scrawled on its side by an over-protective parent. Indeed, the positioning was almost too perfect, too staged - the letters slightly too large and the suitcase angled towards the room's sole light source - though, as with so much else in these places, it was impossible to say what was real and what was mere contrivance. 

Looking through various reports, it seems that these particular villas were devoted largely to the care of the elderly – something which, if the testimonies of my family are anything to go by, is certainly among the most difficult and traumatic aspects of psychiatric care.

Each book was full of page after page of injury, violence and bewilderment; of patients refusing to eat; their bodies slowly breaking down. "Was found on the floor of her sideroom ... 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).

Such documents, of course, inevitably focus on noteworthy incidents, tending to ignore the more positive or mundane aspects of patient experience - and it was important to bear this in mind as much of what was described was particularly upsetting. 

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

Surveying the piles of report books, I struggled to understand how such personal material could be treated so carelessly. The patients of such institutions were already among society’s most disenfranchised, and now they were now being robbed of part of their history, too.

In her book on Severalls, Diana Gittins reports finding 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 documents elsewhere being subject to any such reprieve. Indeed notes I found in the chapel at Rauceby suggest that reams of documents were disposed of in the hospital's final days, and the same is reported to have occurred at Cane Hill, despite the concerted efforts of local archivists.)

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 misogyny and homophobia soured most other scribbles and scrawls. 

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 outside and after first smashing a dozen top-floor windows.

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 was simply too perfect a symbol to have fallen into that position from general use.

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). Butterfly paintings and simplistic number charts adorned the walls, and from certain angles it seemed more like a primary school than an asylum. It's possible, of course that this was a space for family and visitors, though it probably catered principally to patients suffering from degenerative conditions like Alzheimers. 

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.

As with other hospitals, there seemed to be no logic 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 woollen jacket, while one particularly desolate corridor was home to literally hundreds of technicolor nightdresses.

Surprisingly, given its remote location and the degree of overgrowth outside, 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 unscathed.