Severalls Hospital - Essex [2004-2009]
"I got married at 17 and had my daughter at 24. I had a breakdown after I had her because I found out he was carrying on with somebody else, and he wouldn’t turn back. And through that I became very ill and depressed, and through that I wasn’t capable of looking after my daughter. They thought at first it was just depression after having the daughter, but I’m not – I’m a manic depressive. When they took her, they said I could have her back. But then they said, no, I wasn’t really well enough – I was all right to live in the outside world, but not to have her.
Severalls was a different world. When I was depressed and ill I didn’t want to go far, and I was quite happy there in my own way. I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t wanna do, did I? Or go anywhere I didn’t wanna go. I could go out in the grounds, walk round, sit in the sun, go in what you call the tea bar, have a cup of tea or do the work that I did there. I spent ten years in hospital. Then after that I couldn’t take her back because he’d remarried, and she’d got two sisters and I couldn’t take her away from them. But in my own mind, I never forgot her. She’s over 30 now. Last time I saw her was when she was 12."*
*Madness in its Place: Narratives of Severalls Hospital, 1913-1997 by Diana Gittins (1998)
Located to the north of Colchester, and catering to an overspill of demand from Warley Hospital, Severalls was completed in 1893, serving the county of Essex until its closure in 1997. The hospital has lain derelict ever since – subject to the covetous eyes of developers and the doomed utopian visions of preservationists. At one time, an Arts and Crafts village was proposed, at others straightforward conversion to housing, though demolition now seems almost certain. As with many historic buildings, it has followed a well-worn pattern of neglect until demolition remains the only viable strategy - vandalism, rot and the elements working in concert to spare councils and housebuilders awkward and expensive decisions.
As the point of last use recedes, people's interest eventually moves elsewhere, and there are now few voices calling for the building's preservation. (The hospital may not be as picturesque as Colney Hatch or as imposing as Warley or Denbigh; but it is certainly not without merit. It's easy, for instance, to envisage its shell repurposed for low-impact dwellings embedded in the site's rich ecology – though its likely fate is as an atomised estate, free of social infrastructure).
Whatever the ultimate fate of the building, Severalls has at least been documented by countless visitors, and was the subject of perhaps the finest study of a hospital to date: Diana Gittins's Madness in its Place (from which all patient and staff quotes in this account derive).
"I know one evening I started to blow and tried to break a window. And there were a couple of nurses on who knew me fairly well, and the nurse in charge said, 'Oh, I’ll ring the doctor.' And they said, 'No, give her half an hour.' And they got me away from the window and they sat me in a chair, and I was trying to tear my face out. And they got hold of my hand. They sat on my feet. They held my hand and talked. I can remember them sitting close to me, holding me. I can remember the – the wanting to tear myself apart and them holding me so I couldn’t. They were protecting me. They were caring for me. And I never did need an injection that time, because they had the time to just hold me, with their own body contact. I can only remember hearing their voices and feeling them close to me and holding hands – just gradually easing me."
I first visited Severalls in 2004, returning sporadically until a final visit in the winter of 2009. Much like stopping by an ill relative, I would sometimes return after reports of a fire or a demolished villa. At other times, it might be because an entrance to a once-inaccessible building was discovered (most memorably the chapel, when a bramble-covered service hatch was unearthed in nearby woodland). Each time, though, my way into Severalls was the same - climbing over the two-metre palisade fence at the rear of the hospital (the frame and central bolt providing sufficient footholds) - and then entering the wards through one of the countless broken windows. By the time of my first visit, security had long ceased patrolling the interiors or bothering with repairs - and would simply drive around the perimeter every hour looking for anything suspicious.
Whichever entrance I used, however, the experience of the wards and corridors was very similar, with the hospital almost totally devoid of any trace of its former inhabitants. While Runwell boasted several boxes of report books, Rauceby: hospital radio and the Heartbreak Kid, the most personal thing yielded by Severalls were some murals and unopened admittance slips. To an extent not seen anywhere else, the entire complex had been stripped bare – apparently to limit the risk of fire – with even the banisters torn emphatically from the wall.
The wider impulse to forget these places; to move on from a complex, awkward part of the past, or from intimations of our own vulnerability, is, of course, understandable - though among survivors there is more ambivalence. For some, the hospital represents exclusion or compulsion, while others mourn the protected space ("a stone mother") and longer-term treatment it once offered, particularly given the subsequent failings of community care.
Certainly, few of the hopes for post-asylum life have been realised. The greater social integration of those with mental illness is clearly positive, though the continued adherence to a biomedical model of psychiatry - with its focus on the pharmaceutical treatment of symptoms rather than on cause and context - suggests little has changed. Indeed, in some areas the situation has arguably worsened: the increased use of Sectioning and Community Treatment Orders pointing to a greater degree of compulsion and compliance, while severe cuts to budgets and the fragmentation of care services have left a great many people isolated and adrift. Set within the context of greater income equality and poverty, and a fraying social infrastructure, the experiences of the mentally ill remain arguably just as fraught and marginalised as under the asylum system.
"When I moved to our house in Severalls in 1956 the chief male nurse looked around and he said, 'Do you want the patient who’s worked here for years?' I said, 'Yes, keep him.' Because there was a lot of ground at the back. I said, 'Yes, he’ll work in our garden.' Well, he proved to be a lovely fellow. My daughter grew up with him. And I’ll tell you, his story is typical. He came back from the war in 1918 to find his wife had had a baby by some other man. He went in a pub and he found this man, and he had a fight. And the police took him away and he got certified. That kept him in.
Now he couldn’t get out, because he needed a relative to vouch for him financially, otherwise he would have fallen on the rates, you see. Never ever till he died. No, he sort of made a home with us. He went into town and did what he liked. Once in, they couldn’t get out though. And when he died four sons turned up. One of them had visited periodically, the others not. I said to one of them, 'Didn’t you ever come and see your father?' 'No,' he said, 'Mum told us he was mad.' ”
The main hall at Severalls was one of the most impressive of its kind still in existence, and certainly the area of the hospital to which trespassers and vandals seemed to gravitate. Despite this, while most of the windows have now been smashed and a few holes burnt in floor, the basic structure of the hall remained largely intact – and there were even a few mementoes of past productions to be found on the floor or in storage. As at Rauceby, amateur dramatics seem to have flourished at Severalls, with hundreds of costumes and props still stored beneath the stage (everything from a parasol to a baby-blue tutu).
"That used to be comic. They used to have a dance every week in the big hall, because Severalls they had their own band, and all that sort of thing. And there was a dance every week, but the females sat one side, the males the other. And then when the band struck up it was just a wild dash – to run across. I mean they had quite a lot of them. They had their own fancy – you know – partners. They used to hug each other and kiss each other going round. Somewhat, you know. Yes. Well, that was the only time during the week when they were able to mix.."
In all of the wards that were old long-stay wards, all the patients were assessed for their rehabilitative potential. And what happened was that as a result of that massive exercise, a lot of the patients were moved around, which meant that people who’d been together for a very, very long time were often split up. And a lot of people died. They just died, because their friends were gone.
There were nurses that made you know very clear that this was about the changes that had occurred, that you know, these were two friends. I can think of two ladies in particular who’d been on my ward, on this rehab ward together, and they’d been together in various wards, but always – for donkey’s years. Like twenty years or something. And all of a sudden because one of them has more potential than the other, they’re split up. And there were something like half a dozen deaths. If not more. I think that was about 1984.
Some more psychologists had been employed who specialised in rehab work, one of whom had done prison work or something like that beforehand. I don’t think they’d really thought it through, you see. I think they’d done it as an exercise thinking to sort people out with a view to moving out the people with potential, and they hadn’t really though about the repercussions of long-term relationships. They never thought about people as having really good friends.
"I used to have my meals at the cafeteria up there and there were patients employed in there, in the kitchen area of the cafeteria – because you met them all in amongst the corridors. You used to have to walk round the corridors to do different jobs. And when I had to go through a ward for the first time, I was absolutely scared stiff. I was walking along, you know, and looking from side to side, and wondering who was behind me. And of course, some of them were yelling, and some of them were running about – and they were doing all sorts! I can’t describe everything they were doing, but they were doing all sorts of peculiar things. And I thought, 'Oh my God!' I was ever so pleased to get out the other end of the ward! And of course, some of the patients used to lean out the upstairs windows and yell in such a loud voice, 'SEVERALLS MENTAL HOSPITAL!' and you could hear them all the way down Mill Road. Yeah. But it was quite a traumatic experience, really, going to work there."
With paperwork at a minimum, the most personal traces were to be found on the walls of the hospital itself. While most corridors were merely whitewashed, I was amazed to discover that those branching off the kitchens were covered in murals. (each contribution signed, and sometimes dated, by a patient). Birds in flight, windmills, sailboats – in all but a handful of cases, the murals were loaded with symbols of freedom and renewal. Indeed, each painting was gloriously free of cynicism – a sense of wonder permeating everything from the mist of a water fountain to the softness of a young bird’s plumage.
"On the whole the nursing staff were extremely supportive. In some cases, very loving, would go to terrific lengths to support or stimulate me or whatever. And there was one in particular, gave up her, her day off, and took me to Felixstowe for the day. There was one nurse, a male nurse, who took great delight in twisting my arm up behind my back when I was trying to do a runner. And he was a vicious piece of goods. I wasn’t the only one who complained about him. There was another male nurse who could divert me from running by making me laugh. There were some nurses who took the time to cuddle me, to sit with me. One day I was trying to rip my face apart and they just got me, somehow, into a chair, and they just sat and stroked my arms until I calmed down. I can remember that so clearly, it was so calm. And – and they were very forgiving. I think was probably at my worst at the changeover of shifts, the disturbance with changing the shifts, which is three times in twenty-four hours. I was frightened at those times."
"You know the corridors? There were lots of little ladies scrubbing the corridors. They would be scrubbing the corridors with sack aprons on their knees. Have they got windows in the corridors there now? Well, there never used to be any windows. There were the holes, but no glass in them. Open to the elements! And we’d come off duty and all you’d hear was a screaming – the bats would be coming up and down the corridors! Yes! They’d be flying up and down the corridors. When we’d come off duty we’d out our capes over our heads and we’d be screaming!"
[In some ways, the corridors can be seen as an analogue of the evolution of care itself. At first constructed with holes instead of windows, the corridors proved austere and windswept, mirroring the rather brutal views on patient welfare and recovery. The introduction of windows in 1950s, however, accompanied a more respectful, palliative approach to patients, with far greater attention now paid to quality of life rather than internment. And then in its final few years, as the barriers between staff and patients collapsed, and friendships were permitted to form, a final humanising touch in the form of murals and decoration.]
"There’s always a lot of love up there, or there always was. And every time I was in, there was some would give me this extra flush of love. It might be staff, it might be visitors, but there was always someone. Members of staff would give up their free time. Not just for me, but for other people. Certainly towards sort of about ‘87-’89 – all the taboos about touching seemed to go quite suddenly. Up to that point it would be a pat on the hand, perhaps, but all of a sudden there would be real body hugs – or stroking of the head or face. They’d be able to do it so naturally."
"And then drawing. I used to get a sheet of paper and I used to say, 'Now, draw as many lines as you feel is good.' And then, 'Now, pick out shapes you like – mark that in – nice black pen – gorgeous!' And then I’d say to them, 'Paint this bit green and this yellow and then red and it’ll look just like Picasso here with the black one there!' So they would pick out the shapes. At first it was a mess – but eventually it was very satisfying. They all had an easel – made by our factories of course – and they had chlorpromazine tins to dip their brushes in. And they had ordinary pill things to put the different colours in. And then I would do that with them – leading them – and then I’d get the nurse to take over – and I’d go on to, you know, the next group and then we’d draw a face – the lips here and draw the hair in and then the body.."
It was only on my second visit that I stumbled across some paperwork from the hospital’s past: several boxes of admittance slips from chaplain’s office. In addition to the medical forms required upon admittance, it appears that a separate one on religion affiliation also had to be completed – and literally thousands of these forms had somehow found their way to the base of a stairwell. There was no indication of the reason for admittance, and only the faintest hint of the patient’s personal situation – many forms simply carrying the annotation: “relatives not to be informed”.
Sadly, it appears that earlier visitors had discovered these boxes and decided to scatter their findings across the corridor – the floor of an entire passageway now given over to patients’ names and addresses. I gathered up and replaced what I could, but with a breeze blowing paper into one of the airing courts, it was a pretty thankless task). The most remarkable thing about these boxes, however, (apart from the fact that they were once used for crackers) was that they also contained hundreds of unopened envelopes, again all addressed to the hospital chaplain. Clearly, they contained nothing more than backlogged admittance slips, yet each held some kind of strange charge - an overwhelming feeling of the present tense and potentiality.
"I think ECT was awful. I mean, you had a dreadful headache, you couldn’t remember things, you know. Sometimes you got better, but sometimes you got worse and you had to have more and more. You did get used to it in the end, you realised what was going to happen. But at the beginning it was quite frightening. Yeah. They gave you a general anaesthetic and – you can feel this rush going through you and it knocked you out. I didn’t have much choice in it at the beginning, but at the very end my family didn’t want it. … I don’t know if it made much difference anyway. I think time makes the difference. You get better over time."
"ECT, yeah. That was a lifesaver. If I hadn’t have had that I’d be mad and I’d be dead. Yeah, it really made a difference. I used to feel so relieved when I’d had it. It cleared my mind of all thoughts of good and evil and things that happened to me I forgot. I couldn’t remember my own parents when they came to visit me. I said to them, “I know who you are.” But then I said, 'No, I can’t think of who you are.' I’d only seen them the week before. That’s what ECT did. So. It took me years to get me memory back – of some things. But it was worth it."
"[A refractory ward] Here it could be rough and tough most of the time. Most patients were really violent, and one had to remember never to let anyone creep up on you from the back. Many a time you could be attacked for no reason at all, and end up on the floor with legs and arms flailing in all directions. Windows were smashed almost every day. We spent a lot of time sweeping up glass."
The few remaining traces of staff or patients, ensured that above all I was struck by the architecture of the hospital – the degree to which its design shaped experience and interaction (one of the major themes of Diana Gittins's study of the hospital). Stripped of all furnishings, staff and patients - and left with nothing but bare walls and ceiling tiles - I had a strong sense of how oppressive these institutions could be - each space or sub-space so enclosed that all sense of the outside world was effaced. Indeed, to me, Severalls spoke not so much of death, but rather of oblivion - a kind of atemporal bleakness - and many of the accounts in Gittins's book testify to something similar. (The architecture so restrictive and suffocating it rendered many patients mute and defeated; content to do little more than rise, eat and then shuffle back to the ward for their medication).
"When I’m clean out of my head? Oh, I don’t think I can explain it in clear, verbal, logical language. It’s – it’s – being in a room – I’ll have to do it by describing some of the visions…. Sitting in a room, and suddenly not being in that room, but being on a completely unsolid snowscape with – sort of birds swooping down. And suddenly the snowscape isn’t unsolid, it’s black and grey and slushy, with bits of orange. You know the plastic orange sort of netting that’s put around a manhole sometimes? Well, bits of these orange plastic netting sticking up and tripping.
And then suddenly – small children appear, that they’ve … no faces, and where they should have eyes and nose and ears and mouths, there’s just worms coming out. And – I’m just getting sicker and sicker, but I know I can’t vomit. And I just start running and running and hitting anyone who gets in the way, and smashing any windows that get in the way. And if the nurses or anyone tried to stop me, I know the one thing I was ever saying was, “Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!” Because I just wanted to run and get away from it all, and the only way I could get away from it all was to kill myself and to run and run and run and run, until I could do it. And all the time, these things were running with me."
With their rapid closure, and the greater appeal of other branches of the history of medicine, (or even just local history), most asylums are now passing into dereliction with few interested in exploring their past. The primary and secondary literature on psychiatric care is now fairly robust – but there still exist few studies or memoirs concerning individual hospitals (and even then, most of these are focused on staffing or legislative and architectural change; the patients an unundifferentiated - frequently othered - mass).
And yet tens of thousands of society's most damaged and vulnerable would have passed through the doors of each asylum; the wards often their home for several years, and in some cases, an entire lifetime. Many staff, too, devoted their entire lives to care of the mentally ill – while even those for whom it was a mere stopover (a majority of entrants to psychiatric nursing leave before completing training) were still deeply marked by the experience. Even for my grandmother, who ended her career as a psychiatric nurse over thirty years ago, it remains the most enduring experience of her life.
"You’re going back now to the days before the Act changed. Because patients that were certified were stuck for life – unless they escaped. If they stayed out fourteen days they were free. I remember old Bob – now where’d he come from? Clacton? Frinton? A nice man he was, never caused anybody any harm.
He told me that he’d been certified because they said he was a pyromaniac. He said, 'It was a joke! It was to get the insurance!' So I said to him, 'Well, don’t let me down Bob, but there is this rule, you know, fourteen days!' And about a week later Bob went and we had to do these searches. I had a small motorbike and so had a few others, so we had to do the wide search. …So the walkers would do the grounds and the cars would do the wide search. ..But anyway, Bob went and the fourteen days went and a parcel came back with his clothes!"
These hospitals were also frequently the nexus of entire communities (as late as the 1980s, for instance, my best friend’s birthday party took place in the social centre at Warley) - and despite the fear they engendered or the coercion and exclusion, they still achieved much that was positive.
It is vital, therefore, never to lose sight of their original purpose, and I only wish that I had found this slightly easier at Severalls.
"..And there were two sisters, two ward sisters who were obviously having a relationship and had been for years, and still live together, although they’ve both retired. That was just accepted. I think it was tolerance. I think it was tolerance of gay people, drug addicts, alcoholics, whatever. Where better to hide the stigma than in a stigmatised population."
"Another treatment being tried out at this time was called Cardiazol. We prepared the patient by not allowing her any breakfast and putting her to bed with her head at the foot of the bed. The doctor then gave her an injection and we had to hold her down very firmly while she had an induced epileptic fit. The patients didn’t have the injection of relaxants, though, we had to hold them down, because they could break their bones. So we had to hold them down. Many treatments of this nature were given and we generally found a very marked improvement. The patient would start to take an interest in herself and her surroundings…"
"And then you come out, and the rooms are small, and there’s all these self-contained little human beings, apart from one or two really close to you, all the others are all sort of wrapped up in polythene, little layers of it. You can’t get, you can’t get hold of them. There’s no way to make contact with them. It’s a reverse of – ...for me, when I’m going into the illness, there’s the glass case which gets more and more scratched, but when I’m coming out, everyone else is in a glass case.
Colour was more intense, and blacks and reds and blues in particular – very very strong. And coming out, there doesn’t seem to be that. And coming, actually, I was last in in 1990, and it’s only this summer  that colours and people are beginning to take what I feel is a more natural place. When I come out everything’s small, even trains are small. And everything’s sort of – everyone is, as I say, sort of wrapped up, so you can’t see their – their physical colours or their mental colours, without a great deal of difficulty. And then over the next few years, the first thing I – there are two things I notice first. Birdsong. And the colour of the grass. And I know when I, when I feel those two things, that I’m coming to the end of the bout."
"It was an institution – and, oh God, it was dreadful. When you had bath days and if you didn’t watch it these old school staff would have them in and out of the same water, but we, the young ones, insisted, no, this doesn’t happen, and we changed a lot of these things. We had rows and there were rows with the charge nurses about all sorts of things, we were causing trouble – but we were persistent, we said, 'No, if a patient was having a bath, we think that baths should be rinsed out and there should be clean towels and things.' 'But that takes all day!'. ..'That doesn’t matter.'I said
The wards were totally bare. And we used to go round the grounds, ‘cause there were all these wild flowers growing and we used to put flowers in for them – we changed the environment. We asked for a fish tank, We were not the key-swinging lunatic attendants that were there before – that’s not being unkind to them, but that’s the way they worked than. That’s the way they were.
We used to say to the old charge nurse, 'We’ve got patients, can we take them out?' And I remember having to go to old Cobbold to get permission to take one into town. 'Don’t you realise, he’s a psychopath?' they all said. 'He’s twice your size!' It was the old school, the old charge nurses, they didn’t want any change…"
"Most of the patients here were up and dressed all day. We kept them fairly quiet with paraldehyde, which was a most foul smelling medicine, but most patients came to love it and became addicted to it. Quite a few had to be cared for in the side-rooms and padded rooms. I will never forget the first time I saw the patient in one of the pads. She just had a sheet over her shoulders – no other clothes, and when she was wet or soiled we just changed the sheet. She never moved and was fixed in a crouched position."
"The first ward I worked on was horrific: an epileptic ward with at least a hundred patients milling around. The noise was unbelievable – women shouting, fighting and cursing each other. There were some wandering around with draw sheets tied round their neck because they dribbled so much – their mouths wide open – not a pretty sight. The dormitory was huge with four rows of beds and side-rooms along three sides of the room. The beds were only about a foot high for safety reasons, as all these people were prone to have fits at any time. The most difficult patients slept in the side-rooms – what a fight it was to push some of them in and get out quickly enough to get the door locked on them!"
It was odd how even vandals seemed to accord the more beautiful sections a begrudging respect. Even on my last visit, by which point the ballroom and laundry had been almost completely covered in paint and signatures, there remained not one piece of graffiti on any of the murals. Indeed, I’ve always found the blanket condemnation of vandals as curious and reactionary - particularly in the case of abandoned buildings such as Severalls. The hospital is certain to be demolished, its interior only ever likely to be seen by workmen or trespassers, and while arson or demolition represent serious hazards, I struggle to see what harm a few errant drawings could possibly do.
In many ways, it's also a reflection of how unnerving such places can be. In use, hospitals are frenetic - everything geared toward survival, protection – and to see one lying derelict is an extraordinarily difficult thing to confront. My own coping method is to place a camera between myself and the asylum; and I imagine a spray-can serves much the same purpose. “Photography becomes a way of limiting experience, of assuaging disorientation” and by turning their attention to a single wall or window pane, I can’t help but feel that the vandals are attempting something similar (the atmosphere at Severalls so oppressive that your only option is to concentrate upon a single detail and to try to possess it in some way).
"Another treatment we used to do was called 'modified narcosis', which was a development of the old continuous narcosis treatment. But the way we did it was, somebody who was extremely agitated – from whatever reason, whether it was a psychotic illness or a neurotic illness – if they were terribly restless and irritated, and particularly where there was a lot of sleep deprivation involved, we actually put them to sleep for three to five days. With sedation. Only woke them up for meals and to take them to the toilet.
And they just slept for five days, you see. I mean, in a way, their kind of batteries were recharged, and the brain, it had a rejuvenating function within the brain, obviously, and they did wake up feeling refreshed, and feeling – having lost a lot of their agitation and anxiety. But again, it was a bit risky. I mean, their blood pressure could have dropped – you know, their blood pressure was monitored, but it wasn’t all that sophisticated. It isn’t used any longer."
Well, when I came out of narcosis finally, I was lying in bed and I could see the sun shining through the curtains - and oh, it was bliss! I was so pleased. Well, you know, when you've got hot and sweaty and you have a nice refreshing bath, it was like that - but mentally. And I was convinced I was fit to go home. But I wasn't..
I can still remember one particular lady, one of the biggest things that – and it must have gone down in the folklore of this hospital. One of the incidents was that we had this patient went missing from what was then the locked female ward – Osyth Ward – and she was somebody who tended to be extremely violent. And if you happen to find her you'd need at least ten staff to pin her down, as she’s capable of lashing out and inflicting. ..And we looked for all over the place. And we’re getting more worried. We tell the police. We said, 'Be careful with her! This lady, this person, is very violent. Approach with caution!'
The next thing we heard this bell. Clink-clink, clink-clink! Coming along. And this particular lady came along riding on a bicycle, absolutely starkers, and laughing and smiling to everybody, waving at them -–and having a whale of a time! In fact, when she eventually stopped, we had no problem getting her back to the ward. She just came – she'd had her fun.
One feature of asylums to which I doubt I shall ever adjust is the silence. Going about my everyday life, I failed to appreciate the persistence of some kind of background noise. Even when walking in the countryside, there is always the background ferment of crickets or squirrels - or the distant wheeze of the motorway – and it is only really in an abandoned building that you are able to experience a silence that is absolute and sustained.. By the time I’d made it to the kitchens even the sound of a shirtsleeve brushing against my waist seemed deafening.
I can’t remember any cruelty going on at all. As I said, we had to be so careful we didn’t bruise or do any injury to them. But I’m afraid, to tell the truth, we rather looked down on patients. Because when I went back to nursing in 1962, as I said, we were friends with patients. We loved them. We called them by their Christian names and we took them in presents, and they were people.
But in the days of Severalls in the 1930s, they were just patients. They weren’t part of the human race somehow. I cannot remember a nurse making a fuss or putting her arm around a patient. When we used to hand-feed them I can’t remember saying, 'Come on, love, this is nice. Try it. Have a mouthful,' or anything like that. It was, 'Eat it!' I suppose we treated them almost as if they were inferior.
We used to get the old people up and just sit them in chairs where they’d be all day, except when you carted them off to have a meal. It never occurred to me to think, 'Oh, you poor love, sitting there doing nothing all day.'We just took it for granted – or at least, I did. But I think it was a general thing.
"Doctors were very frightening some of them. They were remote. There was one I liked immensely. If I asked him a question, he would answer it. And there was one episode where in review he had his registrar with him, and in review he suggested I went and had my hair cut and washed. I must have looked a bit witch-like, I think. Well, at that time, I was absolutely phobic for having my hair or neck touched, and I threw a wobbly and smashed a window
And the registrar slapped me to try and calm me down. And my doctor said to him, 'You don’t do that to my patients!' And then he turned to me and said, 'It’s all right. If you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it. Perhaps you could tell me why later.' End of episode. He was very calm. He was an ex-Auschwitz man, I believe. He certainly had a number on – on his arm. And that registrar became a consultant. And time after time they tried to put me under that consultant, and I said, 'No!' "
Due to its proximity to the main entrance, the laundry was perhaps the most vandalised section of the hospital, though again this amounted to nothing more serious than litter or graffiti (the officer’s wash house renamed “sex room”, for instance) In fact, with its walls playing out conversations, and its floors strewn with bottles and cans, the vandals had impressed so much of themselves upon the building that at times it felt more like an abandoned youth centre than a laundry. They had even constructed a lifesize dummy and then hung it, head bowed, from the rafters.
"The change was mainly one of attitude. There were the industrial workshops where patients could go and work and earn money. And that gave patients a purpose in life. So their attitude changed. In the old days, of course, they were still always sort of ‘them’ and ‘us’. I suppose, mainly, when it came to patients, instead of telling them to do something, you asked them to do it. Those sort of things. We had group therapies. Personalised clothing too – that was another thing that improved. But there again, you see, I remember one patient committing suicide because they closed the ward down. And they moved him. And he said, 'I don’t know what I’m going to do.' So we said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'That’s my home! I’ve lived there for thirty-five years!' he said, 'And they’re throwing me out!' That was way back in the Seventies."
"..And she’d march up and down eating her jam sandwich. And while she was marching up and down, she’d be singing. Singing like, ‘She loves a lady’ and all sorts of little songs all mingled up together. And other times she’d be mumbling under her breath things like, 'We don’t take other’s children, do we? Do you like matches, nurse? What about your shoes then?' A load of rubbish. But if you listened to her long enough, there was something there."
In almost all accounts I’ve read of Severalls, be they by staff or patients, one of the most common motifs is the hospital’s grounds. Many patients speak not just of their calming effect, but also of their contribution towards recovery. I find it particularly sad that so few hospitals now make provision for some kind of garden or rest area.
Only today, for instance, I took my grandmother to Oldchurch Hospital for an MRI, yet when we went in search of some fresh air, the best on offer was a car park. Indeed, it has only been at Harold Wood, where my grandfather was treated over ten years ago, that I’ve encountered a hospital willing to make any kind of concession to nature. Even though it amounted to little more than a few square metres of grass and flowers, he clearly valued the ability to sit somewhere peaceful, if only for a few minutes.
These asylums were founded largely upon a belief in the importance of fresh air, space and nature - and I find it sad that this ideal has now been abandoned almost in its entirety, particularly given the emerging research about the impact of nature on wellbeing. What was once known intuitively, and informed these buildings original design and location, was lost somewhat as the sites became overdeveloped; and remains lost in the design of replacement services in the community.
"..Getting lost in the lovely grounds.. There was plenty of places to look and come to terms with one’s feelings, whereas the new mental hospitals they just haven’t got the facilities. They’ve got tiny gardens, which are locked often. You don’t have the space. It was an asylum, so that in the grounds, you know, you were safe. It was an asylum, and yet you were free."
"The grounds at Severalls, they were safe, they were – there were places where you might catch the odd glimpse of beauty. I mean, there was more than the odd glimpse then, but when you’re in that state, you only see the odd glimpse. No, The Lakes is all wrong. Wrong. I don’t care what they say about those big wards – there was light in them. A lot of light. You go to the The Lakes now, it’s almost like being in an air raid shelter, except you don’t feel safe – or I don’t. when The Lakes was being designed, plans were ground into Birchwood, the day hospital, for staff and patients to look at and make their comments, and I think nearly all the patients said, 'It’s too claustrophobic. There’s not enough light.' "
I was the captain of the cricket team at Severalls. Things you take for granted become a real nightmare; having responsibility when you’re under the weather, you know, I was so worried. I disagreed with other people’s ideas of who to put into bat and things like that, you always get some people saying where you should do it, you know … And I was rather – I felt kind of – aware of these people finding fault, you know?
"I was a good cricketer, but there were very few others that did well – they just couldn’t, you know, they weren’t capable of it – whether they just weren’t sport-minded anyway, but they did try. But you’d get all sorts of strange things, like someone would wander off the field, and someone would be burbling all over the place, some people chattering to themselves, you know, and it was quite – but at the time I couldn’t take it as being funny ‘cause I was a good cricketer myself and, you know, I’d put someone to bowl who was hopeless.
We played Warley and Runwell and Shenley. I was in such a bad state. I don’t know how I got so well for cricket really, but sometimes I was in a terrible state on the fields – and, yeah, well I thought it was better than.. – at least I got out and I felt fit."
The hospital chapel was located within a beautiful glade some distance from the main building - so far, in fact, that it stood outside the security fence and was therefore particularly well-secured: dense steel grilles on every window and additional reinforcements on each door. It was only through the discovery of a service tunnel, and the lifting of a heavy iron manhole cover in the nave, that access was eventually possible.
Inside, the chapel had been completely stripped of all furnishings, with even the base of the altar now ripped up and removed. At the rear of the chapel, however, there remained one last vestige of the hospital’s heyday: a beautiful stained glass window of the Holy Trinity.
"The patients seemed to enjoy the services and used to sing very loudly – and more often than not sing out of tune. In fact, it was awful. But they enjoyed it."
"…But he was one of the patients who was held in great regard by all the staff in this hospital, and when he died the church was full. He’d had some problem with a girl, I think, and he was committed here, and he stayed here. Everybody knew him. Yeah. He used to work in the kitchen – the cooks used to pick him up and sit him in the hotplate! But they all used to look after him, he was looked after in every way.."
In the brief twilight between closure and demolition, many of these hospitals enjoy one last hurrah of activity. The more picturesque asylums like Warley frequently find themselves being used as film sets, but even the more unsightly buildings such as Severalls are at the very least used for police training. Exploring one of the buildings to the west of the site, I stumbled across the remnants of one such exercise. Walls were covered in phrases such as “negotiators” and “rifle control”, while the upper floors were littered with briefing sheets about child hostages and final demands.
"I had a dream when I was in hospital, when I was on the general ward after my last suicide attempt. I had this dream which was accompanied by the sound of tubular bells. And then when I went to music therapy for the first time, Penny got me working with tubular bells and I suddenly remembered this dream and just collapsed in floods of tears. It was all to do with loss. And I very nearly bashed a hole in the floor of the room, you know. I was trying not to cry – and I was getting angry – and I was thumping the floor. But that was an inspired idea, because the music therapy was the turning point. I think without that I would still be doing the revolving-door bit. I was very frightened, because music of any kind always arouses very deep emotions, and very violent ones in me.
Both physically and aurally I got some sort of relief, and there was one time, I think I was playing a phrase over and over again, or a rhythm over and over again, and – she often would play the piano while I was playing something else and build up on it, you see – leaving me to lead. But sometimes she would be able to take that phrase and sort of encapsulate it. And then when we were talking afterwards she’d be able to tease out why I kept going to it, you know, 'Did it remind me of something? Did it express something?' And sometimes I was able then to get into words what I’d not been able to get into words for perhaps all my life."
Towards the end of 2008, the hospital fell victim to a series of fires. The main hall is now little more than a shell, while several wards have been reduced to charcoal. Light switches hang in midair, and all that remains of the flooring are a few buckled girders. The roof in both sections has also been destroyed - soft winter light streaming through the charred supports.
The damage to the interiors is brutal, and yet the collapse of the roofs seems to me triumphant. The asylum is dark, restrained and oppressive – the views of clouds, birds and vapour trails, a gesture of defiance. Underfoot - bricks, mortar and metal. Above - the vaulted sky..*
*The grass below - above, the vaulted sky [The final line from a poem written by John Clare during his thirteen-year stay at Northampton County Asylum, later known as St. Crispin’s]
"I’ve been on walks when I could see the black beast, which is my name for it. But I could actually see it. I’d turn my head, I’d see it behind me. I’d hear it and smell it. I can’t really say what it looked like, except it always had claws, which would land on me or grab me, or whatever. I can smell it and hear it as well as see it. In fact, the smell is the first symptom, always. I start smelling things that aren’t there. Usually burning."
"It was like – like being put into a glass case, and gradually the lid was lowered, the sound was blocked out. Then the glass was scoured, so you could see less and less through it. And somehow the temperature was dropped. The worst of it is, when it starts, when the glass case is first on you, the lid being put over, and the first scratches on the side, you know what’s happening, and you know how it’s going to develop. That is the worst part. When I get to smashing windows, I’m getting better. That’s coming out of the glass. But this knowing how it’s going to develop, knowing you’re powerless to stop it, is the worst part of all. People keep saying, 'Oh – it was so bad seeing you in the hospital and – you know, this, that or the other was going on', and I can’t, can’t get over to them that by then it was actually better. It was the weeks and months before, when it’s closing down …"
"There was a huge assumption that it was all too late. I think quite a lot of them, if they’d had intervention early enough, need never had become as mad as I experienced them. I think the probability is that a large number of them were abused. You know, with all the stuff that’s coming out now about abuse, and the frequency of abuse in the population, I would guess that what we were seeing were other ways of being in the world for the very painful experienced people. I have no doubt. I think they had retreated into total madness. They’d found somewhere else to be."
Unlike at Runwell or Rauceby, I found few traces of pigeons, foxes, or any other creature at Severalls. Indeed, the only sign of life came in the form of an occasional butterfly - in each room announcing their presence through a soft, repeated thud as they struggled to find a window through which to escape. By the end of my first visit, I’d even taken to walking round with a camera in one hand, and a plastic box in the other. Each time I caught sight of a butterfly, I’d clamber onto the windowsill, catch it in the container, and then release it through the nearest opening.