Warley Hospital - Brentwood, Essex 
"Total object, complete with missing parts, instead of partial object. Question of degree."
(Samuel Beckett - Three Dialogues)
The destruction has already begun. Sanitation blocks have been pulled down, and the integral water tower is now completely encased in scaffolding. The hospital is entering its final phase – the downward of the arc. Walking the perimeter, drilling has replaced birdsong, while most views of the ground floor are now obscured by rubble.
And yet, just as five years ago, there is something compulsive about the collapse. The building now evinces a real vulnerability - once monolithic and fearsome, it now lies prostrate before the bulldozers (an elderly patient cowed by illness). Indeed, part of what makes these asylums so fascinating is the extent of the decline; the descent from community hub to ignominy and neglect.
Built in 1853 as a pauper lunatic asylum, Warley Hospital once served the whole of Essex; and despite the construction of asylums in Goodmayes, Runwell and Colchester, remained the central institution in the county until its closure in 2001. Much of the hospital was demolished in the late 90s, but the magnificent main building remains and is currently in the midst of conversion to housing.
Architecturally, Warley is certainly one of the most interesting asylums still in existence. The wards are unlike those of any other hospital, while buildings such as the chapel and administration block abound with strange and wonderful details. Its internal water tower has a remarkable spiral staircase, and there are countless other idiosyncrasies, be they gold plaques or bizarre gargoyles. The hospital also occupied such a vast site – at its peak, almost a hundred acres – that its grounds remain littered with traces of the hospital’s past – be it a rusting staircase in woodland or a decaying farmhouse.
I now have only vague memories of the demolished parts: a friend’s birthday in the social centre; the occasional summer fairs on the old cricket pitch. I remember the entrance on Crescent Road, how forbidding that slight incline seemed; the shamefully dilapidated state it had reached by the late 80s. And yet I lack a clear image of much else. When attempting to picture the other buildings, all I can see is brickwork, the dank intersection of road and wall. Vertiginous structures rear up alongside me – but my eyes are always down and forwards.
[These photographs stem from the period between 2002 and 2004. The text, too, was written at this time (and in fragments), and is somewhat disjointed as a result. The quotations stem from interviews with my grandmother, who was a nurse at the hospital across three decades (full-time from 1938 to 1948, and then part-time for much of the 50s). After answering an advert in a newspaper, she left Ireland, aged 19, to work at the hospital and has lived in Brentwood ever since.]
Until recently, my relationship with the hospital had been one of steady encirclement – a familiar landmark, but one to which I had never gained access. As I child I remember speeding through the site on my bike, slowing as I neared a window in the hope of hearing a scream. Heart pounding, I’d then race down the hill, negotiate the barrier at Crescent Road, and re-enter civilisation, thankful I’d avoided being attacked by a patient or arrested.
In adolescence, I’d often play cricket there with my best friend (now a doctor himself). His parents were both psychiatrists at the hospital and had come over from Sri Lanka to escape the civil war. Even then, eight years before closure, the wicket was hopelessly overgrown – another of those features (like the nearby tennis court) that had rapidly fallen into disrepair by the 1980s. And then there were the drug-addled wanderings during the first phase of demolition. It was only two summers ago, under the aegis of my university, that I finally managed to secure access.
The hospital has long been the focus of my curiosity, although at times this interest has taken on an unhealthy hue, bordering on obsession. During depressive episodes especially, the building has exercised a particular hold over me (seeking in the hospital: oblivion, legitimacy, majesty, transcendence, release).
Returning home, I feel increasingly helpless – the hospital’s collapse again mirroring my own. All I can see in the building is hopelessness – an utter negation of the idea of progress ..[A narrowing of options, a complete attenuation of strength].
…Exploration of the grounds has now become a daily routine. My sleep patterns are so fragmented, it is not uncommon for me to set out at dawn or midnight – each time, the same route, the same thoughts - slowly circumscribing the main building before returning home.( If nothing else, there’s always a loose stone to be kicked or workman to decry). After everything that’s happened, I’ve found myself immersed in the very same behaviours as five years ago. Plagued by insomnia and obsessed by illness, the asylum has once again become my focus – a maddening, soul-destroying cipher.
- [Journal, undated]
The derelict asylum is a particularly rich subject for such projections. An extreme melancholy pervades each site. All around lie fragments, traces of the past (and of “lost futures”) – a superabundance of material suggesting all that has disappeared and is under threat; while the spectre of mental illness – the sense of lives curtailed, ignored - renders these feelings even more acute.
For most, the interiors of these buildings are steeped in mystery and conjecture (imagined wards, imagined lives, all intermingling with half-remembered images from childhood) – and so the associations are infinite. (The asylums function as strange interzones – sites of extreme spatial and temporal disjuncture...).
Each hospital is also a battleground between the public and the private – and this serves as yet another melancholy tributary. At Warley, battalions of facsimilied houses encircle the hospital, while the main building will soon be luxury flats. A vast public space has been lost forever, with even the promise of basic amenities reneged upon – greed again the motive force. In many ways, I wish the entire site still stood derelict. There is much to be gained from the visiting and consideration of such places (an appreciation of absence; the affirmation of decay, of "time's relentless melt") - and this rapid destruction of what has failed or been superseded can only be corrosive.
"One climbed up the window one night – and she went out the window – threw herself out and died. I wasn't on the ward that night, thank god. I was on the night before. But what can you do? – they're so quick. And they'll do it no matter what, no matter who's there. She’d said to me as we were walking round the garden (I was holding her by the arm – you had to do that in case they’d run off) that she was going to throw herself out the window; and the next day I came to work and she’d jumped out the window. I told them she kept threatening to jump out the window, but they wouldn’t listen. Patients were telling you that kind of stuff all the time and you wouldn’t take much notice. She was a schizophrenic, I think - but I wasn’t really medically trained or anything then."
All that remains of the hospital, save a few outlying ruins or conversions, is the main building. Constructions of equal size and grandeur - F Block, D Block and the Nurses Home – were all demolished in 1999 (along with so much else) – and any subsequent account wears their absence heavily. The hospital stands much as it did in its first and last phases - but is a poor representation of the majority of its hundred-and-fifty years.
I walked through the hospital often during this period but neglected to take any photographs (nor did my sense of the possible yet extend to trespass) – and so my recollections are sketchy and delimited by roads and footpaths (not to mention the dulling effect of medication). I have tried dredging my memory for more images, but have unearthed nothing of any consequence. (In Speak, Memory, Nabokov discovers that “by means of intense concentration, the neutral smudge might be forced to come into beautiful focus so that the sudden view could be identified” – though at present I lack even smudges to work upon..). In the meantime, I am reduced to scrutinising aerial photographs, cross-referencing everything to maps and floor plans (which suddenly possess the wonder of Mercator) – and in each instance am staggered by the sheer scale of the area demolished.
The hospital is now divided firmly between the very concrete world that I have explored and documented, and a world of suggestions – and it is the latter that most interests me. My family’s narratives are heavy with references to places like Weald Ward, C Block, the laundry and bakery – though I despair at my inability to recall such places.
For now, the demolished sections are like an imagined city. In my mind, I follow the road down the hill past F Block, my memory fails, and I enter a landscape of strange superstructures and rain-lashed streets - a world as vast and intricate as a Canaletto veduta. Sometimes I even trace these journeys on a map - …exploring damp passageways, running the tunnels..
* * *
The exteriors of Warley are among the most imposing of any asylum. In part this is the product of landscaping and topography – the hospital’s vast frontage can be viewed from the road; and the hilltop location and meandering approach (eerily reminiscent of a clifftop hotel) both add to the formidable aura of apartness and difference. It is its medieval architecture, however, that is so unsettling. In its pomp, well-tended gardens softened the hospital’s appearance – but even then, it must surely have intimidated many as they approached. Dark and menacing, with pin-prick gables and crenellated ridges, it is hard to reconcile the exterior with its architect’s claims of a “comely, cheerful looking building,” whose design can only have a “beneficial effect on patients”.
The main building has changed much, of course, in the hundred and fifty years since its construction. As the hospital expanded, it was subject to a series of low-rise extensions; the clumsy additions of toilet blocks, as well as the demolition of the circumferential wall (which was ten-feet high and sunk in “ha-ha”s) – but the Medieval character of the building has endured.
The inside of the administration block was depressingly functional – and after waiting years to gain access, my first impression was one of extreme disappointment. In the absence of any photos, my visions of the hospital had been informed largely by the exteriors, and I held somewhat ridiculous expectations of grand courtyards and intricate interiors (a world of Puginesque splendour). In the days preceding my visit, I would often dream of the hospital – walking through cloisters and immaculate airing courts; my imaginings remarkably similar to day trips to Oxford and Cambridge in childhood. In fact, the interiors were brutal and claustrophobic – and it was only when ascending the clock tower that a sense of wonder and adventure returned. Another aspect for which I had been ill-prepared was the bareness of the hospital. I’d hoped that most of the furniture remained in situ – but traces of staff and patients extended little further than wall displays and a scattering of broken phones.
"I was working hard at home and getting no money at all, so I thought I might as well go over there and get a bit of money for it. There was no money back in Ireland at all. I remember seeing adverts in the papers and my sister Kate was already working in the needleroom and then later on the wards. My family liked it too because the money was good in mental hospitals and they thought you were more looked after than if you went into digs. You had to be in at 10 o’clock and they were quite strict – so my mum quite liked that side of it."
The entrance hall, at least, evinced something of this splendour with its gold plaques, sculptures and timbered ceilings - their impact diminished but not eradicated by countless wires and clumsy paintwork.
At the end of the hall there was a set of red double doors leading to the wards, in front of which (between two rows of Minton tiles) was the message: DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE – the demarcation between “outside and inside, seen and unseen, mad and sane” painfully concrete (and the lobby lent the air of some ghastly purgatory).
"Some of them didn’t have anyone at all looking after them; they looked after themselves – there were two or three like that. They did everything – cooked their own meals, washed up, kept the ward clean. All we did was the laundry. You just looked in now and then, in the morning and at dinnertime, to check they were still alive. There were two or three wards like that. But there was still not much privacy – just bed space.
A lot of them were able to go out too – they’d even pick you up some shopping if you asked them. You wondered why the heck they were in there. Just because there was no one to look after them – that's why. Or if a girl got pregnant by a bloke they stuck here in there and had the baby adopted. Can you think of anything more wicked or mad? It was absolutely shocking. Anyway, they were more like staff. They‘d make you a sandwich and bring milk to you if you were in the office doing anything. They liked doing it. Some patients were very nice, you really got to like them – just like outside, the same."
The most remarkable feature of the administration block, was the clock tower. Located at the front of the main building, the summit was accessed by a series of steep and narrow staircases, the entrance to which was concealed in one of the offices. After ascending three floors, each little more than a small platform, the original mechanism lay idle on a wooden platform. Here, there was also a hatch onto the roof of the tower, a perilous climb that yielded extraordinary views of the entire complex and the surrounding countryside.
* * *
Like the rest of Warley, the pharmacy had been thoroughly cleared – although with most furniture fixed and immoveable, the room (perhaps more than any other in the hospital) retained a strong sense of its former use. The vast desk, serving hatch, and numbered storage racks were the focal points, though banal signage - fire drills, no smoking - were also central to the air of recent vacation.
I found the pharmacy somewhat disorienting - a room whose associations were, on the one hand, function and bureaucracy, and on the other, extreme torment. With a dizzying array of drawers and compartments, the sense of loss was also fragmented (even numbered) – the eye drawn towards details rather than the whole.
"There wasn’t that much treatment for them back in those days. We used to give some of them ECT – cleaned them and then put this electric thing on their head and they used to start fitting. Then they’d wake up and they’d be ever so nice, but then it would wear off. They’d be as mad as hatters; and then they’d be so nice. That was really the only form of treatment we had. I can’t remember many drugs."
* * *
A cavernous building bordered by cloisters, the central storeroom was, for a short period in the nineteenth century, the main recreation hall. Built in 1879 in the central courtyard, it replaced the original recreation room, which was then located beneath the hospital chapel (latterly the staff cafeteria).
With the completion of F Block in the 1880s, however, it was rendered defunct and became the central stores (vertiginous stacks of linen, food, everything). Today it stands stripped and empty; devoid of detail save for its bright red pillars and the decaying remnants of the stage.
In 1998, a horrendous fire tore through the building, causing the roof to collapse and damaging nearby offices. (It took ten fire engines almost three hours merely to control the blaze). What remains, then, is in part a recent creation - the walls freshly plastered and roof replaced - and it is only in the brick pillars at the far end that you can still see any details of the original construction.
"They were well looked after – entertainment, dances and everything. There was this one male patient – he was a marvellous dancer. Everybody used to want to dance with him - really good he was. Some of them were no good at all, they were just shaking around – but you had to dance with them if they asked you… Long time ago now!"
* * *
At the heart of any hospital account must lie the wards – and those of Warley are of particular interest. In the hospital’s early years, the wards were referred to as “galleries” (though their individual names - M2, H5 etc - were rather less poetic) and were linked by a series of cloistered walkways (“galleries of communication” according to the original plans). In 1957, their nomenclature adopted a more floral theme, with titles such as Magnolia, Rose, and Jasmine…
As in most other asylums, the left-hand side of the hospital was given over to male patients, with females occupying the right. In the asylum’s infancy, the wards also functioned as separate entities – each cooking their own meals until the construction of central kitchens in 1910.
The wards at Warley were all of uniform design, each twelve feet wide and thirteen feet high, with “single rooms, dormitories and day space” opening off the main corridor - “which was intended as a recreational space in bad weather” - though, in later years would sometimes accommodate beds too. (In many places, curtain rails are still affixed to walls and ceilings, the corridors loosely partitioned into several small enclosures - each patient given just enough space for a small bed and wardrobe).
Another remarkable feature were the tunnelled pock-marked ceilings – a perfect marriage of utility and elegance (the hollow hexagonal bricks an effective form of fire-proofing). With regard to colour, the wards were usually soft-hued, awash in neutral tones like taupe or hyacinth - the one exception the vermillion tiles and cerise walls of Marigold).
"There were usually tables in the day rooms – and the patients would sit in there and have their meals. Or there were couches to sit on. We used to play games with them and cards and everything- keep them amused. Some of them were good and tell you lots of jokes and everything. Or we’d go out in the garden, take them by their arm. The last time I was back there they were all just sitting around doing nothing. They said they weren’t looked after properly in my day, but I think they were looked after better in some ways. All I saw when I went back was the patients sitting around like zombies, and the nurses in the office drinking their tea. At least we could sit with them and do things. We used to have groups, you could sit there and read with them. And they used to have Sports Day, and we’d take them for walks and outings."
The wards of Warley are accessed by a series of narrow, cloister corridors, which branch left and right from the administration block. When the hospital first opened, many were tiled and open to the elements, though all are now covered in scuffed linoleum and fully enclosed. Over the years, as electricity has been added and the amenities updated, the corridors have also doubled as service tunnels – each laced with pipes, wires and ventilation flues - the buildings ill-equipped to accommodate change.
"The male patients used to do ever so much gardening – and the females did a lot of cleaning. They used to be out in those long corridors scrubbing them – sometimes without pads on their knees. It was a horrible job to do, but the wards were spotless in those days. Old codgers scrubbing them in the bitter cold – it was awful, really. We used to show them sewing, too, and how to put on a patch. It used to keep them occupied at least."
The corridors provided a clear indication of the hospital’s unsuitability for contemporary use - their design informed by notions of mental illness that were certainly outdated by the First World War, if not earlier.
(And yet, in the wake of a suitable alternative, it is still reasonable to question the closure of the asylums. The patients ushered out of Warley, for instance, have found themselves in a building that is still over seventy years old and informed by similarly outdated ideas, or, even worse, cast adrift in the community, devoid of any real support).
* * *
Abandoned, these buildings become museums of ephemera – paperwork, postcards, curtain clips – a repository for everything the removal men saw fit to discard or ignore. At Warley, such items were scarcer than at most asylums – but they did exist, and could always be tracked down with a little perseverance. Often it would require the opening of every cell or understairs cupboard – but these efforts would invariably be rewarded, be it through a pair of old boots, collection of phones, or even a pack of insulin syringes. In Daffodil, a patient mural had even survived (on first glance a pastoral scene of church and parkland, though closer inspection revealed aliens and dive-bombing aircraft)
"I’ll never forget this woman attacked this other patient – and this nurse was running around shouting, seeing if anyone could find her eye. It happened a lot, patients attacking other patients."
The items that proved most resistant to removal were signs and notices – and the absence of furniture afforded them undue prominence. In virtually every ward, a floor plan (laminated and fixed by the entrance) survived, as did fire notices and information on visiting times. Other notices testified to ECT schedules, internal telephone numbers, cleaning schedules and responsibilities – all of limited interest individually, but collectively they contribute much to an understanding of the hospital in use.
"I had my head banged on the floor in M.5. I was coming out of the toilet and she was coming back from the washroom. She grabbed me by the hair of the head and was banging my head on the floor, shaking me like a rag doll. And I was screaming, but there was so much noise from the patients they never heard me. But I had a whistle and eventually I got my mouth to it.. And then a matron found me and I said I'd been calling out, but she just said. "I couldn't hear with the noise." I told her I thought I wouldn't have a hair left on my head if she hadn't come soon. Then she told me to sit down by the fire, gave me a few tablets and sent me off duty. If you weren't hard, you'd have died long ago."
The general sense, however, was of almost total emptiness - of a vacuum or shell. I think that my experience of Cane Hill (a place where slippers still lay beneath beds and medication filled the cupboards) has made visiting other asylums more difficult. If a building is to evoke a meaningful response, human traces must abound; the distance between dereliction and its former use has to be traversable. Likewise, if the hospital feels too pristine, then any sense of loss or feelings concerning neglect are clearly of less sharp a pitch. Although the paint was often peeling, Warley was otherwise in sound condition. More than this, the building now has custodians, and is being prepared for conversion – and so there was very little to cling to…
After a while, my response to this emptiness was simply to withdraw into fantasy. Walking through wards, glancing inside cells or dormitories, I often found myself transposing images of present-day psychiatric wards (empty rooms suddenly brought to life by furnishings, a scattering of patients). These imaginative flights would sometimes last for several seconds, with entire conversations and personal dramas played out. (Of the patients I pictured were many who had talked to me about their time in Warley – amongst them a schizophrenic who had been in and out of the hospital for forty years, having been first admitted at sixteen).
"You were always on your own at night – except on the sick ward, where there’d be one out on the veranda and one indoors. And there’d be fifty beds in a ward upstairs…They were from wards that had no bedrooms downstairs, so there’d be fifty of them there at night. And you know, I fell asleep on duty one night and this patient came up to me and said: “The lady from downstairs is coming through the door!”. She woke me up to tell me that the head nurse was coming in.."
”[Our aim is] making the Institution really and truly an Asylum, a place of refuge and retreat from pain and trouble and sorrow; a hospital and a home" – Dr. DC Campell- Medical Superintendent, 1874.
"I was sitting on a ward at night once, and there was this patient. I fell asleep in the chair, and I woke up and she was rubbing my legs. She said she had to come and sit with a nurse because Father O' Flynn was after her. ..I don't know what might have happened to her before she came in - whether it was all in her mind or not…"
It is difficult not to feel a sense of anger and despair that these wards should be empty – an anguish that stems not from the merits of the asylum system - which was obviously riven with flaws (inspectors in 1996 condemned conditions in the hospital as “deplorable”) – but because more effective alternatives are still so lacking. The spirit of “care in the community” has been systematically betrayed by the absence of meaningful support and funding; and there remains a major need for in-patient beds in a suitably therapeutic setting. As it stands, Warley, (which, by the late 90s had the most in-patient beds of any hospital in England) will soon be luxury flats – the region’s patients now crammed into a miniscule complex on the site’s perimeter (a building that was once merely the admission unit)
As with similar units across the country, this particular complex is small and overcrowded. Such is the lack of in-patient beds, only the most acutely disturbed are admitted – and so wards are often violent and terrifying places. (During my brief time as a ward clerk there, I often witnessed assaults on patients and staff – everything from boiling water thrown in someone’s face, to a handful of hair ripped from a woman’s scalp). The whole notion of asylum, of a “place of refuge and safety” (something desperately needed by so many) has been lost.
"Some of them were really nice – you used to get quite attached to them…. There was one there and she used to call me a 'ginger zoo rat'. 'Here comes a ginger zoo rat,' she used to say. Whatever a zoo rat was! The lowest of the low I should think – a zoo rat! And then when she was well, she was as nice as pie. I said to her: 'You called me a ginger zoo rat' – and she said: 'I never! I’d never do that to you. I wouldn’t do that to you.' "
During the 1980s, as the move towards Care in the Community gathered pace, patients from the hospital spent more and more time in the surrounding streets. While many no doubt passed unnoticed, there were a handful of patients for whom the outside world presented considerable difficulties and dangers. Staggering along the road or walking in front of cars, they were a fixture of life for those living near Crescent Road. (It seemed like every day we’d almost hit someone). Over the weeks and months, certain faces became more familiar – the same people encountered at least once a week.
With the passage of time and the closure of the main building, their numbers have slowly dwindled – and there is now only a single survivor from my childhood. Remarkably, he appears virtually unchanged: the same awkward gait and plastic bag, the same gaunt features (his cheeks still grey and sunken; his expression inert).
I still see him occasionally, passing him on Warley Hill or near the train station. Our encounters tend to be most frequent, however, in those periods when my own difficulties force me to spend hours outside. (I've no idea if his walking answers to a similar need, but I have always felt a strange connection to him in those moments - a clear case of projection, of course - yet it is undeniable that each encounter would in some way lift my mood).
Perhaps there was something in my expression that he found approachable, but a few months ago, just as we were about to pass, he suddenly mumbled, "Hello", before lifting his hand slightly in a kind of suppressed wave. In that brief moment, I found myself unable to reciprocate, staring at the ground until he had passed - years of withdrawal rendering me incapable of responding instinctively or with warmth to even the simplest act of kindness.
Even now, I wish I had the courage to say something to him, rather than, pathetically, often crossing the road, or even going so far as to disappear down a side street, when I see him approaching. On the rare occasions that we do still pass, I try to have an amiable expression on my face, but as we both avoid eye contact, I expect it goes unnoticed.
* * *
In its hundred-and-fifty-years the hospital has operated under three different names – Essex County Lunatic Asylum until 1920; Brentwood Mental Hospital until 1953, and then finally, until its closure, Warley Hospital (or simply “Warley” to locals). While the name has changed, however, there are several motifs that are present in all accounts of hospital life.
The first is overcrowding, which became a problem just a few years after opening and remained an issue until the hospital’s closure. Major extensions were made throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, but within a few years the hospital was again in desperate need of space (at one stage, it was at such a premium that staff were forced to live in the laundry, eating their meals off ironing boards).
The second motif is premature death – be it through war or the constant epidemics of typhoid, diphtheria, flu or cholera that plagued the hospital during its early years. The First World War, especially, took an enormous toll on the hospital – with food rationing leading to a staggering death rate amongst patients. In 1917 alone, 525 patients died, while even a year after the armistice, the rate was still as high as 346. (In the Second World War, the hospital was more fortunate, with only farm buildings damaged by an air raid, and rationing much less severe).
"I remember once on night duty I could see a fire at Tilbury docks. I was on the verandah on Daffodil Ward, and I’d be left sitting out there at night. The patients used to be sleeping there – out in open as they had TB and that. God, it was cold at night with no hot water bottle, only a blanket around you. I remember being out there and I could see the bombs being dropped, the fires at Tilbury Docks - I could see the flames going up.
When the siren went off we just used to come downstairs, but there was nothing there really. We’d just sit under the stairs. It was better than being up in your room or the ward, I suppose, what with all the glass – no glass down there, you see. We never had any bombs explode on us though – we were lucky. Once a bomb landed behind the nurses home, and we had to be evacuated in case it went off. But they were able to come and take it apart. If it had exploded, they said it would have blown the nurses home to bits. Wasn’t to be, I suppose. Someone said they’d never drop a bomb on this place – they wouldn’t waste one on it! – and they were right. We worried we might get one in mistake for the barracks, though. …"
Finally, there is the building’s antiquated design. Problems with heating, power and lighting were endemic; the hospital’s structure mediating against rapid or wholesale change. In its early years, patients slept on gas-lit wards in wooden box beds with straw mattresses – and it wasn’t until the second decade of the 20th Century that this was to change fundamentally. Indeed, as late as the early 1900s, when the hospital was still gas lit, an inspector remarked that the light was “so inadequate that it was difficult to see patients in one F Block ward from half the length of the gallery". Single rooms remained unlit until the 1920s and the introduction of electricity was painfully slow.
* * *
At various times throughout its life, Warley Hospital was served by three chapels. The first of these – a grey anomaly viewable from the rear of the site - was located within the main building, though for much of the last century served instead as a library and dormitory. The second chapel, which still stands to the rear of the site, lay unused for decades, and is currently being converted to luxury apartments – (though its small graveyard remains untouched). Finally, there was a small prefab chapel – St Dymphna’s (after the patron saint of the mentally ill) - to the right of the main entrance, which is soon to be demolished and on its last legs anyway through vandalism.
The first of the three was certainly the most interesting, showcasing lancet arches, elaborate cornices and an array of sculpture. It occupies the centre of the west front, and projects forward from the main building - though is still attached and can be accessed directly from Primrose and Fuchsia wards. Despite appearing otherwise from outside, the chapel is, in fact, only one storey, with the area below an epileptic dormitory until 1959, after which it became the staff cafeteria.
According to the hospital’s first superintendent: “it is a very good specimen of ecclesiastical architecture, simple and appropriate, having a nave, aisle, transepts, chancel, vestry, etc, and will accommodate nearly 300 persons in sittings”.
The views over the surrounding countryside are magnificent – and despite forming an integral part of the main building, light streamed in from all four sides. Used as a dormitory since 1891, there were virtually no signs of its original use. With beds removed, it was completely barren, skeletal. Even the paint and flooring had been stripped.
As patient numbers increased, it had quickly proved too small as a place of worship, and given its location, impossible to enlarge. The result was the construction, in 1889, of a large chapel to the south of the site. Once sandwiched between the main building and bakehouse, it is now bordered on three sides by housing, the remaining elevation looking out across a graveyard and parkland. I managed to gain access a few years ago, but sadly most of the fixtures (save the organ and parts of the altar) had already been stripped.
I also felt distinctly uncomfortable, and spent as little time inside as possible. Even on a midsummer afternoon, it seemed cold and hostile - claustrophobic even - lacking the warmth of the chapel at Severalls or the grandeur of that of Cane Hill. The architecture was far too imposing for such a limited space; and the result was unnerving rather than holy. My father shared this unease when he visited the chapel in the 1970s, with many of his colleagues feeling the same. (I suspect this also had much to do with the chapel’s past. In the late 60s a patient was raped there, and there are tales of countless other assaults and suicides.)
The graveyard in contrast seems rather serene. In the summer there are bluebells and poppies, and the whole area is sheltered by a monumental oak.. Only a few headstones survive, though these represent a mere fraction of the bodies buried here. (A quick visit to the Records Office confirmed the burial of hundreds of staff and patients as far back as the mid-nineteenth century.)
"We used to pass through the cemetery on our way back from Crescent Road, a shortcut to the Nurses Home. There were lots of children buried there years ago, near to D Block, facing the D Block nearly. There were never many gravestones."
While most of the headstones are illegible, a few have endured surprisingly well. Among them are the graves of Sarah Jones, laundress of the asylum from 1862 –1887, and Elizabeth Moody who died, aged sixty-six, while working on the asylum farm. A female attendant, Henrietta Walls, who died in 1869, and her male counterpart, George Harvey, who lasted only four more years, are also interred here. The most impressive of the graves, however, belongs to J.W. Tebble, and is still tended regularly by the War Graves Commission. A twenty-three-year-old stoker aboard H.M.S. Russell, he died at the asylum in 1916 of undisclosed causes.
"There were a lot in there from the First World War. Men especially, who’d gone in with shellshock. They weren’t bad at all – they were better than the others, you see. It was just shellshock with them – they were more normal, if you know what I mean."
The final chapel was used primarily for Catholic services – the majority open to the general public. It was built in 1962, on the foundations of the old library, and services were conducted by priests from Brentwood Cathedral or All Saints church on Warley Hill. Addicted to mass, my grandmother was a regular attendee, and the service was also popular with other members of staff. I even participated in a few services myself, though being only six, have no real memory of proceedings or the interior. What little remains suggests a humble, unadorned place of worship. Soft blue carpet lines the aisle and altar, while the light fittings are similarly plain and austere. Curiously, above the altar, there is also the barely perceptible outline of a cross. Removed or stolen only recently, it has left behind a small patch of unmarked paintwork – a pristine crucifix in a wash of dust and dirt.
* * *
The workshops were located to the south-east of the main building, though are now simply a shell. A single piece of machinery - a bespiked steel Leviathan - remains in situ to the rear of the building, but everything else has been stripped. (The upper floor, which functioned as an overspill dormitory was similarly barren). In its day, however, it was a thriving part of the hospital – patients undertaking everything from sewing to work on lathes and presses. In the 70s, its industrial therapy programme met with particular success, placing hundreds of patients in jobs outside the hospital. In an interview from 1978, the hospital was even able to boast that: “employers come actively to [Warley] for employees….They know they will get work of a consistent standard..and if one of our people says he is ill…then ill he is”
"Some of the staff were very cruel when I first went there – absolutely dreadful – pulling them by their hair, punching them - horrible. They had to stop it because it was so cruel. Mind you, if they had hold of you by the hair you had to get rid of them somehow."
* * *
The cellars at Warley were the exclusive domain of maintenance staff, except during the war when they occasionally doubled as a hurried shelter. Accessed at the base of certain stairwells, they were a network of arched passageways and dead-ends – cramped, murky and disorienting. In one corner, I discovered a sink, in another an oily rag – but the cellars were otherwise empty. Overhead, there were occasionally pipes – the cellars supplementing the hospital’s service tunnels in many sections.
With the kitchens inaccessible on my initial visit, I had to wait several months before gaining entry – stealing inside at 3am on a freezing winter’s night. Sadly, as with the rest of the hospital, the inside was largely empty. It was only in the final room that I discovered anything - a behemoth of an industrial cleaner, and a ruptured line of sinks).
* * *
Unsurprisingly, given its remarkable design, the hospital has been a magnet for film units - the exterior used for wartime dramas (Foyle’s War) and feature films; while the interior, has featured in everything from local news to tawdry horror shows. Indeed, one of the more recent productions was an episode of Shock Treatment (a clear sign of its sophistication: a poster announcing the screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the hospital’s cinema). In addition to shooting schedules and floor plans (one of which detailed the construction of a padded cell), I even discovered film scripts and wrist bands. Indeed, traces of the production still litter the entire hospital.
"You had to hang onto this one woman when you were taking her round the grounds, ‘cause if a man came round, up went her skirt. She was always flashing in the ward, lifting her skirt up when any men came near. So I said I’d take her out. I said to her: 'If you lift that skirt up once I shall smack you round the face!' - so she behaved herself while she was out. We went around the town, looking in the shops for a couple of hours. I felt sorry for her really."
"We used to try and keep the wards as nice as we could – with flowers and plants on the table for them. Make it a bit homely for them. And at Christmas they used to put decorations all around the ceilings and everything. In the cells, there'd just be a bed, no chairs, no nothing. If there was a chair they might bang you over the head with it when you went in the door…. (And two of you usually went in. You never went in on your own). The corridor was usually clear – maybe a couple of seats to sit on, built into the wall with padded tops, like church kneelers. Furnishings? Like something that came out of the ark. No curtains at all in those days – no privacy whatsoever. Curtains around the shower and bath, but we never drew them as you had to be with them, in case they stuck their head under the water."
* * *
With the wards barren, the patient records that remained were confined to a single room near admin. Most had already been moved into storage, though the final batch – dozens of lever arch binders - was still awaiting collection during my visit. Almost all concerned outpatient clinics (which in the 1960s dealt with almost 15,000 patients a year ) though a handful concerned inpatients and hospital business.
"There was this one woman and she’d be completely normal – but whenever the royals would come on the radio she’d go berserk. 'Imposters!', she used to say. 'Imposters!' and start shouting at the ceiling. (They had the radios up high in those days, ‘cause they’d smash them if they were down low, you see). ….And she always wore these long dark grey clothes, and a lovely blouse with a broach there at the top. She thought she was royalty."
Earlier records were located at the Essex Record Office, with those older than a hundred years free to browse. Exceptionally detailed – they testified to the limited nature of early treatments (very little beyond opium for mental distress, while for physical illness, leeches and bleeding were still used) and also the staggering rate at which people could decline. They also contained details on the many children treated at the hospital. Until 1902, when a children's ward was established (with swings and see-saws in the airing courts), children were indiscriminately mixed with adults; and records from the 19th Century give some sense of the upheaval this may have caused.
Emily, age 11 Admitted 09/01/1878
Congenital imbecility with excitement
[She] is a carpenter’s daughter chargeable to Chelmsford. She is said to be insane for the first time. The disease being of two months’ duration (the disease is congenital).
Facts indicating insanity from the admission paper are:
I – General appearance, manner of answering questions.
II – Has threatened to throw children in fire + also to injure old women. Exposing her person.
On admission she is an irregularly developed, old-looking young girl in good bodily condition. Her countenance indicates congenital imbecility and is wanting in intelligent expression, while her head is somewhat large and ill-shaped. Her fingers when extended by her sides reach below the knees, while her body is long and her legs are short. The father refuses to speak and laughs sillily when spoken to.
Jan 16th: uses very foul and abusive language and is morally perverted. She now speaks readily but is much confused and very irrational. At present she has given very little trouble. Symptoms of Phthisis.
Feb 25th: occasionally swears but so much less troublesome than on admission. She has no idea of employing herself at present in any way.
March 23rd: is now much more amenable to control but is in poor bodily health owing to a febrile attack associated with tubercular deposits in the lungs
April 20th: since last note has retained her bed with an acute febrile attack and rheumatic symptoms. She emaciates rapidly.
May 5th: rheumatism has passed away bit the Phthisis increases. She is very hectic, wastes rapidly + perspires profusely but seldom coughs or expectorates.
May 12th: has rapidly become worse and is now very exhausted
May 13th: at 4.45am she died.
For staff, working at the hospital could be particularly stressful; and stories of drunkenness, suicide, even murder, were legion. Much mystery, for instance, surrounds the death of a nightworker in the 1930s, who swallowed a lethal dose of disinfectant while on duty. The coroner recorded an open verdict, but foul play was suspected by many amongst the staff. More straightforward, though no less tragic, was the story of the newly-married George Evans, who took over as the hospital’s Medical Superintendent in 1920. Just a few months into his job, and only a couple of days after Christmas, he “left his wife at the breakfast table, went upstairs and shot himself” He left behind a suicide note, from which the following is taken:
"This dreadful place has got on my nerves and I cannot rest day or night…….. It is this place with its awful intrigues that has driven me mad. No honest man can live amongst it all."
In his 1953 pamphlet on the hospital, Geoffrey Nightingale draws attention to countless cases of indiscipline - amongst them the failed experiment of using a married couple as night attendants, which ended with them both being dismissed for fighting. Drunkenness, however, was by far the most common problem amongst staff (exacerbated by the hospital’s own brewery) - and records of the time frequently refer to intoxication whilst on duty (the most notorious case being the return of a walking party in which the nine patients and attendant were all equally drunk). More interesting, still, were perceived breaches of morality, such as those detailed in the minutes of a meeting in 1867:
“Nurse guilty of unbecoming conduct in receiving letters, also of changing her dress on going to London, is allowed to resign, but to leave tomorrow” ... “Nurse having in like manner received letters, presumably about a patient, and conversed with persons beyond the walls is allowed to resign"
"You had to be in by a certain time – 10 o’clock – so the matron felt a bit like a parent. You could book a day’s pass, which let you in at 12 o’clock, but you could only get one a week. The Crescent Road entrance used to have this big high locked gate, and sometimes if we got back late we had to climb over it because the man had gone. He'd be there to let you in – and if you were late back, he’d just shut the door and off he went – you couldn’t get in at all, you’d have to climb over it. And then, when we'd get in, everybody was in bed…. One of my friends who never went out used to say: 'If you throw a pebble up at my window I’ll come down and let you in.' The number of times I’d come back in the pitch dark at two o’clock in the morning! But we didn’t worry about anything then – we were quite safe. The patients were all locked in then."
My own family’s history is a microcosm of an asylum’s place within a community. My grandmother was a nurse for over two decades, while my grandfather – a newly arrived Polish immigrant – worked as a supervisor for several years. Similarly, my father was once an orderly there – combining his work with teacher training - and my mother often worked on the wards during the school holidays. Beyond my immediate family, my uncle has perhaps the strongest ties to the hospital – working first as a nurse, and then later as a manager.
Just as significant is the degree to which the hospital shaped their existence, providing the lineaments of their social life – not just while there, but continuing through to the present day. For my uncle, his closest friends remain his peers or superiors at the hospital, while my grandmother’s best friend in her retirement home was a fellow nurse in the 1940s. The hospital was even responsible for several marriages. My grandparents first met at one of the staff dances in the 40s, and a similar event was responsible for the first encounter between my mother and father.
All have watched the development with a great deal of interest, and above all sadness - in each case, fuelled not by nostalgia, but by anger, frustration. Even my grandmother (each day retreating further into fantasy) laments its use for luxury housing, preferring instead a new school or hospital.
"I remember Sir Geoffrey Nightingale – he was nice he was. We had old Powell before that and he was horrible. Head doctor – he was a horrible man. Geoffrey was a lovely man, though – not a little upstart like the other one. He couldn’t have any family, and he adopted this boy, I think. A real gentleman he was – spoke to everybody when he came round, wasn’t a snob at all. He lived in one of those houses by the road, near the church. All of those buildings were doctors' houses, I think."
A few months’ employment with a local firm also revealed the significance of the hospital. My boss would often joke about being sectioned, as would several others in the management tier. Even my colleagues mentioned the hospital from time to time. In particular, I remember being taken aback when Adam – a friend and fellow clerk – started talking about some of the rumours surrounding the hospital. One of the most ludicrous of these concerned the tower of the administration building. Apparently, this was where doctors used to experiment on patients, pumping them full of drugs and other chemicals.
When pressed, he also spoke of his more direct contact with the hospital. A few years ago, in the interlude between closure and sale, he attended a rave in one of the main buildings, while up until recently, one of his friends was even squatting in the gatehouse. Another of his friends was also sectioned right in front of him – the next few weeks punctuated by visits to one of the few remaining acute wards.
"The quicker I could get out of there and back to my room the better – that’s how I felt. They were very bad, the patients in those days. Violent. I had my hair pulled and my head banged on the floor a couple of times. I would have left if it hadn't been for my sister, Kate. She was a tough old boot, Kate. If she hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have stayed five minutes, I can tell you - I’d be gone. I was frightened of the patients and used to talk about going home every day. 'Don’t’ be daft,' she said. 'Stick it out! What d’you want to go home for? There’s nothing there for you to do…' Otherwise I'd have gone, gone straight away. I didn't like it all. …But then I got used to it. And the money was better than doing general – we got £16 a month, which was marvellous in those days - and our accommodation was free. I had some happy times there in the end."
With only the slightest encouragement, my grandmother will often talk for hours about the hospital - nurses with wonderful nicknames like ‘Champ’, evenings spent playing cards with patients or joking with alcoholic priests in the addictions ward ( barely changing tone when discussing assaults she suffered).
My father’s anecdotes, in contrast, are far more sensational. Excrement smeared on walls, patients unable to cease masturbating; I can’t recall him ever talking of a former patient in a positive light). “She’s manic”…”fruitcake”…“nutter”…”Howard fucking Hughes” - his conversations still punctuated by countless insanity-related insults …(most levelled at me, of course - but madness jibes remain his first recourse with strangers too).
"I went downstairs for something once and there was a little cupboard round the corner, and the two of them were there. And of course they came out quick when they saw me. They were up to no good, I suppose - two male patients. And the staff were even worse than the patients! I remember I caught a couple under the stairs – a man and a woman at it. I said: 'Get out of there, you two filthy devils' and they soon got out of there, I can tell you."
* * *
Only a handful of the hospital’s outbuildings still stand. The church and water tower are now luxury dwellings, as is the gatehouse (like the church, it was deemed of sufficient merit for conversion, and now stands as a slightly incongruous family home). In contrast, the Duchess of Kent Centre and the house on Mascalls Lane are both in an advanced state of disrepair – the centre boarded up, with the house by Mascalls Lane left to disintegrate. (At the base of the hill, running along Crescent Road, there are also over twenty cottages that were built for staff, but are now in private hands).
The house is clearly of least interest, and as such, the easiest to explore. A three-bedroom cottage once occupied by various members of staff, its interior has been almost completely gutted - strips of carpet and a small fragment of net curtain are the only real traces of its last inhabitants. In terms of furniture, too, an emerald bathroom suite and kitchen unit are all that have survived. I first visited in 2002 and, remarkably, little has changed in the intervening three years. Ivy has since consumed the entire eastern face, and the grounds have been landscaped - yet the inside of the house remains untouched.
The Duchess of Kent Centre proved less appealing, though was a far more important part of the hospital. Built in 1960 (and opened by the helicoptered-in-and-out-Duchess herself), the centre was once home to the hospital shop, library and tea room – though its primary use was for group therapy. Interestingly, it is one of the few parts of the hospital I can recall from my childhood. Due to its distance from the main building and proximity to the main road, it functioned as the community’s point of contact with the hospital. It was often the site of fairs, fetes, jumble sales – the kind of event to which I was often dragged as a child, and which engendered nothing but hostility. Empty, this dinginess is amplified – the strangling of natural light summoning images of underground war rooms and nuclear bunkers…
"A lot of people’s family were in there so they couldn’t say too much that was bad about working in the hospital – nearly everybody in Brentwood had somebody in there…"
The main water tower meanwhile - one of three on-site - was among the first parts of the hospital to be sold and renovated. Interestingly, it stands apart from the main building, and was built to augment the original water supply (the original tower quickly proving insufficient).
In the last years of the hospital’s life, it functioned also as a residence - first for the hospital’s engineers, and then finally a small group of patients. It housed up to eight people of mixed sexes, and was seen very much as the final step before returning to the community. (The patients here lived as independently as possible, visited only by social workers, and were usually living in their own homes within a year-and-a-half).
The water tower has been in private hands for at least five years and now stands as a luxury family home – although the tower’s exterior has changed little. (There are still windows at its base and its summit, with only small vents in between. A skylight has been fitted to the roof, and the adjoining house has been discretely refurbished). I imagine living in a water tower to be similar to owning a lighthouse or windmill. Its associations are less romantic, of course (substitute edge of the world, for edge of reason) - but such a drastic inversion of domestic norms must stillbe fascinating. (..According to a friend, it sold for almost £200,000 in 1999; and on Millennium Eve its owners released hundreds of fireworks from the roof…)
The hospital even had its own bowling green – a facility still in use to this day. The playing surface is meticulous, as are the floral baskets and white-picket fence. It is very much an anachronism – open the gate and you are instantly transported to the 1950s – but it has somehow escaped development. Its ageing membership (virtually all former staff) still compete in local leagues, although numbers are in steep decline.
I recently stumbled across a photograph of the club from the mid-90s. While the clubhouse and green remain the same, the surrounding area has changed considerably. Now a windswept scurf zone, in the photograph it seems blissful and Arcadian – an image of sun-dappled verdancy. Where now stands an apartment complex, there were once hundreds of trees – in the centre of which stood a beautiful red-brick nurses home (one of the first parts of the hospital demolished six years ago).
"A lovely place that was, the Nurses' Home. We used to have dances in a dining room with lovely parquet floors. It’s such a shame they knocked it down. There was a lovely big space out front, with flowers and shrubs under the windows. You could look out the back and see the trains go by. It wasn’t shut in at all, you didn’t feel closed in."
* * *
Over half of the hospital has now been demolished. In its place stands a sprawling development of executive housing. Land that could have provided countless other more useful resources, has instead been used to create a virtual gated-community.
[Interestingly, traces of the old hospital abound, and I often walk through the estate in search of such fragments. For the most part, their survival is the result of negligent construction – the most obvious example being the staircase behind the cemetery. Its central concrete slab lies broken, affording a glimpse of the hospital’s tunnel network (blocked by fallen earth) and a ghosting of frayed asbestos. Similarly, alongside a fence (following loosely the road that used to run past Centenary Hall and F Block), and devoured by encroaching flora, stands an old road sign. In the woods nearby, fifteen-year-old litter curls and scabs, while by the bowling green, streetlamp stubs border a broken tarmac path – once a route to F Block, now curtailed by school playing fields.]
Scattered around the hospital grounds, on the line the original wall used to follow, there are also a handful of small, turreted earth closets - or “pepper pots”, as staff used to call them. They were originally part of the wall that circumscribed the site – but when this was demolished in the 1950s (a key part of the process of “opening up” the hospital) the decision was taken to leave these closets standing in isolation - both an acknowledgement of the past and an act of whimsy.
"I was out shopping once, at the bottom of Crescent Road, and there she was, this woman who’d escaped – so I took her by the hand and said: 'Come on, we’ll go for a walk' and I took her back, otherwise she’d have been gone. She came along all right with me. All the doors used to be locked when I first went there. Then they had to open them because they weren’t allowed to keep them locked all the time. Not too many used to get out, I remember."
* * *
In use, the hospital site was vast, stretching from the lodge on Warley Hill all the way down to Crescent Road and the railway line – a total area of almost 100 acres. Much is now given over to housing, with the remainder left in a state of bruised wilderness (nature is given free rein, but has not yet covered the builders’ tracks).
Behind the final row of new apartments, there is a large expanse of untended parkland. The vegetation is sparse, the animals secretive; and the area is of little interest, save for the views it affords you of the main building. Beyond this, however, guarded by a ten foot fence, there lies a forgotten treatment plant - an overgrown enclave eerily reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Signs of visitors are entirely absent, and nature seems to have reigned unchallenged for at least a decade. Shielded by fencing and a railway embankment, the wildlife here lives completely undisturbed – an abundance of species and activity the inevitable result. Ducks, heron, frogs and badgers have all been sighted, while last summer, I even encountered a weasel.
"A donkey came in one night – frightened the life out of me! Somebody didn’t close the door and the grounds were very open then – there was no fence across or anything. Anyway, this one time I turned round and there was this flippin’ donkey. Well I was brought up with animals - we had donkeys and horses and everything in Ireland – so it didn’t scare me as much as other people. In the end we got two of the male nurses to take it out."
* * *
Despite living on its perimeter, I have failed to visit the hospital in almost a year. As redevelopment gathered pace, I seemed to lose all interest. At some indeterminate point, the hospital has moved from relic to housing estate, and any attachment has been lost.
[The slow process of levelling out all difference has begun – something particularly evident with the conversion of the ward blocks. Work began only a few months ago, but already it is possible to discern a great deal about the tone of the redevelopment. In Cyclamen Ward, for instance, those marvellous tunnelled ceilings (which lent the hospital so much character and lightness) were being blocked off, each apartment an almost identical box configuration. Indeed, virtually all idiosyncrasies were being concealed; the completed flats of no material difference to those of a standard apartment complex. ]
I suspect that other factors have also played a part in this indifference. My grandmother - who was largely responsible for my interest in the hospital - is declining rapidly. A victim of vascular dementia, conversations with her have become painful and disorienting, with talk of Warley only deepening the sense of loss.
For the last few months I have also been volunteering on the acute wards of Mascalls Park, spending several hours each week in the company of seriously ill patients (the majority of whom are schizophrenic or bipolar) – something which that has given me an even greater sense of the distance between these buildings and their original use. Life on the wards is often excoriating and helpless - but above all complex – and the lack of human traces when derelict concerns me far more than before. (I also feel a degree of guilt over my romanticising of many hospitals’ past – a tendency to which I should really have been immune).
* * *
A few years ago, having withdrawn from university, I found myself living back in Brentwood. Penniless and waylaid by depression, my sole excursions each day were to the grounds of the former asylum. The demolition of F Block was already well underway, with the social centre and occupational therapy soon to follow. Each afternoon, I’d walk unchallenged amongst the ruins, watching in awe as another ward block was reduced to rubble. Bricks were piled high for resale, pipes and lagging grouped according to type. For days afterwards the unmistakable smell of hospital wards (that awful musty sterility) carried as far away as the train station.
Above all, I remember being struck by the silence, …that the loss of such important buildings could pass completely unnoticed. (It felt very much like a town’s dirty little secret being taken care of..) In those entire three months, I saw no one beside builders and contractors…- not even a curious dog-walker or bored child..