Photo in the sunshine today

October 10th, 2013 by Admin No comments »
Whitchurch Hospital in the autumn sun

Whitchurch Hospital in the autumn sun

Interesting TV programme coming up on Channel 5

September 24th, 2013 by Admin No comments »

On Monday the 30th of September there is the first of two programmes titled Inside Broadmoor due to be shown on Channel 5:

Inside Broadmoor


“This remarkable two-part documentary special marks the 150th anniversary of Broadmoor, home to Britain’s most notorious killers. With exclusive and unprecedented access to Broadmoor’s archives, this film unfolds the extraordinary history of the world’s most famous and feared hospital. Why was it originally created, and what has it become?”


Mental Health and Museums

August 6th, 2013 by Admin No comments »

This is the last post from Laura, apologies for posting in the incorrect order

One of the problems arising from the destruction/ development of former asylum sites is that none of these buildings have survived in a manner that preserves their heritage on-site. As much as Moorhaven Village (see previous post) is a well-preserved historic building that has been up-front and honest about its past use, it doesn’t have any historical interpretation on-site. However, in demonstrating that an asylum building is actually very well-suited to division into family homes, whilst preserving the integrity of the building, it has opened up the possibility of “Enabling Development”.

English Heritage published a document on enabling development in 2008, advocating the sympathetic and appropriate development of historic buildings to ensure their survival, and if possible, to finance a heritage aspect. The ideal resolution for Whitchurch, perhaps, might be to take Moorhaven’s management company one step further and include an on-site museum, cared for under the umbrella of that company, whilst developing the bulk of the building into residential units. This would preserve the building and create a small, sustainable focal point for the history of the site, and a resource for the local community.

Below, I have provided some summaries of existing museums of mental healthcare, with a view to illustrating what Whitchurch might consider in the future.

Glenside Hospital Museum

Photo below, copyright Laura Humphreys

Glenside, in Bristol, is housed in the former-chapel of the Glenside Asylum, and contains a vast number of historic objects that were used in the asylum. The museum is open once or twice a week, and is run exclusively by volunteers, the majority of which are former staff of the hospital. The asylum building itself remains empty (awaiting a developer), and unfortunately, the Glenside Volunteers have only a few years left on their lease of the chapel building from UWE. Their future is uncertain.

Stephen Beaumont Museum of Mental Health

Based in Wakefield on the site of the former West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, built 1818. It was removed from its original site (latterly known as Stanley Royd Hospital) when it closed in 1995, and is no located at another local hospital. It holds a collection of objects and archives similar to Glenside’s, and includes an original and complete padded cell. Like Glenside, it is open once a week, and operated entirely by volunteers.

Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archives

Bethlem is perhaps more commonly known by its nickname, Bedlam. Situated in South London, the hospital remains an active mental healthcare facility, but operates a small museum and archive service as well. It holds historic objects and archives, as well as a large collection of artwork by former patients, such as Richard Dadd and Louis Wain. Bethlem is currently in the midst of raising funding to relocate from its small office and portacabin to a larger disused administration building on the same site.


There are also a number of medical museums which address the history of mental health, but are not dedicated to it. The Science Museum ( holds a large collection of items relating to the history of mental health and illness, including asylums, psychometric testing, and anthropomety, and is organising an exhibition around the theme of electricity in medicine in the near future. At present, the Wellcome Collection is currently hosting an exhibition of Outsider Art from Japan, entitled Souzou ( Slowly but surely, museums are starting to address this formerly-overlooked facet of the history of medicine.

However, museums of mental health and illness do not have a track record of success. They are controversial sites in many ways, and many people would rather they were not preserved at all. In 2011, I undertook a survey asking people how they would feel about a museum of mental health, and specifically, one at Whitchurch, and the results were far from uniform. Several people felt that all asylums were places that should be destroyed and forgotten, while others had concerns for their own mental health:

“As I have suffered with severe depression in the past, I try to avoid anything that reminds me of the illness and therefore I would not visit any site with this subject matter. I realise that more people should be made aware of it and it will help to reduce prejudice, but unfortunately that is how I deal with my own circumstances.”

However, many respondents were upset that the history of mental health is not one that is covered in museums. Several respondents cited the “authenticity” of a museum in a former asylum being important, One respondent to the survey had this to say on the possibility of a museum of mental health and illness:

“…with the dissolution of the former asylums and mental hospitals, ironically some being converted into luxury accommodation following their closure, it is important that their past should be recorded and remembered.”

Whether or not a museum at Whitchurch would be a way to proceed with this aim remains to be seen, but it is a good point, well made. The history of mental health has been marginalised for a long time, something which is often echoed in contemporary attitudes to mental health and illness. It’s possible that in tacking “difficult” histories and facilitating discussion around them, a museum of mental health and illness might be able to make a positive contribution to contemporary issues of mental health and illness, as well as to its history.

I would like to close this series of posts with a comment on Whitchurch Hospital’s present, rather than its past. One respondent to my dissertation survey left a very simple comment, but perhaps the most evocative one of all:

“I hope Whitchurch does not close.”

Photo below, copyright Laura Humphreys


Sometimes, projects concerned with the conservation of historic buildings can come across as having a callous disregard for the present in favour of preserving the past, but I sincerely hope this is not the case here. As stated at the beginning of my dissertation, the preservation of Whitchurch and its history in the event of its closure is a legitimate concern, but in a wider context, it is a secondary concern. The most important issue regarding Whitchurch’s future is that patients and service users are provided for in the best and most effective way possible. I sincerely hope that the Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust will be able to address the future of mental healthcare in Cardiff as soon as possible, and that Whitchurch’s future, in whatever form, will be safeguarded.

Laura Humphreys is currently studying for a PhD in Historical Geography at Queen Mary, University of London, in collaboration with the Geffrye Museum of the Home. She previously worked at the Science Museum, where she helped to re-organise the Psychology and Psychiatry Collection, and co-ordinated a photography project and temporary reconstruction of an early-twentieth century Padded Cell. She currently lives in a former “Private Madhouse” in West London, and is researching its history. She can be contacted at:

Another huge thank you to Laura for providing me with this post.

Iconic Film

August 1st, 2013 by Admin No comments »

BBC iplayer have an iconic film to watch at the moment, One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest

Available until 1:59AM Wed, 7 Aug 2013

Well worth watching if you have never seen it.

A Student visit

June 7th, 2013 by Admin 5 comments »

On the 21st of May we had another group of students visit Whitchurch Hospital for some historical talks and a tour around some of the grounds and hospital.

The visit was part of a history of psychiatry week for the Cardiff University year 3 special study module on the History of Medicine organised by Dr Simon Braybrook

The course is an eight week module devoting a week each to the method of general historical enquiry, the history of sexual and reproductive health, the history of psychiatry, the history of epidemiology, the history of medical education and the history of surgery. The format will be a mix of lectures, field visits and personal reading and study.

Outside the front entrance

Outside the front entrance


Dr George Kirov started the day with a very interesting presentation on the history and development of ECT and psycho-surgery. Tim Goosey did a presentation with Dr Ian Beech on the history of Whitchurch.  Lynne from the historical society attended and contributed interesting and helpful accounts to the morning. The visit was finished with a trip to the hall and a walk round the outside pointing out the ha ha fence and the water tower in relation to Enoch Powell’s water tower speech, featured here and mentioned by Dr Braybook as a turning point in mental health history.

This is from Cane Hill’s website which is very impressive. – website now added to our Links page

In the afternoon Dr Brayboook showed the students The Madness of King George, in part to illustrate that mental illness does not take account of class.

Thank you to all who contributed to the visit

Sorry to take so long to write this post.

The secret asylum knitting club

May 11th, 2013 by Admin 2 comments »

I found this post on the BBC news website

The Knitting Circle is a new play written by Julie McNamara which paints a picture of the lives of women who lived in the old asylums of Britain’s mental health system.

Set at a fictional institution in the 1980s called Harper Park, the patients face the prospect of being reintegrated into the community.

The idea came when McNamara unearthed a recording she had made 30 years ago, when she was a nursing assistant in a long-stay hospital in the home counties.

Long forgotten, the cassette contained voices of female patients she had worked with, all telling their personal stories.

“There were thousands of women in this country put away into institutions for the most spurious reasons,” says McNamara. “They were written off as morally deficient, feeble-minded or imbecile.”

She was there at a time when the government was closing long-stay facilities like hers, which looked after 2,000 people. The patients were institutionalised and she wanted to encourage relationships between them to help prepare for a new less-sheltered life outside.

A scene from The Knitting Circle

It bothered her that the women didn’t talk to each other. She says: “The only way to maintain any level of privacy when living on a 32-bed ward, was not to speak to the woman in the bed on your left or your right.”

The voices on the tape were members of a group McNamara had set up to encourage patients to remember and share details of their lives before their hospital days – often a very long time ago.

A ward sister warned that a project of this nature would be considered too political and so McNamara secretly established her group in the guise of a knitting circle, but the conversations that took place within it went way beyond “knit one, purl one”.

As is the way in a therapeutic environment, they had to demonstrate a positive purpose for the group. So it was decided that the results of their work would be sold by the hospital shop.

“We had to look like we were knitting for England,” McNamara remembers. “There was just one problem though – I couldn’t knit.

“We made nothing fit to wear, but there were some marvellous toilet roll covers, tea cosies and random contributions to the shop.”

The irony was that the only people who shopped there were the patients themselves. In order to keep the circle going, they had to also prove people wanted to buy their knitted goods and so had to make it disappear off the shelves. “Those with a few pence to spare were constantly buying back their own stuff,” says McNamara.

She learned a lot about the members of the circle during its eight-month lifespan, including why they had been admitted in the first place.

One woman had arrived as a baby; an unwanted child of a wealthy family who, it was thought, were trying to hide the fruits of sexual impropriety. Another knitter was admitted aged 18, having had a child outside wedlock.

“I heard stories from these women of sexual abuse and of being sent away because they were unmarried mothers,” she says, “and I knew the women had things in common which, if shared, could help them make informed choices about which friends they wanted to live with when they were moved to smaller group homes.”

She felt the women were anything but “feeble-minded” and were trying to live the best life they could in the circumstances.

A scene from The Knitting Circle

She recalls that the women did find ways of having fun while there. One former patient, Mary, told her she stole cigarette butts from the ashtrays, rolled them up and sold them back to the staff.

Another, Ann, only recently revealed how she would get one over on the nurses each December.

She said: “I hate brazil nuts. But every Christmas, one of the nurses used to give me chocolate brazils… so I used to suck the chocolate off and give the nuts back to the other nurses. It took them four years to realize.”

As the patients told McNamara: “It was the mischief that kept us going.”

The Knitting Circle has a cast of eight which includes two British Sign Language speakers. They perform a script based on the recollections of 40 surviving female long-stay patients in the mental health system at the time.

McNamara wanted to build on what she had rediscovered from the tapes and, with the help of Mind mental health charity and the National Survivor User Network, gathered more stories while writing the play in 2011.

A favourite story McNamara collected came from a former patient called Hillary, who had lived in an institution in the Berkshire area. Hilary said: “I used to love it when the Broadmoor boys came by. They weren’t bad boys.

“I had a boyfriend, Lenny, he was a lovely man. He used to be a road digger. And they found some bones near his patch. They were human remains … but they weren’t his.”

Many of the women during McNamara’s period at the hospital muddled through when discharged. For those who’d been there a long time, however, it was very difficult.

“I lived and worked alongside one woman who was put away aged nine for stealing a bicycle,” says McNamara. “Forty-eight years later, they wanted to release her into the community. She was so institutionalised that it was not possible.”

In preparation for The Knitting Circle, cast and crew were teamed up with surviving patients and staff. Five patients from McNamara’s old hospital sat in the front row on opening night, “laughing like drains” at seeing their mischief portrayed on stage. Two staff members from the time were also there but McNamara says they remained at the back, sobbing.

McNamara believes this to be a Magdalene Laundry for the UK that isn’t even in the public consciousness. The playwright, who herself has been a patient in the mental health system, hopes that her work can honour the women featured.

The Knitting Circle is currently touring English theatres, closing in Bristol’s Tobacco Factory on 20 May.

More information on

BBC programmes – Peace of Mind

March 1st, 2013 by Admin 2 comments »

Back in December there was a series of three excellent programs on the BBC focusing on Whitchurch Hospital and the good work that goes on.Unfortunately the full programs are  unavailable on BBC iPlayer now but there are seven clips, see links below:

There are also some photos available on the BBC website:

Does anyone know where the photo of the pathology lab came from?




Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives of Insane Asylum Patients

February 26th, 2013 by Admin No comments »

Here is a very interesting article that’s worth a read:

If you were committed to a psychiatric institution, unsure if you’d ever return to the life you knew before, what would you take with you? That sobering question hovers like an apparition over each of the Willard Asylum suitcases. From the 1910s through the 1960s, many patients at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane left suitcases behind when they passed away, with nobody to claim them. Upon the center’s closure in 1995, employees found hundreds of these time capsules stored in a locked attic. Working with the New York State Museum, former Willard staffers were able to preserve the hidden cache of luggage as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

See link for rest of the article:{%2210151325653664179%22%3A403222993082052}&action_ref_map=[]&action_type_map={%2210151325653664179%22%3A%22og.likes%252

Thanks to Anton for the post

Wales on line – look back at Whitchurch photos

January 16th, 2013 by Admin No comments »

Came across these photos this week of Whitchurch and there are a couple of the hospital:




Interesting film on BBC iplayer

November 14th, 2012 by Admin No comments »


Interesting film although not sure how factual it is.

Classic chiller set in an 18th-century London asylum for the insane, where the wretched inmates suffer torture and abuse at the hands of the sadistic governor. When a brave actress tries to do something about the conditions, she herself ends up as an inmate. One of producer Val Lewton’s atmospheric specialties.