Building Bedlam again – taking a leap forward to Monks Orchard

Bethlam_1896

Entrance gates to Bethlem Hospital, 1896 from The Queen’s London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis (Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons)

Bethlem Hospital remained in St George’s Fields, Southwark from 1815 to 1930. In that time numerous additions and alterations were made to the building, but the area around had also developed and changed almost beyond recognition. In the early nineteenth century it was airy and open, with few houses and market gardens in the immediate vicinity. It was on the other side of the river from the densely built-up urban centres of Westminster and the City, and on the outskirts of Southwark itself. But it did not remain a rural or even suburban idyll for long, as industrialisation and the population expansion of the capital brought waves of building activity.

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Greenwood’s map of 1830 showing the area around Bethlem Hospital

Greenwood’s map of London of 1830 captures the moment before this expansion, half a century later and Bethlem hospital had been engulfed. Population density increased as the century wore on, with the usual pattern of housing intended for single families increasingly occupied by two or three.

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Booth’s Poverty Map. Printed Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899. Sheet 9. Inner Southern District. Reproduced courtesy of LSE Library

Booth’s poverty map of London of the late 1890s showed that although those living in the immediate surroundings of the hospital were classed as fairly comfortable, on the other side of the Lambeth Road were pockets of the lowest class, the vicious and semi-criminal, amongst housing that was almost entirely occupied by the poor, or very poor.

Asylum_for_Criminal_Lunatics,_BroadmoorBroadmoor Asylum for Criminal Lunatics, from The Illustrated London News, 1867

Other changes had occurred during the century or so that Bethlem was at St George’s Fields. Legislation had been introduced to encourage the establishment of lunatic asylums for paupers early in the nineteenth century (the Lunacy Acts of 1808 and 1815), and this reduced the need for Bethlem to cater for the poorer class of patient. The County Asylums Act of 1845 made the establishment of pauper asylums compulsory, and this, coupled with a new regime headed by Dr W. Charles Hood, the first resident medical officer, saw a shift towards caring for a higher class of patient. This was consolidated after the opening in 1863 of Broadmoor for criminal lunatics, removing another class of patient formerly accommodated at Bethlem. Improvements to the accommodation were made, the comforts of home introduced and a convalescent home built at Witley (1866-9, designed by Sydney Smirke). [1]

V0013739 The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam], St. George's Fields, Lambe Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam], St. George's Fields, Lambeth: the men's ward of the infirmary. Wood engraving by F. Vizetelly, 1860. 1860 By: Frederick VizetellyPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The men’s ward of the infirmary at Bethlem Hospital, 1860 by Frederick Vizetelly, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 from Wellcome Library, London

So by the early twentieth century the type of patient at Bethlem had changed, and the locality had become more densely urban, but more importantly than either of these in prompting a move to a new site was the old-fashioned design of the building and the constant demands and cost of maintaining the ageing fabric of the asylum.

V0013741 The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam], St. George's Fields, Lambe Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The Hospital of Bethlem [Bedlam], St. George's Fields, Lambeth: the female workroom. Wood engraving probably by F. Vizetelly after F. Palmer, 1860. 1860 By: F. Palmerafter: Frederick VizetellyPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Female workroom, Bethlem Hospital. Wood engraving probably by F. Vizetelly after F. Palmer, 1860. Wellcome Library, London. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 

Asylum design had moved on since 1815, and a century later the ideal form for a mental hospital was considered to be the colony plan or villa system, comprising detached buildings set in landscaped grounds. Colony plan asylums were developed in Germany from the late 1870s but had their origins in the Gheel Colony in Belgium. Gheel had traditionally originated in medieval times as a place of pilgrimage to the shrine of St Dymphne which had gained a reputation for curing the insane. Pilgrims were boarded in the village and gradually it developed into a mental colony. In the nineteenth century the Belgian government placed its administration under the control of a Commissioner and Board of Governors. [2]

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Plan of Altscherbitz Asylum, Germany, from Sibbald’s Plans of Modern Asylums for the Insane Poor, 1897

One of the most influential of the later colonies, was the Alt Scherbitz (now Altscherbitz) village asylum near Leipzig, established in 1876 for 960 patients. Its layout was published by John Sibbald, a Commissioner in Lunacy for Scotland, in 1897 in his Plans of Modern Asylums for the Insane Poor. At Altscherbitz, the site was naturally divided in two by the high road between Halle and Leipzig and this separation was used to divide the medical and non-medical sections. Gender informed the first level of classification, with the women’s houses to the west together with the kitchen and laundry, and the men to the east where a brick works provided manual labour.

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The ground plan of Brislington House, near Bristol, a private asylum established by Dr Fox. The patients occupied detached houses arranged as a terrace. The plan dates from 1806. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

This colony plan was welcomed as it seemed to offer a solution to new ideas about how the patients’ environment promoted recovery or cure. It aimed to provide recognizably domestic surroundings, emulating the home environment rather than reminding the patient that they were in an institution. There were earlier precedents for this, but in small private asylums such as Brislington House near Bristol, built in 1806.

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View over to Craighouse, the colony built in 1889-94 as part of the Royal Edinburgh Asylum. Craighouse in the middle distance, ‘Morningside and Craighouse’ by Pascal Blachier, taken in 2007, imaged licensed under CC BY 2.0

The first time the colony plan was attempted on a large scale and at a public institution was at Craighouse, built as an annexe to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in 1889-94, although this was for paying patients. It was designed by Sydney Mitchell in close collaboration with Thomas Clouston, the asylum’s Medical Superintendent, to give architectural form to his ideas on the cure of mental illness. The buildings revived something of the palatial aspect that had largely disappeared from asylum architecture since Hooke’s Bethlem. Clouston wanted variety, in the colours of the building materials, in the architectural details, of size and of scale. Believing that patients associated phases of their illnesses with their surroundings, he particularly wanted to be able to move convalescent patients to a new environment.

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Rutherford House, designed by Sydney Mitchell in 1899 and completed in 1904 as a detached infirmary or admissions hospital for paupers. The year after it opened, Sydney Mitchell went to Germany to see asylums there. Photographed in 1993, © RCAHMS

Poorer patients got their taste of the colony system a little bit later at the Crichton Royal in Dumfries, where detached houses were added in the grounds during the early 1900s. Sydney Mitchell, was the architect, and he, along with a deputation from the asylum’s Board of Management, had set out in 1897 to visit Altscherbitz and similar asylums at Biesdorp and Lichtenberg near Berlin. Such missions became increasingly common. In 1899 a deputation of the Aberdeen District Lunacy Board made a tour of continental asylums before commissioning a design for their new district asylum on the Altscherbitz model.

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The former Bangour Asylum, photographed in the late 1980s. The church was added later, though always intended as the focal point of the colony.

Further colony plan asylums were built in Scotland at Bangour, which opened in 1906 serving Edinburgh, where a competition was held for the design which specified Altscerhbitz as the model, and Dykebar at Paisley which opened in 1909. Bangour is particularly significant for Bethlem: its architect, Hippolyte J. Blanc, had as one of his assistants working on the asylum plans, John Manuel, who later worked with Charles E. Elcock, architect of the new Bethlem Hospital. [3]

geograph-2315257-by-Nigel-Cox-2Rydinghurst House of 1908 at the former Epileptic Colony in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, now the Epilepsy Society, photographed in 2011 © Copyright Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In England colonies were built around the same time, but not as yet for general mental hospitals. Instead they were deemed appropriate in the first instance for epileptic colonies. In 1884 the National Society for the Employment of Epileptics established a home at Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire. It began with just one villa, a temporary iron structure, to which further villas were gradually added.

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Leybourne Grange Colony, Kent County Council, W. H. Robinson architect, built about 1935 for the so-called mentally deficient. 

But the colony plan was most widely adopted for a new breed of asylum ushered in by the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913. A Royal Commission had been appointed in 1904 to look into the care of the feeble-minded. This at least spoke out against the sterilization of those deemed mentally deficient that was being advocated by the Eugenics Education Society, and it was this Commission which resulted, eventually, in the 1913 Act. Amongst other things, the Act sought to define mental deficiency which was considered to be present from birth and incurable, as opposed to mental illness which was usually contracted later in life and deemed curable. The Act legislated for the provision of accommodation, care and protection of the former group whose removal from undesirable surroundings was thought necessary ‘in their own interests and that of society’. The Board of Control, which replaced the Commissioners in Lunacy in 1914, recommended the colony system for these new institutions, as it allowed ‘better classification and training’ and ensured that the inmates were happier and more contented than in institutions of the barracks type.

Bethlem aerial perspective

Aerial perspective of Bethlem Royal Hospital showing proposed layout of the buildings, from commemorative booklet produced for the laying of the foundation stone.

It was a combination of these influences which lead to the adoption of a colony plan for the new Bethlem hospital at Monks Orchard. It was the first new mental hospital designed in England since the war. Elcock & Sutcliffe were appointed in February 1926 to work alongside the hospital surveyor, John Cheston. Charles Ernest Elcock was the key figure behind the design, which he hoped would ‘make a leap forward’. However, his plans still had to meet the approval of the Board of Control. While the Board was in favour of colonies, it disapproved of Modernism, thought flat roofs should be shunned, and was most comfortable with the blandest of Neo-Georgian styles.

Bethlem admin block

Administration Block, Bethlem Royal Hospital, photographed in 2008

Unsurprisingly relations were often frosty between Elcock and the Board’s architect John Kirkland, and indeed Sir Frederick Willis, Chairman of the Board from 1921 to 1928. Willis criticized the ‘generous scale’ of the rooms, which he suggested were due to Elcock trying to balance the buildings, while Kirkland queried the necessity for Turkish Baths, and took a great deal of convincing over the flat roofs, which were only used on the peripheral buildings on the site. After much wrangling, the amended designs were approved and detailed drawings submitted in December 1928. [4]

Elcock Bethlem chapel from SW

Bethlem Hospital chapel, photographed in about 2008 (© H. Richardson)

It may have been the pressure of work involved in the Bethlem job that prompted Elcock to seek an assistant in 1928. He appointed Ralph Maynard Smith, a young man in his mid-twenties, who was as much an artist and a poet as an architect. Maynard Smith had studied at the Architectural Association, and spent a brief time working with the architect Michael Waterhouse immediately before joining Elcock & Sutcliffe. There undoubtedly were other assistants in Elcock’s office, making it difficult to know who did what in the design and planning process. A building at Bethlem where Smith’s influence may be felt is the chapel. It is a beguiling building, quite unlike the many hum-drum Gothic asylum chapels of earlier years. Its design was obviously considered a success as it was elaborated upon a few years later at Runwell Hospital in Essex, also by Elcock & Sutcliffe.

Bethlem chapel interior

Interior of Bethlem Hospital chapel, photographed around 2008 (© H. Richardson). It is all but identical to the interior of the chapel built for Runwell Hospital in Essex (below), although the exteriors were different, Runwell also had a tower – planned for the chapel at Bethlem but later omitted.

Interior of Runwell hospital chapel, probably photographed soon after the building was completed, from a collection of negatives at the hospital leant to the author.

Stylistically Bethlem presents something of a mix, from the conservative administration block, with its hipped roof and Neo-Georgian simplicity to the starkly modern boiler house and flat-roofed patients’ accommodation blocks and treatment unit. Elcock laid an emphasis on the setting to give attractiveness to the buildings with ‘pleasing roads, avenues, flower borders, etc’. [5]

Bethlem quiet unit perspective

Architectural perspective sketch of the quiet patients’ unit, unlike the Neo-Georgian administraton block, most of the patients’ villas had flat roofs, and if not strictly modernist, in this sketch, taken from a brochure produced by the hospital, there seems to be an echo of contemporary Dutch or German architecture

Elcock set new standards in the scale and type of accommodation he provided which included laboratories, hydrotherapy facilities, a lecture room for students, and a separate treatment and research block. The sexes were no longer strictly segregated either: male and female patients shared buildings, from the more severe ‘excited’ patients to convalescents. Elcock researched his subject thoroughly, touring the country to visit the best new buildings added to older hospitals, and consulting medical staff.

Bethlem treatment block perspective

Architectural perspective of the Treatment and Research Unit, Bethlem Royal Hospital brochure.

In the end the design was compromised both by the restrictions imposed by the Board of Control and the necessary cost-cutting in the face inflation in the years after the General Strike. But if it wasn’t quite the magnificent hospital originally proposed, it was certainly well-equipped and incorporated many innovative features. There were four main villas for patients, two for quiet cases, one for ‘excited’ patients, the fourth for convalescents. Nearly all the patients were accommodated in single rooms, in line with private general hospitals and in contrast to tendency towards dormitories in municipal mental hospitals. In addition to the patients villas there were the usual service buildings – kitchens, boiler house, stores etc, and the innovative Treatment and Research unit, which provided hydrotherapy, psychotherapy, dental and electrical treatment, pharmacy, and operating theatre. [6]

Today the core buildings are little altered, but many of the outlying buildings have had many alterations and newer buildings have been added to the site to meet the changing needs of mental health care. In recognition of the hospital’s historic importance there is a museum on the site, the Museum of the Mind, which opened in 2015.

References

  1. Survey of London, vol.25 St George the Martyr, Southwark and St Mary Newton, Ida Darlington ed. 1955, p.78 (online version at British History Online): Jonathan Andrews, Asa Briggs, Roy Porter, Penny Tucker and Keir Waddington, The History of Bethlem, Routledge, London and New York, 1997, pp.503ff
  2. H. Richardson ‘A Continental Solution to the Planning of Lunatic Asylums 1900-1940’ in J. Frew and D. Jones (eds) Scotland and Europe, Architecture and Design 1850-1940, 1991
  3. H. Richardson ‘Charles Ernest Elcock’ in Essays in Scots and English Architectural History, 2009, p.122
  4. Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives, Special Commitee Minutes, 1928 pp. 194, 196-7, 291
  5. Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives, Special Commitee Minutes, 1926-7, p.34
  6. Jonathan Andrews et al, History of Bethlem, p.566

About Harriet Richardson

I am an architectural historian, working on the Survey of London at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. I have worked on surveys of hospital architecture in Scotland and England.
This entry was posted in asylums, English Hospitals, European Hospitals, mental hospital, Scottish Hospitals and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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