For nearly twenty years now the faculty of Health and Applied Sciences of the University of the West of England has occupied the old Bristol Lunatic Asylum. The asylum, latterly Glenside Hospital, was wound down from 1993 when it merged with neighbouring Manor Park Hospital. New facilities for mental health patients were constructed on that side, and it was renamed Blackberry Hill Hospital. The University faculty was formed in 1996 when the existing faculty of Health and Community Studies merged with Avon and Gloucestershire College of Health and Swindon College of Health Studies.
The former hospital is one of the most attractive architecturally of the many county asylums built for paupers in the mid-nineteenth century. Its history has the added interest of its association with one of Britain’s greatest modern artists, Stanley Spencer, who worked as a medical orderly here during the First World War when the hospital was requisitioned by the War Office. During that time it was renamed Beaufort War Hospital. There is a museum on the site housed in the chapel.
Bristol Pauper Lunatic Asylum first opened in 1861. Patients had previously been sent to St Peter’s Hospital, the city workhouse that had been set up in a converted Jacobean house near St Peter’s church (see map below). By the 1850s this had become inadequate and there had been ‘certain distressing casualties’; one case at least had been the subject of an inconclusive investigation. There was much local hostility to the idea of building a county asylum, principally on the grounds of the increased burden on the rates. It was hoped that a swap might be organised with the workhouse at Stapleton, moving the pauper lunatics there and the ordinary paupers into St Peter’s, or of just converting some of the workhouse buildings into lunatic wards. But these plans were quashed by the Poor Law Commissioners who flatly refused to sanction the conversion of any part of the workhouse.
In the interim, legislation governing the provisions for pauper lunatics was tightened up, with an amendment to the Lunacy Act making it harder for counties and boroughs to avoid providing suitable accommodation. With no option but to construct a new asylum, a competition was held for the design. There were 27 entries, judged by the building committee with advice from Anthony Salvin. In March 1857 the best three were awarded prizes, the first premium went to Thomas Royce Lysaght of Bristol (£100), second were Medland & Maberly of London and Gloucester (£50), and third J. H. Hirst of Bristol (£25). Lysaght’s plans were preferred as they seemed to meet the requirements while remaining within the restricted budget, and the architect had experience of asylum construction, having been responsible for that at Cork. Mr Herapath¹ congratulated the committee for having chosen well. They had ‘taken care not to adopt the most beautiful plan, but had chosen one which was neat but not gaudy’. It was ‘quite sufficiently ornamental’. [Bristol Mercury, 21 March 1857, p.6]
Henry Crisp has sometimes been credited with the design of the original buildings (including by Historic England in the list description), but he only arrived on the scene later and it was Lysaght who got the job. Construction began in 1858 and after it was finished it was dubbed the Lunatic Pauper Palace on account of its architectural grandeur and the high cost of building (£27,500 for the building including lodge, stables, roads, planting, draining, boundary walls, supply of gas ‘etc’). The clerk of works was Mr Long, and the building contractors were J. & J. Foster, with Mr Yalland, mason; Mr Melsom, St James’s Barton, plasterer and painter; Mr Abbot, plumber; Mr Williams, glazier and Mr Harris, gas-fitter. [Bristol Mercury and Western Counties Advertiser, 20 Oct 1860, p.2]
The cost was not far removed from the half-a-dozen or so other asylums that were built around the same time; those in Cumberland and Northumberland, for the same number of patients, were estimated to cost £20,00 and £42,427 respectively. It was also considerably less than the figure being bandied about in the press some years earlier when it was reported that Lord Palmerston had ordered the authorities of Bristol to build a new lunatic asylum at an estimated cost of £45,000 (although the following year the figure reported was a more reasonable £20,000). [The Western Times, 11 Feb 1854]
It was designed in the fashionable Italianate style, the front ‘well broken up’ and forming ‘without superfluous ornament’ … ‘an exceedingly picturesque structure’, and built from Pennant stone that was mostly quarried on site, the quarries were then used for water storage beneath the kitchens. The asylum could accommodate 200 patients, with one-third in single rooms (a few of which were padded cells), the remainder in associated dormitories containing between six and eleven beds. In addition there were infirmary wards, providing a total of 22 beds. A measure of fire-proof construction was achieved through rolled iron floor joists filled in between with concrete, apart from in the offices and stores. Fire plugs for attaching hose pipes were provided at four points and the towers contained large reservoirs of water.
The Commissioners in Lunacy published a report on the asylum in 1861 following an inspection of the buildings in October the previous year by two of the Commissioners, Robert Lutwidge (Lewis Carroll’s uncle) and Dr James Wilkes. The main building was located on the northern boundary of the site, the principal elevation facing south-east. It was approached from the lodge at Fishponds along an ornamentally planted avenue. All the ground to the south of the building, amounting to around 17 acres, was used as a vegetable garden. Patients largely occupied the apartments on the south side of the building, staff and services the north side. The latter included the porter’s room, reception room, visiting room, committee room, apartments and office for the clerk or steward, rooms for the engineer and stores. In the central block, which acted as a buffer between the male and female sides of the building, were staff apartments: on the ground floor those of the Assitant Medical Officer and the Matron, the Medical Superintendent’s residence occupied the first and second floors, and servants had bedrooms on the third floor.
The kitchens were on the ground floor and the dining-hall above – a lift being installed to take food from one to the other. There was a chapel within the main complex, capable of holding 150 patients, located adjacent to the dining hall which could seat the same number. The galleries for the patients were 12 feet wide, were heated by open fire-places, and were positioned to take advantage of the views over the surrounding landscape (‘commanding good views of the picturesque country round’). Window seats encouraged patients to sit and contemplate the scenery. There were also day rooms, larger rooms with two fire-places. Every ward had direct access to the airing grounds, which were ornamentally laid out, with walls low enough to allow patients to see over them.
Heating and ventilating for the ‘asylum portion’ was by Haden & Son of Trowbridge. The towers at the extreme ends of the building extracted foul air from the wards, which was then conveyed through the roofs in a pupose-built channel. The same firm supplied the kitchen equipment. On the female side was a ‘laundry ward and establishment’ consisting of a 10-bed ward for the more convalescent patients, a receiving-room for soiled linen, a wash-house, laundry, room for sorting clean linen, and nearby were drying machines and boilers. Corresponding with this on the male side were workshops, with a ‘workshop ward’, carpenter’s, shoemaker’s and tailor’s shops. The dead-house and postmortem room were also at this end, ‘being nearer the road for funerals’.
There were various phases of extensions to the asylum. It was first enlarged in 1875-7 when the wings to the west and east were added, then in 1882 a detached chapel was built, the original one being absorbed into the hall. The chapel was designed by a local architect, E. Henry Edwards in a ‘Norman Gothic’ style to seat 350 souls. The foundation stone was laid in September 1880, the building contractors were Forse and Ashley of Bristol. [Bristol Mercury & Daily Post, 25 Sept 1880, p.8]
Henry Crips and Oatley were the architects for the additions carried out in two phases between 1887-91. The first phase comprised four new wings, mortuary and workshops, for which the building contractor was A. Krauss of Russell Town, Bristol. The second phase comprised an ‘entirely new’ administration and residential block providing for the greatly enlarged asylum – it had expanded to from its original accommodation for 250 patients to an anticipated 1,000 patients. For this phase the general building contractor was A. J. Beaver of Bedminster, and R. Withycombe of Bristol was the clerk of works. Fire-proof floors were carried out by Dennett & Ingle of Whitehall.
It was at this period that the impressive clock tower was built, rising to 120 ft with clock faces on each side. These were supplied by Potts & Sons of Leeds, and were 8 ft in diameter with illuminated dials. Bells truck the quarters and the hours. A strictly time-tabled routine had obviously become a key feature of the running of the asylum. [Building News, 10 April 1891, p.500]
Further additions were carried out in 1888-90, and then again in 1897-1902. This time the Visiting Committee dispensed with the services of an architect and appointed H. R. Withycombe, the clerk of works who had served under Crisp and Oatley, to supply plans and supervise construction. (There seems to be some doubt as to whether Withycombe actually designed the buildings or if another architect was involved.)[Western Daily Press, 16 April 1902, p.7]
During the First World War the asylum was requisitioned as a military hospital for the war wounded and renamed Beaufort War Hospital; the existing patients were relocated to other asylums, but some returned in 1919 when the military handed the hospital back to the City. Cary Grant’s mother, Elsie Leach, is said to have been one of those readmitted after the war. Although officially now called Bristol Mental Hospital, it continued to be known as Bristol Asylum locally, well into the 1920s. In 1959 it changed its name again to Glenside Hospital. The conversion to the Glenside campus of the University of the West of England seems to have been a particularly happy one, preserving the old buildings and their setting.
¹ Mr Herapath, probably William Herapath, Professor of Chemistry (1796-1868), a magistrate and prominent Town Councillor.