This leafy residential development near St Albans, within sight of the M25, has been established on the site of Napsbury Hospital, incorporating many of the former hospital buildings. Re-named Napsbury Park, the development took place largely between 2002 and 2008.
The asylum was designed by Rowland Plumbe in 1900 to serve the county of Middlesex. Following the Local Government Act of 1889 and the formation of the London County Council, the former Middlesex County Asylums at Hanwell and Colney Hatch were taken over by the LCC, while the former Surrey County Asylum in Wandsworth (Springfield Hospital) was transferred to Middlesex. The need for a new institution was soon recognized and in 1898 the estate of Napsbury Manor Farm was acquired. In the same year the architect Rowland Plumbe and the Medical Superintendent of Springfield Hospital, Dr Gardiner-Hill, visited asylums in Scotland where a new type of asylum plan was evolving, inspired by the continental colony system.
Plumbe’s design that he presented to the County’s Asylums Committee introduced elements from the Scottish system, such as the separate hospital section and detached villas, as well as a typical English-style échelon-plan main complex. In part this was a necessary compromise, as English asylums tended to be considerably larger than their Scottish counterparts and so detached colony-sytle buildings for all patients were uneconomic – Napsbury was designed for 1,152 patients.
The foundation stone was laid on 26 February 1901; the building contractors were Charles Wall Ltd of Chelsea, a firm with considerable experience in hospital construction. An arrangement was made with the Midland Railway Company to provide a station on the Company’s line, to the north west. A branch line was constructed from there directly to the heart of the main asylum complex, with sidings near the boiler house for bringing in coal.
William Goldring was commissioned to design the landscape setting, having earlier been brought in to take over the landscape design for Kesteven Asylum (later Rauceby Hospital) near Sleaford. The OS map below shows the network of curved paths amongst trees and shrubs laid out around the main complex.
Each ward block had its own garden area in front, and picturesque circular shelters were provided, as focal points and providing somewhere to sit.
As well as garden grounds, there was a cricket pitch with pavilion on the south side of the main complex.
On 3 June 1905 the new asylum opened. The main complex provided accommodation for 650 patients, its dog-leg échelon plan allowing for a higher proportion of female patients to males. Patient ward blocks, designed as far as possible in the style of large detached villas, were linked by single-storey corridors, and each block was allocated to a different class of patient depending on their diagnosis. In the terminology of the time these were: sick, infirm, epileptic, chronic, chronic refractory and working patients.
Each ward block comprised day rooms, dormitories and single rooms for the patients in addition to attendants’ rooms. These were floored with pitch pine coated with ‘Ronuk’ polish. Doulton and Company’s faience open fires, supplemented by hot-water radiators, provided the heating, and the sanitary annexes, containing the baths, wash basins and WCs, were separated from the main patient areas by cross ventilated corridors in the usual manner.
The ward blocks each had a fire escape and goods lift and were designed so that any outbreak of fire could not spread to the adjacent blocks. As part of this fire-proof construction, the main stairs were of cement concrete with York stone treads.
A large common dining hall was situated at the centre, dividing the male and female sides of the complex. To the north of the dining hall was the kitchen, kitchen offices and stores. On the male side were the boiler house, workshops and water tower. The laundry was on the female side.
On the north, counterbalancing the dining hall, was the administration block. This imposing gabled building of two storeys had a squat square tower over the main hall and a stubby porte-cochère before the main entrance. It contained the committee rooms, offices and quarters for the assistant medical officers.
The separate hospital for admissions and cases requiring observation and medical treatment was situated to the east of the main asylum complex and was completely detached from it and independent, except for a subway carrying steam pipes. It had its own water supply, laundry, kitchen, dining and recreation hall.
The administration block was on the north side, in a similar style with a multi-gabled façade and mullion and transomed windows. It was of two storeys and attic with a central entrance leading to the main entrance hall and fernery. In addition to office accommodation, it also contained rooms for photography, a museum and research laboratory. The hospital provided 250 beds in single-storey ward blocks. Convalescent and nursing cases occupied the blocks on the south side, the sick and infirm those to the east and west.
Dotted about the park were five detached villas, these were originally designed to accommodate working patients, convalescent patients soon to be discharged and private patients (‘paying guests and artisans’). Each could house fifty or fifty-two patients, sleeping in small dormitories, with sitting rooms and dining rooms.
There was also a small isolation hospital, on the edge of the site near the railway line, with its own separate services. It was extended in the 1920s and 30s. Other ancillary buildings included a post-mortem department, medical officer’s house, staff housing, chapel and farm buildings.
Only a few years after the hospital opened Rowland Plumbe was asked to prepare plans for additions and alterations – accommodation was needed for another 600 patients and improvements had to be made to the drainage.
During the First World War the hospital was taken over by the Army. By 1915 the Army had realised that it needed considerably more accommodation for those suffering from ‘war strain’, and entered into negotiations with Middlesex County for the use of parts of its asylums at Wandsworth and Napsbury. The acute hospital at Napsbury and two of the villas (for convalescents) were transferred to the Army in 1916. Napsbury War Hospital provided 350 beds and was allocated to the severest cases. In May of the same year, the remainder of Napsbury Hospital was also handed over to the Army for general medical and surgical cases, with 1,600 beds for soldiers invalided home from the front.
The largest addition to the site after the First World War was a new nurses’ home built to the south of the main complex and west of the cricket ground.
By the early 1920s one of the detached villas, that nearest the hospital section, had been taken over as a nurses’ home.
When we visited the site in 1992 as part of the RCHME Hospitals Survey it was still a hospital for those suffering from mental illnesses. The staff were very welcoming, allowing us to go over the site and photograph the outsides of the buildings, although one person was disturbed by the sight of the camera (the phrase ‘tupenny-ha’penny photographer’ was thrown in our direction).
The hospital closed in 1998, although a small psychiatric unit remained on site until around 2002. The grounds were designated by English Heritage as a Grade II historic park in 2001, recognizing the importance of this rare survival of a public landscape designed by William Goldring. The hospital buildings were listed, also Grade II, in 1998. Crest Nicholson acquired the site in about 2002. Around 545 residences have been created in a mix of apartments in the converted buildings alongside new detached and terraced houses the masterplan and detailed designs were drawn up by Design Group 3 architects. Much has been demolished – all the service buildings at the core of the main asylum complex, apart from the water tower, the ward blocks of the hospital section and some of the villas, but the footprint has been retained – paths or roads replacing the distinctive corridor that linked together the ward blocks. The new buildings have been designed to match the old in the use of warm orange-red brick, and in style they take their cue from Rowland Plumbe’s buildings. Generally it is one of the better examples of the re-use of a former asylum complex.
The Builder, 31 August 1901, p.198; 17 June 1905, pp.651-2; 1 Feb. 1908, p.127: Building News, 2 June 1905, p.780: Hertford Library, H362.11, brochure for the opening of Middlesex County Asylum: PP XXVIII.381 c.899, 1920, History of the Asylum War Hospitals in England and Wales
There are more photographs on the County Asylums website. St Albans out of sight out of mind for more photographs, and memories of working at the hospital. Lost Hospitals of London has further photographs, history and references. Crest Nicholson’s brochure and advertising for the redeveloped nurses’ home (Napsbury Quarters) can be found on their website. More information on William Goldring can be found on the Parks and Gardens website.