Brislington House, together with its founder Dr Edward Long Fox, was one of the most influential asylums in the first half of the nineteenth century. It has much in common with the York Retreat. Fox was a Quaker, like the Tukes, and he held a similar belief in the restorative power of nature and the familiar comforts of a domestic environment. Brislington House originally comprised a row of separate houses, rather than the large rambling pile that survives today. It was designed to make the patients feel at home, rather than in an institution or a prison. This was, in a large part, possible by catering primarily for paying patients, and the well-to-do at that. In this manner it operated in a similar way to Ticehurst, Sussex and Laverstock House, Wiltshire, both lucrative private asylums.
Edward Long Fox is an intriguing individual, he had an extensive private practice as a physician in Bristol, rose to be a senior physician at Bristol Royal Infirmary, and was an astute businessman, amassing a considerable fortune. Before embarking on the Brislington House venture he had operated a private asylum at Cleve Hill. But he was also involved in radical politics, and had an active interest in some less mainstream aspects of medicine. He seems to have been widely admired, but not universally so, accused at times of quackery and worse. 
Fox bought the Brislington estate in 1799, and spent several years over the planning and construction of the asylum and the laying out of the grounds around it. Building work seems to have begun in 1804, and the first patients were admitted in 1806. Fox described the arrangements:
The patients of each sex are arranged under three classes. Each class inhabits a distinct house, detached from the other by an interval of eighteen feet, with a separate court for the exercise of the patients, wherever they please; the ground of which is elevated, so that they can view the surrounding country, while a border sloping towards the wall secures them from escape. 
Although Brislington House is well documented, and plans survive for the buildings, no architect seems to be mentioned anywhere, or even a builder.
In addition to this idyllic accommodation were less glamorous cells for the refractory patients. These can be seen on the plan above, at the foot of the walled gardens to the south of each house. It was in one of these that John Perceval (son of the former prime minister, Spencer Percival, assassinated in 1812) recorded spending a miserable period. Perceval noted that the cells were lit from above, and heated by flues in the wall rather than with open fires.
At either end of the row of houses were two small detached infirmaries. The use of separate houses to aid the classification of the patients may have been inspired by contemporary French asylums, notably La Salpêtrière in Paris where the different categories of patients were assigned to separate loges or detached blocks. However, the loges at La Salpêtrière, designed by François Viel c.1786, were all of one storey and the same design. At Brislington the houses were of two or three storeys and not identical.
The buildings were also interesting for their early use of fire-proof construction; a matter which was close to Fox’s heart. When the first county asylum was built at Nottingham in 1810, Fox was in correspondence with the Committee of Governors and warmly recommended the use of iron in construction which he considered ‘did not only serve to alleviate the dangers from fire, but also from lice and vermin’. 
Fox’s success was immediate and sustained. A mark of this is the erection on the estate of Lanesborough Cottage in 1816 for Lord Lanesborough, and of Swiss Cottage in 1819 for Lord Carysfoot. The Beeches was added in the 1820s and Heath House, the large villa to the north-west of the main asylum, was built around 1829 and was occupied by Edward Fox when he retired from the management of the asylum in that year. But the asylum remained a family business, his sons Francis and Charles, both also physicians, taking over its management. After their father’s death in 1835 they issued a brochure or booklet relating the history of the asylum and its present state. In 1850-1 they undertook a major remodelling of the buildings, joining them together as they are now, and building additions, including the chapel. Previously the laundry was converted into a chapel on a Sunday, and services regularly performed there. 
The main building was oriented on a north-east to south-west axis, with the entrance front facing north-west, so the garden front had the sunnier south-east aspect. Both long elevations still have a rather disjointed appearance, presumably reflecting their former separation. The building is rendered with stone dressings in an Italianate palazzo style.
The garden front is more informal, the central seven bays are flanked by full-height bows, rather resembling angle turrets, with three windows at first and second floor levels.
Across the north end the chapel and recreation hall were built. The chapel has a Greek cross plan and follows the classical style of the rest of the asylum. Inside the box pews were still in situ in 1992 and a fine wood-carved reredos with gothic (or possibly gothick) details, some good light fittings and a painted timber compartmental ceiling. There was also a small gallery over the entrance.
The recreation hall, which was added in 1866, has a deceptively austere exterior – doubly so in the early 1990s when it was faced in rather grimy render. The interior was contrastingly lavish with a small platform at the west end, the walls panelled with bolection moulding and ornamented by anthemions and lyres, and broad pilasters with paterae decorating the frieze. The coved ceiling has bands of greek key pattern and, in the corners of the central flat section, decorative plasterwork scrolls. Similar neo-Classical inspired plaster ornamentation appears over the doors at the west end. The iron pendant lamps are equally ornate.
Brislington House remained in the ownership of the fox family until 1947 when it was purchased by the Governors of the United Bristol Hospitals and was used as a nurses’ home.
In 1948 it passed to the National Health Service and was put on the market by the South Western Regional health Authority in September 1984. It was then run as a private nursing home for some years before it was sold again and turned into private flats in 2001 and renamed Long Fox Manor.
The landscaped grounds and their importance as a part of the therapy for patients at Brislington House have been researched and written about by Sarah Rutherford (see studymore) and Clare Hickman, see her article on ‘The Picturesque at Brislington House, Bristol…’ in Garden History, vol.33, No.1 Summer, 2005, pp. 47-60.
- Leonard Smith ‘A gentleman’s mad-doctor in Georgian England: Edward Long Fox and Brislington House’ in History of Psychiatry 2008, 19 (2), pp 163-184
- The reference that I had for this was from Fox’s evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on the state of Criminal and Pauper Lunatics in England and Wales of 1807. I cannot now find any such evidence from Fox to this Committee. Sarah Rutherford gives a reference to Fox giving evidence to the 1815 committee, but I can’t find that either. The quote is not from his evidence given in the late 1820s, nor does it match the report on the asylum in the 1815 committee, where the evidence was given by Edward Wakefield for Brislington House. Happy to be enlightened.
- Nottinghamshire Record Office, SO/40 1/50/4/1
- PP Report of the Committee on Madhouses in England, 11 July 1815, evidence of Edward Wakefield p.21