Napsbury Park, formerly Middlesex County Asylum

Napsbury Hospital, photographed in 1992. In the centre is the dining hall, with ward blocks on either side.

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.

North side of the former dining hall,  photographed in 2009 © Copyright Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The same view in 2007, showing the extent of the rebuilding on this side of the dining hall. The new work  was designed to replicate the south front, seen below. Originally this side was linked to the central service buildings – the kitchen was immediately to its north. © Copyright Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The south side of the  dining hall, photographed in 1992.

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.

Map showing the former asylum as first designed, with the large échelon-plan main complex on the left, the separate acute hospital to its right, farm buildings on the north side, an isolation hospital to the left and in amongst these, the five detached villas and a  chapel.

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.

Postcard of Napsbury Hospital, unknown date. Reproduced courtesy of Peter Aitkenhead. The conical-roofed structure in the middle ground was one of the garden shelters that were provided in the gardens attached to each ward block. 

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.

Extract from the 25-inch OS map, revised in 1922, showing part of the Napsbury Hospital site with the Napsbury Siding shown coming into the site past the farm, by the chapel and arriving at the boiler house, stores and kitchens.

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.

Extract from the 1922 25-inch OS map showing the main complex. The female side was on the west (left-hand side); it was considerably larger than the male side as female patients outnumbered males. 

Each ward block had its own garden area in front, and picturesque circular shelters were provided, as focal points and providing somewhere to sit.

One of the thatched, circular garden shelters, photographed in 1992, in a state of disrepair.

As well as garden grounds, there was a cricket pitch with pavilion on the south side of the main complex.

The Arts & Crafts-style, thatched cricket pavilion, photographed in 1992 (since demolished).

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.

View along one of the main corridors. The characteristic brown-glazed bricks are probably the original finish – hard wearing and easily cleaned. Photographed in 1992.

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.

One of the male ward blocks, photographed in 1992

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.

Scrubbed up, one of the former ward blocks now converted into housing. The block on the right is a modern replica.  Photographed in 2007  © Copyright Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Ward interior, probably dating from the First World War. Reproduced courtesy of Peter Aitkenhead.

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.

The water tower and the service area of the main complex comprising boiler house, kitchens, stores and workshops. Photographed in 1992.
The water tower photographed in 2007, with housing development around it replacing the old hospital service area. © Copyright Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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.

Administration block on the north side of the main complex, photographed in 1992

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.

Main entrance of the former hospital section, photographed in 1992

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.

One of the detached villas, photographed in 1992. View from the east of one of the pair of villas built for working female patients to the north west of the main asylum complex. These were altered, extended and linked together by a single storey range to the south. They have not been retained in the redevelopment of the site.

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.

Detached villa, photographed 1992. This was the farm villa, designed for male, working patients. It has not been retained as part of the redevelopment of the site. 

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.

Former isolation hospital, photographed in 1992

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.

Napsbury War Hospital, First World War. Reproduced by courtesy of Peter Aitkenhead

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.

Napsbury War Hospital, First World War, photograph showing patients and staff. Reproduced courtesy of Peter Aitkenhead.

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.

Former Nurses’ Home built in the 1920, photographed in 1992

By the early 1920s one of the detached villas, that nearest the hospital section, had been taken over as a nurses’ home.

Built as a detached villa for female paying patients to the south-east of the hospital section. An identical villa for male private patients was built to the north-west of the hospital section, but later turned into a nurses’ home. Both have been converted into housing. Photographed in 2006 © Copyright Martin Addison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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

See also

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.

Storthes Hall, former West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Postcard of Storthes Hall Asylum, Kirkburton, West Yorkshire when newly built. Reproduced courtesy of Peter Aitkenhead.

Storthes Hall was the fourth, and last, pauper lunatic asylum for the West Riding of Yorkshire. The first section, designed as an acute hospital, opened in June 1904. This was similar to the earlier acute block added to the Wakefield asylum in 1899. Only the gate lodge and the administration block of this section now survive, the remainder of the buildings providing the footprint for Huddersfield University’s student village that now occupies the site. The larger section to the south-west (pictured above), has also been demolished with just the administration block remaining in a ruinous state.

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Detail from the 6-inch OS map, revised in 1904-5. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The West Riding Asylums Committee decided to build their fourth pauper lunatic institution around 1897 and purchased Storthes Hall, together with a large part of the estate, from Thomas Norton in 1898. By January 1899 the county surveyor, Joseph Vickers Edwards, had visited the most recent asylums built in England and Scotland and presented a report to the Asylums Committee. The Commissioners in Lunacy advised that they would not approve an asylum designed on the village or colony principle, a type that was emerging as an ideal form for mental hospitals around this time. They agreed to sanction plans for the acute hospital provided that it was entirely separate from the general  asylum complex. Originally this section was to have 200 beds (100 each of male and female patients), the general asylum was to accommodate 1,200 patients and be capable of enlargement. [1]

Interior of one of the broad corridors of the asylum which served as day-room space. Reproduced courtesy of Peter Aitkenhead.

The acute hospital was symmetrically arranged with two blocks or wards on either side of the central administrative section, each for 50 patients, one for sick and infirm, the other for recent or acute cases.  Flanking the hospital were two detached blocks, or ‘cottage homes’, designed to house 36 chronic, healthy patients each, who would form part of the labour force for the asylum. [2]  To the south-west of the acute hospital was the central boiler house and laundry, with laundry residence, these sections were constructed in 1902-3 by John Radcliffe & Sons, Huddersfield (acute hospital) and William Nicholson & Sons, Leeds (laundry and boiler house). [3] The rest of the complex was commenced in 1904 once the acute hospital was completed, with Radcliffe & Sons as the building contractors.

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Extract from the 1:25,000 OS map published in 1955. The acute hospital is to the north, the boiler house and laundry section centrally place and the large echelon-plan complex was for general cases. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland

Joseph Vickers Edwards, who designed the asylum, was the County Architect. He also designed High Royds Hospital, the third West Riding asylum, in 1885 (built in 1887-9), and the hospital blocks at Scalebor Park, which opened in 1902 as an asylum for paying patients. Edwards was born in Liverpool around 1852, and trained as a civil engineer. He had been the borough engineer for Burnley before he was appointed as the deputy surveyor and architect to the West Riding in the late 1870s under Bernard Hartley. As County Architect he initially had responsibility for roads and bridges as well as all the other local authority buildings. He designed a number of public and council buildings: additions to County Hall, the police headquarters at Wakefield, the teacher-training college at Bingley, and inebriates’ reformatory at Cattal. He was remembered as a genial man, popular with his staff and ‘moderately fond’ of sports – mostly cricket. [4]

Postcard of Storthes Hall Asylum, showing the admin block of the general asylum.  Reproduced courtesy of Peter Aitkenhead.

Later additions to the site included: 1909 post-mortem room; 1915 isolation hospital; 1934 tenders for Assistant Medical Officers residence, W. H. Burton, architect; 1935 Clerk of Works house, extension to the nurses’ home also by Burton; 1939 Medical Superintendent’s house.

The admin block of the general asylum, photographed after the rest of the huge asylum complex around it had been demolished. By Bilko123 at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Small-town hero, Public Domain.

Storthes Hall itself, a private house to the north east of the hospital site, was used as an institution for the mentally handicapped, and was known as the Mansion Hospital. After it closed in 1991 it reverted to a private residence. In 2005 outline planning permission was granted for building a retirement community on the site of the former general asylum complex. An extension to the time limit was granted in 2012, considerable delays had ensued with arguments over the inclusion of affordable housing in the scheme. Revised plans were approved in 2016 which include converting the derelict admin block into a residential care home.

Detail from an early postcard of Storthes Hall Asylum, probably dating from around the time of the completion of the buildings in the early twentieth century. Reproduced courtesy of Peter Aitkenhead.

For more images of the asylum and details of its history see, the website for Storthes Hall Park student accommodation has photographs, mostly interiors, of the Huddersfield University’s student village. Historic England Archives holds a file on the hospital, ref: BF102003. Recent bird’s-eye aerial photography of the site can be seen on

Select references:

  1. Huddersfield Chronicle, 12 Jan 1899, p.4
  2. Huddersfield Chronicle, 5 July 1900, p.3: Building News, 21 July 1900, p.61
  3. Leeds Mercury, 1o Oct 1901, p.2
  4. Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 6 May 1913, p.7

The Asylum at Christmas

Celebrating Christmas with entertainments and a special dinner was introduced into the workhouse and even prisons before it was provided in pauper lunatic asylums. It only seems to have become widespread from about the 1850s.

Entertainment to the patients at the Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum, Colney Hatch. This was a New Year’s celebration, but the dancing and the decoration with flags were typical of the entertainments held for Christmas. Illustrated London News, 15 Jan 1853. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Image reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 

According to the Chelmsford Chronicle reporting on the Christmas festivities at the Essex County Asylum in 1858, it was only in recent years that ‘the poor lunatic’ was thought capable of appreciating the ‘social enjoyments’ associated with the season: ‘it is one of the humane discoveries of modern medical science, that he is far more successfully worked upon by the music of the kind word than by the rattle of the iron chain.’ [1]

The County Lunatic Asylum, Brentwood, Essex: bird’s eye view. Wood engraving by W.E. Hodgkin, 1857, after H.E. Kendall. Wellcome Library, London. Essex County Asylum was designed by H. E. Kendall in 1849 and completed in 1853. Originally for between 400 and 500 patients it was extended many times. Two of the earliest additions were a dining-hall in 1863 and a recreation hall in 1879. The asylum was later renamed Warley Hospital. It closed in 2001. The Builder, 16 May 1857 Wellcome Images Image reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

On Christmas day at the Essex Asylum one of the wards was fitted up as a dining hall, the ward itself measuring some seventy feet in length and seating 230 inmates. The walls were decorated with flags and evergreens in ‘tasteful devices’… ‘while forty ponderous plum puddings and 350 lbs of roast beef smoked upon the tables’. In addition to the dinner there was a musical evening held in the recreation hall, which was decorated for the occasion. A Mrs Campbell supplied 1,200 artificial flowers which the patients had interwoven into figures and festoons of laurel. Sketches from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Essex arms and portraits of the Indian heroes Havelock and Wilson also formed an unlikely combination of pictorial decoration in the hall, all painted or drawn by the patients. The orchestra, too, was composed of patients, who supplied the music for the country dances. Between dances patients amused the company with songs and recitations. [1]

From the late 1850s the number of newspaper reports of similar entertainments elsewhere in Britain began to grow, these were often occasions attended by the local gentry. At the Birmingham Borough Asylum the Christmas festivities comprised country dancing, singing and games on Christmas eve. During the evening ‘an immense circle was formed for ‘drop the glove’. Half an hour of exciting fun was the result’. There was also a ‘jingling match’ and a jumping match. A female patient with an ‘exceedingly melodious voice’ sang Where are you going to, my pretty maid? and amidst the music and activities, spiced ale and plum-cake were served for refreshment. The Christmas dinner featured roast beef, plum pudding and ‘various seasonable accessories’. Entertainments continued nightly throughout the week with amateurs from the town visiting the asylum to provide vocal and instrumental music. One evening there was an exhibition of ‘dissolving views’. [2]

In the 1880s similar entertainments were reported at the Guernsey asylum, where games included musical chairs and candle-buff. [3]


[1] Chelmsford Chronicle, 1 Jan 1858, p.3
[2] Birmingham Daily Post, 27 Dec 1859, p.3
[3] The Star, Guernsey, 1 Jan 1889, p.2