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Asylums – places of refuge or fear

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

By David Jolley

Claire Hilton is Historian in Residence at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. She has been involved in a range of amazing projects bringing back to life and for reconsideration the views and activities, which characterised psychiatry and mental health services in the past.

Her most recent work has led her to tour the remains of some former mental hospitals. She is beginning to write about them

She draws attention to an online facility, which allows us to learn something of the present and past of the county asylums, which were the core of mental health services up to the 1970s. County Asylums – County Asylums

Originally designed with a view to containing and rehabilitating people who had become disturbed by illnesses usually beginning in early adult life, they had become repositories for older people, some growing old there, others being admitted in late life with dementia.

My interest was drawn to the link to St George’s, Staffordshire’s County Asylum. This was where people from Wolverhampton were taken if the need arose. It arose for my grandmother when her dementia progressed, and she had to be rescued from her kitchen where she had pulled the kitchen cabinet away from the wall and lay pinned to the ground by it. GP climbed in through an upstairs window. Fire Brigade as well as ambulance came quickly. There may have been a police presence too – I do not remember. Quite a day in our quiet cul-de-sac.

My dad was beside himself over what was to be done. It was a relief when he was told she would be found a place at St George’s. This place and name, which had featured in life as a threat to those who might misbehave and push the boundaries too far, was now a welcome assurance of safety.

We went every Sunday – usually dad and me – in grandad’s large black Austin car. We learned the route. The carpark and entrance became familiar. Dad was always good with people and was soon recognised and adopted as a regular by the receptionists and ward staff. Some stories of the week from them. Gran would be pleased to see him and chunter on in recognition of someone from the family. She spoke as if in times even before dad had been born, of friends and relatives and happenings in the Shropshire villages of her youth. She would say she had been with them just recently and how busy they are and how well they are looking

We did our best to catch the threads. It was heart-breaking for dad, puzzling and a learning experience for me.

We were able to find our space with gran within the day room shared between about fifty women with similar difficulties. Sometimes another resident came along to talk. Dad got to know the families of other residents and they supported each other. Staffing was sparse but friendly.

There were three cells at the end of the day room. Sometimes their occupants would shout out or bang the door but for the most part the hours would pass peacefully with the exchange of love across all parties.

A quiet ride home. Sunday tea – sometimes with visitors.

We accepted all this with sadness and gratitude.

The ‘Victorian Asylums’ are no more what they were. Some are destroyed. Some have become colleges. Good homes have been built in the well-treed grounds.

There is an alternative system of care and treatment for people with mental disorders. Sadly, the present provision fails to meet the needs of patients and families of old and young and middle-aged people with mental health problems.

There was a degree of pride reflected in the architecture of those Victorian Asylums and their grounds. Not so easy to identify in services exposed to view during these years of Covid-19.

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