Afterlives of the Psychiatric Asylum

The Psychiatric Asylum was once the main form of mental health care in the UK, housing tens of thousands of patients across their history. Since the 1960s, we have moved away from the psychiatric asylum, and towards care in the community. The question then was, what were we going to do with the large number of psychiatric asylum buildings that were no longer needed?

There are five main ways in which psychiatric asylums have continued to exist into the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These are roughly divided into the following categories: Retention, Residential, Redevelopment, Dereliction, and Demolition. This week’s blog post explains what each of these categories mean and gives examples of different sites.

Retention

(St Nicholas’ Hospital, formerly the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Borough Lunatic Asylum, Joshua J Green, 2017)

Retention covers those asylum sites which have remained in use for mental health care purposes. This can be either as public institutions, within the National Health Service, or as private institutions, and can take a few forms. This can be with services continuing to be given in the original asylum buildings, but can also be combined with new facilities on the grounds of the original asylum. This category is almost ever decreasing, with less than 10 of the original county asylums left in England and Wales.

A good example of this is St Nicholas’ Hospital in Newcastle. St Nicholas’ is an interesting example because it continues to use its original buildings for mental health care. These buildings are also listed and are in a conservation area. In practical terms this means that any permanent modifications to the building, or any additions to the grounds, needs permission from the local council planning committee, making modernisation of the facilities very difficult.

These factors combine to give unique situations. For example, internal courtyards in the hospital are required to be a certain height, to prevent patients climbing up, but the original asylum wasn’t built to these requirements. St Nicholas’ has dealt with this through the use of “temporary” fencing. This however gives the spaces a feeling of confinement, almost prison-like, so isn’t in itself ideal.

Residential

(Princess Park Manor, Comer Group, 2021)

Residential reuse includes asylum sites which have been converted to, and sold as, housing. This is the most common asylum afterlife, as land is always being sought for housing development, and these large sites, already in public ownership, can fit a large number of houses.

Residential conversions of asylums can be both expensive and exclusive. A good example of this is the former Friern Barnet Hospital, currently known as Princess Park Manor. This development has been home to members of JLS, One Direction, and a number of current and former Arsenal football players including Wojciech Szczęsny and Ashley Cole- amongst many others.

The most interesting aspect of these sites as places to live is that in order to bypass the stigma and the negative feelings towards psychiatric asylums, these sites undergo a process of selective remembrance and strategic forgetting – attempting to erase the negative aspects of the buildings history, whilst keeping those aspects which can be used to sell the space. For example, the following quote is taken from the Princes Park Manor website: “Princess Park Manor is an award winning, period listing building set within 30 acres of private parkland. The development has been sensitively and imaginatively converted to combine elegance and exquisite proportion of its heritage with the convenience and comfort expected in the modern age.” So the emphasis is placed on the period listed building and the acres of private parkland, and the nature of the building’s origins is almost there but hidden behind fancy words and marketing lingo. The clues are there in the architecture and surroundings however, and most interestingly the same language is used in the modern advertising for the apartments as was used originally to promote the benefits of the psychiatric asylum: the large, quiet grounds, and the grand buildings and facilities.

Redevelopment

(Field Johnson Building – Leicestershire University, UniversityBusiness, 2016)

This category includes asylum sites which have been reused in an alternative way, including other institutions such as prisons and educational institutions, or for offices and other workplaces. The main challenges that face developers in these cases is similar to that of the residential developments, which is the difficulty of redeveloping the stigmatised space for use by the general community, who may perceive it to exist as a place for the ‘other’ and not for ‘us’. As before, developers attempted to get around this through the promotion of the building’s architectural merits and the benefits of the physical space, utilising phrases such as ‘tastefully reproduced period buildings’, rather than ‘old psychiatric asylum’.

There are a number which have been converted into student accommodation. In some ways this makes sense, thinking about the asylum layout. Individual rooms, usually a bed, a desk and a wardrobe; day rooms spread throughout, perfect spaces to convert to kitchens/living spaces, they are a quite convenient shell to convert to student housing. Examples of this include student housing at the University of Bristol and the University of Portsmouth. These buildings have also been re-used as University administration buildings, such as the Field Johnson building at Leicestershire University.

Dereliction

(Gartloch Hospital, former Glasgow District Lunatic Asylum, The Press and Journal, 2019)

Dereliction covers those sites which stand abandoned but have not yet been demolished. This can be both a brief period between use and destruction, or it can be a long-term situation.  Some sites can stand derelict in a period of flux for decades before they are either redeveloped or more usually demolished. It is in this state that sites tend to be fantasised as ‘haunted’ spaces, promoted through popular culture including programs from Most Haunted to Supernatural.

These spaces can be thought of as non-places, Tim Edensor stated: “these places often exist in a hiatus between the end of one industrial era and potential future redevelopment. As such, they become nonplaces, quite literally off the map – ‘an impossible designation of space as terra nullius, which suggests they are spaces of and for nothing’. And they atrophy because their blood supply is cut off”. This atrophy is as a result of a lack of care and maintenance given to the buildings, and they have often deteriorated to such an extent that they become unstable, and developers come to view the buildings as obstacles rather than assets.

In the meantime, however, these sites become of interest to certain other groups of people. Urban explorers relish in rediscovering and documenting abandoned buildings, and psychiatric asylums are one of their favoured sites to explore. You can go to websites such as behind closed doors, or 28days later, to see the pictures and stories of these explorations.

Demolition

(Partially demolished Whittingham Hospital, formerly the Fourth Lancashire County Asylum, BlogPreston, 2014)

Demolition covers those sites which have been knocked down and destroyed. This was the afterlife recommended by Enoch Powell, and is arguably the one which is most final. This is often the case when either the building has been left derelict for too long and is crumbling and unfit for development, or when the building design doesn’t lend itself to the building of mass residential housing. Demolition of former psychiatric asylum sites allows developers to create an almost ‘clean slate’ with which to develop the space. This may in fact not only be more profitable, but also easier. The demolition of the buildings on these sites, therefore, is fairly common with the only real incentive to keep the buildings being when they either have an impressive or attractive façade, or if they have some form of heritage protection attached to them. There are a number of heritage protections which may prevent the demolition of former psychiatric asylum buildings and the development of their sites: listed building status; conservation areas; Tree Preservation Orders; and town/village green status. These protections act directly to remove demolition as a possible fate for the sites concerned.

However, even though with demolition the building disappears, the land itself is reused, and the space is reimagined in new ways. But there can still be signs and hints remaining to the old sites. Sometimes road names are named after the old wards, which in turn were often named after trees and plants, therapeutic sounding names. Often the boundary wall of the asylum remains, even if it is modified in some way. The memory of the asylum lingers in the community, even if it’s a little bit more subtle, and you have to know what to look for to find it, but it is still there.

Conclusion

To conclude, we have looked at a number of afterlives that asylum sites experience. What each of the afterlives have in common is a distancing from the past: the stigmatised asylum heritage is repackaged and re-imagined. As such, in the instances where asylums are still in use, for whatever purpose, there has been a distinct attempt to distance the new from the old. This is most clear in the residential category and the marketing language used, but also within: retention- as the  ‘asylums’ to ‘hospitals’ in the early 20th century in an attempt to improve their image; redevelopment- as the spaces take on a new meaning and use; and destruction- where the heritage is literally erased. Even derelict asylums take on a new role, as seen with urban exploration of these sites, they remain a place of ‘other’, a place you don’t go, but they are one of intrigue rather than of fear. To be explored and analysed, recorded through photographs and accounts.

Suggested Reading:

To start researching asylums in your local area, see County Asylums:

For histories and images from Urban Explorers; Behind Closed Doors; 28 Days Later

And for an in-depth look at the themes discussed in this article, and other aspects of asylum history: Joshua J Green (2017), Towards a Conceptual Understanding of the Continuing Presence of the Psychiatric Asylum in Contemporary Urban Britain.

By Josh Green

Josh completed his PhD at the University of Southampton in 2017. His research focused on former psychiatric asylum sites and their continued presence in the UK, looking at themes such as memory, stigma, conservation, and governance. Josh’s haphazard career has led to his contribution to the Department of Health’s advisory document “Health and Wellbeing”, serving ice-cream, dolphin conservation work, teaching at universities and secondary schools, and working in museums. As well as the history of psychiatric asylums, Josh’s interests are wide ranging and include health policy, prison hulks, and quakers, amongst seemingly endless other things.