England’s Asylums

Great Britain

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When I was a child we went to visit a friend of my mother’s in Holloway Sanatorium, near Virginia Water in Surrey. I remember long, wide airy rooms overlooking rolling grasslands and a few patients dotted about, very docile and silent. What I don’t think I saw was its astonishingly colourful interior (as shown on last night’s ‘The Art of the Gothic’, BBC 4), or its gargoyles, demons and screaming animals painting into roundels all over the place – possibly not the most apt symbols you want around mentally frail patients.

Because this was built as an insane asylum by the wealthy philanthropist Thomas Holloway, and designed in an elaborate Franco-Gothic style by William Crossland between 1873 and 1885. It is a stunning building, particularly when seen against its sister building, the Royal Holloway College (above), the peaks of of High Victorian gothic. In 1948 it was transferred to the NHS. In 2000, after years of shameful neglect, it became a gated housing development and was renamed Virginia Park, so that’s the end of that.

Thomas Holloway was a Victorian businessman who made a fortune from the sale of his patent pills and ointments, designed to cure all ills. Although Holloway differed from other quack vendors he was one of the earliest entrepreneurs to appreciate the value of advertising: he spent huge amounts of money promoting his cures throughout the world and, as a result, reaped huge rewards. And he became a philanthropist.

The Sanatorium for Curable Cases of Mental Disease was originally intended by the founder as a gift to the nation, perfect and complete as it stood. Holloway resolved not only to make a gift of the building, but to invest an additional £50,000 as an endowment. In the early 1990s, Royal Holloway College looked into the possibility of converting the Sanatorium into a major new hall of residence. The plans would have given the College two of England’s greatest Victorian buildings, but building regulations made this too costly.

In 1994, under the guidance of English Heritage a scheme to salvage the Grade I architectural wonder for the nation was accepted in a restoration and conversion project. Craftspeople returned the buildings to very near to the original. Unfortunately it was then sold off to private ownership, so although English Heritage save the building, they managed to remove it from public view.

This isn’t the only old asylum (although it is the grandest). Bedlam existed at four locations and there were at least half a dozen grand sanataria in North and West London (I vaguely recall ones at Colney Hatch and in Crouch End) that have been converted into apartments and shops in my lifetime. William Crossland’s high gothic designs still survive; Rochdale Town Hall is still in use for its original function, as is the Founder’s Building which is the main building of a major college of the University of London.

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3 comments on “England’s Asylums”

  1. Vivienne says:

    My grandmother lived in North London. I used to listen to her gossiping with friends – nearly everyone seemed to end up in Colney Hatch. I imagined a dire place ( it was only spoken of in whispers) and from whence there seemed to be no return, so, when I first saw it a year or two ago, out on a walk, I was astonished by its beauty. It was being converted then, although I don’t know if it’s gated. Still it would have been a tranquil and uplifting place to ease one’s mind.

  2. John Griffin says:

    Many asylums were just that, places of refuge. I can remember from my days as a social worker some wonderful enormous houses and gardens – all gone now, converted or demolished for luxury dwellings, sold for a peppercorn and big backhanders after the 1983 Mental Health Act (the Thatcher jolly that brought beggars and homeless back to the streets).

  3. Helen Martin says:

    We had a friend whose widowed mother drifted into dementia during Mrs. Thatcher’s time. Dave had to work and was not married but because he was in the house the mother was not eligible for care. It took a long time before the decision changed and then it was in a 14 bed ward. It was all very sad.

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