It has commenced: Severalls Hospital is now being demolished for good. The end of an era of this historic place.
There are some great photographs in this set. It’s sad to see for someone whose family has a great deal of history his. My grandmother worked at Severalls as a nurse, my great grandmother died there and my parents married there.
A PHOTOGRAPHER took to the skies to capture these images of Severalls Hospital being knocked down for housing.
On 11th August 1942, the Luftwaffe dropped three 500lb bombs on Colchester. One of those bombs hit the West wing of Severalls and damaged a number of buildings including a ward, nurses accommodation and the laundry. 21 year old nurse Muriel May Jackson, armed with just a small torch, removed debris midst the chaos and immediately began to tend to the injured. She would later guide doctors safely through the debris so that they could attend to the wounded.
Nurse Muriel May Jackson was commended for her brave conduct in the early hours of that fateful morning.
On 11th August 1942 a German air raid (which Berlin would later confirm to have targeted at Colchester and Hastings) destroyed part of the West side of Severalls Hospital. 38 patients were killed, mainly women. There were a total of 63 casualties, two of which were nurses.
28 of those killed by the four 500lb bombs dropped by the the Luftwaffe were buried at Colchester Cemetery. They were either patients classed as “infirm or senile” or local people.
In January 2016 I visited the graves of those killed in the air raid of August 1942 in an attempt to document the names of as many as I could. The dead are buried at Colchester Cemetery on Mersea Road. Most of the gravestones are now in very poor condition and therefore very difficult to read. However, I photographed each one in an attempt to document all of the victims for histories sake.
Anyone who may like to visit the graves of those who died during the air raid on Severalls Hospital can find the exact location of the gravestones here. It’s a shame to see the gravestones in such a poor state of repair.
I have put together this Severalls Hospital Timeline to give an idea of important dates in the hospital’s history and also how changes in law and society influenced what occurred at the hospital. Much of the information come from my own research and, more recently, thanks to a document provided to me by Hugh Doherty.
The Severalls Hospital timeline is packed full of information, from it’s initial plan for construction in 1845 until demolition in 2016. This timeline (which is ever expanding) provides a history of key events.
It becomes compulsory for justices of the peace to build county ‘lunatic asylums’ due to the Lunacy Act 1845 championed by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury.
The 1980 Lunacy Act gives asylums a wider role, and patients “with means” begin to be admitted.
300 acres in North Colchester purchased by Essex County Council with plans to build a mental asylum at a cost of £10,000.
Work commences on the building of the first part of Severalls.
Sir Thomas Barrett Lennard lays the foundation stone of the new asylum.
The Mental Deficiency Act is introduced. Essex County Asylum Severalls Hospital opens. It is the second such asylum for the county of Essex.
122 beds are now in position in Main Building and there is now accommodation for 564 men and 672 women. However, concerns are raised about a lack of female staff being available to service the patients.
A problem with rats, reported the year before, has become a menace in some of the wards in the asylum. There are reports of them “causing considerable destruction of women’s clothing”.
The Ministry of Health is created.
Dr Alexander Duncan joins Severalls Hospital. His initial role is unclear but he would later become Physician Superintendent at Severalls.
Severalls Asylum now renamed ‘Severalls Hospital’.
There are now 1922 patients at Severalls. The hospital has become a community in it’s own right.
Insulin coma therapy was first used to attempt to treat patients suffering with schizophrenia.
A BOC report observes that “A rather high proportion of women were in bed… owing either to their mental state or senility. This is due… to the severe shortage ofstaff. Other consequences ofthis shortage are a rather high seclusion rate, and a high consumption of sedatives (paraldehyde) on the female side.”
Windows are fitted to the corridors connecting wards. A total of 234 would eventually be constructed.
Physician Superintendent Dr Alexander Duncan retires from his roll after 34 years at Severalls Asylum.
Dr Russell Barton joins Severalls Hospital in the roll of Physician Superintendent. Years before becoming a psychiatrist Barton gave evidence in reports of the Holocaust and visited Belsen concentration camp on May 2, 1945.
34 year old Rose Vera Baker appears before magistrates charged with strangling another patient, Martha McGee, because was “annoyed with her singing”. She was detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
The final bomb damaged building at Severalls. remaining from WW2, was cleared away.
A £90,000 laundry facility opens at Severalls to provide services for the hospital and nearby local Colchester hospitals. At the time of writing (2016), allowing for inflation, the laundry facility would cost £1.7million in today’s money.
Severalls Hospital opens it’s operating theatre and wards for general patients and routine operations such as appendectomy.
Dr Richard Fox of West Mersea – a consultant psychiatrist at Severalls Hospital, warns the Royal Institute of Public Health that society would have to “prepare people for marriage at an earlier age”.
Severalls Hospital was chosen as the site for the first emergency helicopter (air ambulance) landing pad in Colchester. The role of Severalls has begun to change from asylum to general hospital.
Communal Wards are trialed as an experiment for “…day rooms, dining rooms and social activities…”. Dormitories would remain single sex, as would some areas for patients requiring more serious care.
Dr Richard Fox announces that there are empty beds are Severalls as less need is required for the Asylum, presumably caused by a better understanding of mental health and changes in society’s acceptance of people suffering with mental health issues.
In the same year, Dr Fox announces that a new ward is needed for “chronic drifters”. A chronic drifter was someone who could no longer take asylum from stresses in a lifetime of hospitalisation and drifted from one place to another, or from one living situation to another.
Dr Russell Barton leaves Severalls Hospital after is role Physician Superintendent is would up.
Stories begin to emerge from former staff and history books of Severalls gruesome past. Many people are shocked to discover some of the evil acts which have occurred at Severalls. In June 1972 an exhibition of equipment used at the hospital would be held.
In the same year, stories are also published in newspapers pointing to a “beleaguered health service”. Some things never change!
A former Physician Superintendent, Dr Alexander Duncan passes away. He retired from the role in 1959.
The final steps are taking to provide central heating to every ward of Severalls.
Dr Richard Fox takes over as Chair of the phychiatrist division of Severals and Colchester district.
A female patient is in court charged with deliberately starting a fire in a bedroom in Myland Court East ward at Severalls. The court was held in secret. 31 year old Anne McEwan was given an 8 week custodial sentence for the crime.
Dangerous levels of asbestos are found in areas of the hospital. Hardly surprising as the hospital was originally constructed around a time when asbestos was being used in all manner of materials.
Two nurses announce plans to commence a hospital radio for Severalls.
Severalls closes permanently in March 1997 and demolition of many building commences almost immediately.
In March 2009 I was considering writing a book on Severalls, so I contacted the Government (the land was still State owned at the time) and asked for permission to visit the site to take some photos:
My name is Ritchie Hicks and I am currently writing a book on Severalls mental hospital, Colchester.
I understand that you now own the site of the old hospital and I am
contacting you to see if I could arrange to take some photographs of the old
buildings, with your permission, as this would be valuable for my research.
I understand that the buildings are generally off limits and I do not wish
Could you please let me know if this would be possible?
Sadly, the answer was ‘no’. I’ve therefore hard to rely on Urban Explorers for images.
Homes and Communities Agency <email@example.com> 25 March 2009 at 15:41
To: Ritchie Hicks
Dear Mr Hicks,
Thank you for your recent enquiry to the Homes and Communities Agency received on 27/02/2009, reference number 27281
On advice taken from the Project Manager for the site and our Legal Services, the Homes and Communities Agency’s view is that we do not allow members of the public to enter sites. The sites can and often do contain asbestos and other contaminants and therefore the Health and Safety implications would be too great.
Should you require more information, please contact us:
110 Birchwood Boulevard
110 Buckingham Palace Road
Tel: 0300 1234 500
Fax: 020 7730 9162
Homes and Communities Agency
When I wrote the original Wikipedia article of Severalls Hospital I was left asking lots of questions. I wanted more details on the sorts of experiences people had there and the types of experiments which were performed on people over the many years that it was used as a ‘lunatic’ asylum (I use the word ‘lunatic’ with some trepidation as it seems somewhat offensive to the poor people who were incarcerated there). However, the fact is that people with mental health problems and some disabilities were referred to as lunatics until the middle of the 20th Century.
What happened to the patients who survived? What terror did people face inside Severalls Hospital? And was it really as bad as we are led to believe?
My Great Grandmother was a patient at the hospital once. Not because of a mental illness but instead because Severalls was used in it’s last years as a temporary ward for patients (due to building work at nearby Colchester General Hospital). She had suffered a stoke and was in her dying days. I was about 17 when I went to see her at Severalls (1997) and I can still remember how imposing and dark that place felt, not because I knew it was once a mental hospital, but because it just had a genuinely eerie feeling about it. In 1997 my mother would remarry and hold her wedding reception in Severalls Social Club. This would be one of the very last parties to be held at the venue which would be ravaged by fire around 2007 (an act of vandalism).
I’m not a superstitious person. I don’t believe in ghosts. There was, however, something very strange about that place. Something about the way it made you feel. A feeling as if 1000 people were hiding in the trees watching you; and a feeling I can’t fully explain.
Severalls Hospital (then called ‘Severalls Mental Hospital’ or ‘Severalls Lunatic Asylum) was build on a 1,300 acre site which held numerous buildings. It opened in May 1913 and up to 2,000 patients were accommodated. Patients and staff were originally separated by gender.
The site was constructed using Echelon Asylum Architecture; pavilion blocks with large corridors interconnecting the buildings to prevent staff and patients ever needing to go outside. It was an impressive site as the aerial photograph shows. However, it is now abandoned and awaiting development for private dwellings. The buildings which remain have suffered vandalism and are in a very poor state of repair awaiting demolition.
Although things improved at Severalls from the 1970s, this was not a place that people when to get ‘better’. The site covered a huge area. It had locked cells, full padded cells, half padded cells and various areas for experiments such a frontal lobotomy to be performed.
The patients of Severalls Hospital
Patients of Severalls Asylum were from a varied background and history. Some displayed characteristics of metal illnesses such a depression, pyscosis and mania (still misdiagnosed at the time). In addition there may be people sent to the asylum who suffered from other illnesses such as autism, suicidal feelings and schizophrenia. You might even be condemned to a life in Severalls Hospital for suffering from epilepsy. Women were even sent there if they had been raped and many of the 80,000 shell-shocked soldiers were sent to the asylum after WW1.
Sadly not all people admitted to the asylum had a mental illness and some patients entered the asylum perfectly healthy but were turned mad by the environment. Around the turn of the millennium my mother worked as a carer for people who had been moved from Severalls Hospital onto alternative accommodation. I’ll never forget one story he told me of a lady who, for the benefit of immunity, we’ll call Sarah.
Sarah was a perfectly normal 17-year-old girl who made the mistake of falling pregnant in the 1940’s to an unknown man, out of wedlock and under 18. Her family were so embarrassed that she was placed in the asylum to keep her story away from friends and family. People were told that she had turned mad. In fact, she was perfectly healthy. Her child was removed from her as soon as he was born and given up for adoption. She never saw him again. Sarah (left in this environment and suffering deeply from grief) slowly began to develop mental illness as she fell into a spiral of deep depression; and would spend the rest of her life in mental health institutions.
The horror of the Psychiatric Experiments
In it’s peak there were countless Psychiatric experiments carried out on patients at Severalls Hospital including Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Lobotomies (a surgical procedure involving incisions into the pre-frontal lobe of the brain). These experiments were rife in the 1930’s to the 1960’s, but continued as late as the 1970s in some hospitals (not Severalls) and were sometimes performed on patients whilst fully conscious.
Evidence shows that there were regularly complaints from the hospital management of being unable to recruit enough staff. As a result, patients were often confined to their beds and sedated with Paraldehyde in an attempt to keep them quiet and ease pressure on staff (especially the case in the 40’s).
Imagine this if you will: You are an mentally unwell person or perhaps perfectly healthy. You are in an asylum surrounded by strange people and strange noises. You are often locked in your room for hours on end. One day, someone comes along, straps you to a chair, passes electricity through your skull (sometimes 6 times at 40 seconds per shock) to knock you out and then sticks surgical equipment through your eyelids to remove part of your brain. Sounds like something out of a horror movie; yet it happened to hundreds of people every year in the name of ‘science’. The so called ‘father’ of this technique, Egas Moniz, would be awarded a Nobel Prize in 1949. Ironic, as if he tried this on someone now, he’d probably be locked up.
Of course, most people who were the victim of a lobotomy ended up in a worse mental state after the procedure than before; unable to speak or in some cases dead. Possibly the most famous case of lobotomy was of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, whose father had her labotomised due to ongoing “concerns” surrounding her sexual activity which could jeopardise the career of her brother.
Severalls became a humane place from the 1970’s onwards
I was recently contacted by a former trainee at the hospital:
“I was a student at Severalls between 1971-73 and still correspond with a couple of friends from that time. I am still interested in psychiatry and Severalls in particular. I find that many of the comments about treatment there were correct at the time – in the 50sapparently some very dubious practices occurred but that changed underRussell Barton. Unfortunately he had moved to the US just before Iarrived in Severalls so I never met him but I had some dealings withRichard Fox. In the early 1970s treatment at Severalls was at least asgood and in some cases a lot better than other hospitals of the samesize and type. That doesn’t mean it was perfect but the nursing staff Iworked with were very humane with the patients and definitely tried tomake sure they were well treated – you can quote me on that!”
There is one man who went through the procedure and survived to tell the tale. Howard Dully was a perfectly normal 11 year-old-boy with a bit of a naughty streak. To cut a long story short, Dully’s stepmother convinced his father that Dully needed medical help for his temper and the pair had him admitted to a private hospital in his home town of San Jose, California. At 1.30pm on 16 December 1960, Dully was wheeled into an operating theatre and given a series of electric shocks to sedate him. Dr Walter Jackson Freeman II would go on to perform a lobotomy on Howard Dully and no one person – not even his parents – would know until the procedure was over.
Now of course I’ve quoted two cases here would occurred in the U.S., not at Severalls Hospital. Sadly, there is so little information about what exactly happened at Severalls that it’s hard to find any evidence but we can be fairly sure that treatment was often just as brutal and almost always futile. This much I have been told by people who have contacted me who once worked there.
Many of the people who lived at Severalls did so for 30+ years and had absolutely no contact with the outside world (although it should be said that this was the choice of the patients families not to make contact, not Severalls). No letters, no telephone calls, no cards. The longer they stayed in the institution the more mentally ill they may become. If was a vicious circle in an Edwardian age.
Other dubious practices
My mother told me a story about a lady called Dorothy of was a patient at Severalls Hospital for many years. Dorothy suffered from mental illness and had a habit of biting other patients and staff. This was dealt with by surgically removing all of Dorothy’s teeth.
Two residents of Severalls of where patients fell in love. Doctors at the hospital decided that it was two risky to allow the couple of have a baby as it would probably be born “mad”. The response was for the medical staff to subject the lady to a hysterectomy to prevent her having a child. This wasn’t an uncommon practice at the time. My own aunt, who was blind from the age of three, was told by her family around 1940 that she was only allowed to marry her husband if she agreed to have a hysterectomy as her family decided that it would be unsafe for her to have children.
Another story she told me was of a lady we will call Liz. Liz suffered from tics, the kind we associate now with Tourettes Syndrome. Liz would make a clicking noise with her tongue against the roof of her mouth and this would become more frequent when she was scared or stressed. The health service’s way of dealing with this was to cut off her tongue to stop her making the noise. This sort of ‘treatment’ seems almost impossible now yet was occurring just 70 years ago.
My great grandmother – Marjorie Hicks – was a nurse and occasionally worked at Severalls. She would tell stories of staff washing patients was carried out by lining them up, naked, and hosing them down. I’ve never been able to find out whether this was with warm or cold water but I presume that it was cold given the lack of heating facilities at Severalls (the hospital didn’t have full central hearing until 1973).
My Grandmother would also tells a story about staff having cockroach races when on the night-shift to kill time. Apparently the place was riddle with them in the 50s and 60s.
Madness in its place : narratives of Severalls Hospital, 1913-1997
Sadly there are very few people still alive to tell their story of being a patient in the asylum. I’ve searched the internet high and low and can find little information. There is a book available which documents stories from people who were inpatients at Severalls (Madness in its place : narratives of Severalls Hospital, 1913-1997), but at the current £86 asking price on Amazon I can’t warrant the cost of buying it right now. I would like to get hold of a copy though to read more of what happened and if anyone could loan me a copy I could be extremely grateful.
Things did improve within time
Near the beginning of the 60’s a change in public opinion and treatment methods mean that new types of therapies were introduced, including music therapy. ECT continued and is even used today – but in a much milder form – and evidence shows it’s actually very effective to treat depression.
Occasionally, groups of patients were allowed to live in groups away from the main area of the hospital, such as in Ivy Villa. Eventually, houses were rented away from the hospital after social worker Joyce Beech recommended it may help people integrate back into society if they were given more independence. One particular house was in the nearby fishing town of Brightlingsea and would house 6 women who would pay their own bills, do their own shopping and cook their own food. Two of those women had been at Severalls for over 30 years before moving into their house yet managed perfectly well with only occasional visits from social services. ‘Care in the Community’ had begun.
Changes in attitude
In 1972 an exhibition of equipment used at Severalls Asylum would take place. The exhibition would include equipment used in the early part of the 20th Century including locks, muffs, straps and poisons. Nowadays that might be a list for a sex dungeon but the equipment has much sinister uses at Severalls. Stories began to surface about the true horror of the experiments held at Severalls and the public would be widely disgusted.
Thankfully, mental health is now much more widely accepted and understood, perhaps a price that the early patients of psychiatric patients had to pay for the eventual good of others.