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 German air raid blows up part of Severalls, killing 38 patients. Most were women.
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.
The final stage of demolition commenced at Severalls to make way for thousands of new homes