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 mental illness but instead because Severalls was used in its last years as a temporary ward for patients (due to building work at nearby Colchester General Hospital). She had suffered a stroke 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.
After coming across these excellently detailed photos of Severalls my interest was renewed and I began to investigate more of what happened there. I did request a site visit of Severalls in 2009 but was refused.
Severalls Asylum: The Site
Severalls Hospital (then called ‘Severalls Mental Hospital’ or ‘Severalls Lunatic Asylum’) was built on a 1300-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 mental illnesses such a depression, psychosis 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 1940s to an unknown man, out of wedlock and under 18. Her family was 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.
Horrific Psychiatric Experiments
At its 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 1930s to the 1960s, 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 regular 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 ’40s).
Imagine this if you will: You are a mentally unwell person or perhaps perfectly healthy woman sent to the asylum for having a child out of wedlock. 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 himself.
If your nerves can handle it, there’s a video which shows someone receiving ECT and then a frontal lobotomy. It shows just how scary the entire process was but be warned – it’s quite graphic.
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 1970s 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 50s apparently some very dubious practices occurred but that changed under Russell Barton. Unfortunately he had moved to the US just before I arrived in Severalls so I never met him but I had some dealings with Richard Fox. In the early 1970s treatment at Severalls was at least as good and in some cases a lot better than other hospitals of the same size and type. That doesn’t mean it was perfect but the nursing staff I worked with were very humane with the patients and definitely tried to make 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 hometown 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 patient’s 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 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 too risky to allow a couple to 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 from 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 central heating until 1973).
My Grandmother also told a story about staff having cockroach races when on the night-shift to kill time. Apparently, the place was riddled with them in the 50s and 60s.
Things did improve within time
Near the beginning of the ’60s 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 Towards Mental Health
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 some of that might be a list for a sex dungeon but the equipment had many 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.