Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Asylum: Inside the Pauper Lunatic Asylums, by Mark Davis

The old lunatic asylums conjure up images, often unfair, of physical restraint in straightjackets, colds baths, the liquid cosh, abuse and neglect by staff.  They were seen as soulless institutions where psychologically damaged people who were an affront to family and community could be ‘put away’ out of sight.  During their lifetimes they generated concern that they could be utilised by the unscrupulous to have someone inconvenient to them incarcerated: Laura Fairlie’s sojourn in an asylum in The Woman in White spoke to fears about being mistaken for mad, and unable to convince anybody of the truth.  As David Rosenhan later showed in his classic paper ‘On being sane in insane places’, not even experts can always determine the boundary between normality and pathology.

The asylum’s growth in the nineteenth century may have been intended as a way to improve conditions, but humanitarian impulses were in tension with control, and therapy and punishment were sometimes indistinguishable.  An asylum that should have been a place of safety was sometimes anything but a refuge.  As their original names indicate, lunacy and pauperism were strongly linked.  These were not for the better-off who could pay for more refined treatment, or run by enlightened Quakers, like the York Retreat; this was welfare on the rates, at a time when poverty, the inability to care for oneself and one’s family, possessed a moral dimension.

Mark Davis’s beautifully produced photographic portrait of seventeen of these structures traces their development from Staffordshire County Asylum, opened in 1818, to Barrow Gurney Mental Hospital, opened in the late 1930s.  That they tried to adjust to the times can be seen in the name changes he lists, with ‘pauper’, ‘lunatic’ and ‘asylum’ all being dropped in favour of ‘hospital’, a makeover that was unable to remove the stigma of mental as opposed to physical illness.  By the time he came to photograph them most were in varying states of decrepitude, empty and unloved.  In some cases it looks as if residents and staff had just got up and walked out, leaving paraphernalia such as ward furniture, wheelchairs and even clothes.  In one photograph there are beds with slippers still neatly arranged underneath, as if, despite the peeling walls, the occupants will be back shortly.  The feeling of life just round the corner mixed with decay creates an uncanny atmosphere.

As the peeling attests, history was not on their side and the speed with which the mental hospitals, with their huge numbers of beds, closed is astonishing.  They were supposed to be superseded by care in the community, a good idea for those languishing unstimulated if done with sincerity, but not if, like the Thatcherite efforts to close the institutions, it was a cynical means of reducing expenditure and rolling back the function of the state in providing for its vulnerable citizens.

Their ultimate fate has been varied.  Many of those featured have been redeveloped or bulldozed between being photographed and the production of the book.  Some have been restored and turned into luxury apartments, some have had housing built on the spacious grounds, yet others stand derelict, even if possessing listed status, prey to vandalism while local communities and authorities wrangle about their future.

It is a pity that Davis was not able to document them at their best, before weather, nature and general neglect took such a strong hold, and then track their deterioration.  His photographs showing the faded grandeur of many of the buildings possess their own beauty, but to supplement them older photographs and drawings of them in their heyday would have charted the decline more graphically.  Presumably the book contains only a slice of Davis’s archive, and it will make an invaluable archive for future historians of these forbidding places.

Cane Hill: Copyright Mark Davis

That they can still evoke strong emotions I discovered when turning to the section on the Surrey County Pauper Lunatic Asylum, better known now as Cane Hill Hospital.  When I was 10 or 11 I visited Cane Hill to see a relative who was resident there for a period.  I remember my fear of the ugly and intimidating environment, my lack of understanding of what being sent there might signify, and the embarrassment of all concerned.  Davis says that it closed in 1991 and was largely demolished in 2008-10.  That’s one of which I can definitely say I’m not sorry it’s gone.

Asylum, Amberley Publishing, July 2014, ISBN 9781445636146

Mark Davis’s website has further information: