Asylum chapels: an uncanny sense of déjà vu?
13 August, 2021
By Dr Claire Hilton, Historian in Residence at the RCPsych.
Have you ever had that strange sense of déjà vu, that you had been there before? If not, you soon will if you begin to explore former county lunatic asylums and mental hospitals.
The matching chapels photographed here were once part of two almost identical London County Asylums, 25 miles apart. The top one is at Bexley, and the bottom at Horton, Epsom. The bricks may have been different colours when originally constructed, but restoration processes may have further enhanced the differences. On the accompanying maps, outlines of the former institutions appear not quite identical. This is probably due to different dates of constructing the original buildings and adding extensions, relative to the mapmakers’ dates of surveying, plus changes of map scale and of the criteria used to decide which features should be included in a particular map series.
A small number of architects designed many of the country’s county asylums. The cynic in me suspects that this was more cost-effective for the Lunacy Commissioners. It also bears the hallmark of a conservative leadership: if something works, then repeat it, rather than try to achieve better. Thus, George Thomas Hine (1842-1916) designed at least a dozen asylums, most of which were in the “compact arrow” design of Bexley and Horton.
The Bexley and Horton chapels could each seat over 800 people, over one-third of the patients in each asylum. Church attendance was optional, but for many, it was an important part of their lives. Around 1918-19, Mary Riggall was a patient in a mental hospital. After discharge she wrote:
We had a very nice church in the grounds, and services were held both morning and afternoon every Sunday. All the men patients sat on the right, with their attendants, and all the women and girls on the left, with the nurses….
It was really wonderful how orderly the services were. There was a large organ, and the singing went well.
I remember I used to compare our company of men and women to St. Peter when he was in prison, because we always lived behind locked doors in the hospital, and behind locked gates in the grounds.
I said, one day, to a companion, "Prayer was made for St. Peter when he was in prison, and God sent an angel and delivered him—therefore it seems to me that we had better pray that we may recover and be allowed to go home."
(Mary Riggall, Reminiscences of a Stay in a Mental Hospital, 1929)
The asylum authorities also recognised the need to attend to religious and cultural diversity. The Lunatic Asylums Act 1853 (cited in DP Fry, The Lunacy Acts, 1864. p.394) stated:
if any patient be of a religious persuasion differing from that of the established church, a minister of such persuasion, at the special request of such patient or his friends, shall, with the consent of the medical officer…be allowed to visit.
After-thoughts: past and present
Too often, the asylum pictures you will find on the internet show derelict buildings reflecting neglect and decay, symbolic of our stereotype of the standards of care provided for patients who were once in them. I much prefer the photos of restored buildings which convey some idea of the objectives of providing dignified and therapeutic care, even if not consistently achieved.