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Severalls Hospital (2007-08)

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Female ward blocks and Airing Court Shelter

 

I visited Severalls on five occasions between 2007 and 2009, some 10 years after its use as a hospital ceased, but prior to the commencement of demolition and some of the heavier vandalism that occurred in the later stages of dereliction. Although Severalls had been almost completely emptied of furnishings and other contents which gave it a far greater sense of a well organised closure when compared to other derelict asylums I visited, it was an excellent example of a large post- GT Hine echelon design with villas, and the scale of the complex and its largely untouched estate ensured that an excursion to Severalls was always an immersive experience.

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1939 OS Map. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The hospital, whilst not being particularly unique in layout or design, was brought to life through Diana Gittens’ excellent 1998 book ‘Madness in its Place, Narratives of Severalls Hospital 1913-1997, containing numerous anecdotes from former patients and staff, to illustrate a detailed history of the hospital and its relationship with the wider community.

In addition to this unrivalled resource, there is a series of videos on Youtube recorded in the final days of the hospital, narrated by Patricia Amos, a nurse at the hospital. Whilst at the time it may have seemed a relatively insignificant exercise with limited wider interest, the somewhat funereal videos are an important historical record of the hospital as it transitioned out of its former use whilst Care in the Community gathered pace locally.

Severalls Water Tower window

View from the entrance hall of one of the back wards – back wards were those towards the outside of the complex, where long stay, geriatric and chronic cases were placed. Once on the back wards, the likelihood of discharged decreased, whilst conversely, the likelihood for institutionalisation increased.

Future policymakers should be able to refer to how mental healthcare was provided prior to Care in the Community, not only in the sense of the practical delivery and theory behind it, but also the spaces and places in which care and treatment were provided. The scale of the landscape and architecture of mental healthcare contributed to the folklore, mystery and stigma surrounding asylums and mental hospitals, in turn affecting the relationships between the hospitals’ patients and staff and those on the other side of the fence. Community based services are largely hidden and are intended to enable people to continue living in their chosen community, although today’s social care landscape still consists of nursing homes, care homes and other institutional facilities, along with accommodation based services, which there remains a chronic and ongoing shortage of. Niall McCrae and Peter Nolan concluded ‘The Story of Nursing in British Mental Hospitals‘ with the statement: ‘History is not merely an indulgent or eccentric interest, but a deep well of experience, from which lessons should be learned‘.

It is yet to be seen what has been learned from the move from the asylums.

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Murals believed to have been painted by local art students during the hospital’s latter years.

Severalls murals

Further mural in the corridors around the kitchens

My first visit came in 2007 as part of a large Urban Exploring meet-up of around 30 people, dubbed as a ‘Goodbye Severalls’ trip. Ironically, it took a further 9 years before demolition commenced, during which further ‘Goodbye Severalls’ trips were arranged. We spent hours in the site on a baking hot July day, visiting the kitchens, water tower, admin block, ward blocks and workshops. Although I had previously made a night-time visit to Park Prewett Hospital during its demolition in which I climbed the water tower and nearly fell through the rotten floors of one of the ward blocks, I hadn’t yet experienced such a large derelict hospital complex in the day, and found myself mesmerised by the scale of abandonment. Repeat visits followed.  To access the site, we would park on Boxted Road and walk down Severalls Lane past Chestnut Villa (which was still in use), before reaching the disused villas, which we occasionally poked our heads into. On a latter visit we saw that one had been set on fire that very morning, with firefighters still on site. Passing the villas, we would skirt round to the female side and enter around the industrial therapy buildings, where there was a thicket of trees next to the fence where one could discreetly climb.

Severalls burnt airing court shelter

Burnt out airing court shelter

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Corridors within the complex

I never particularly liked loitering in the corridors at Severalls, or any asylum for that matter. As transitional or navigational spaces, it felt as though these would be the routes that security would walk if they would have entered the complex, although there was no great logic to this supposition. Architects’ Town and Whitmore’s echelon plan asylum followed GT Hine’s design, which allowed a doctor to efficiently conduct their rounds, without having to leave the ward and re-enter the corridors to pass to the next. Corridors enabled the movement of patients and equipment through the complex. When built, the corridors lacked windows, and they were only added after 1950. Staff had reported being chased down the corridors by bats.

Severalls closed ward

As closure approached, the hospital changed shape. Wards closed with no plans to ever re-open, and the closure was denoted using marker pen on the walls rather than more conventional signage.

 

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The original stairways at Severalls were made of concrete with half tiled glazed walls, some of which have been incorporated into the luxury flats built in the former echelon building

Staircases were made of concrete in order to be fireproof. In 1903, 53 female patients in temporary buildings at Colney Hatch Asylum died in a fire caused by a dropped cigarette. There were numerous fires in abandoned asylums, caused either by arsonists, or in association with nefarious attempts to block listing applications which would result in preservation. Despite this and fires at Severalls itself, parts of the complex did eventually become Grade II listed, including the administration building.

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Fire damage within a day room creates a cavity between two steel beams.

Severalls burnt ward

Further fire damage in a ward block showing severe damage to the fabric of the building.

Severalls grafitti

Grafitti illustrates a row of isolation rooms.

Severalls door flap

A viewing flap into a single room in one of the back wards. This was an early closure so original panelled doors were present, complete with flaps that would enable nurses to observe patients without entering the room.

Severalls had taken the usual path of a closed but not yet demolished asylum – security was initially good whilst deterioration set in. The semi-rural location made it less of a target than asylums in more heavily populated areas, however once the Urban Exploring movement became more popular with photographs and accounts of visits surfacing online, Several became a target for both explorers and vandals. The main hall, superintendent’s house and adjacent ward block all suffered fire damage around 2003-04, and security was arginally improved. Despite this, access was generally quite straightforward – once past the fence, there were plenty of open doors and broken windows from which access could be gained, and with such a large perimeter, there was plenty of time to navigate the fence before the guard’s round had brought him back over. At one point there was a tree which could be climbed over. We never once saw guards inside the site.

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Main kitchens. These were emptied of equipment but the scale of the kitchen is representative of the number of people to be fed each day.

The Kitchens at Severalls were typical of an Edwardian Asylum. Large, capable of feeding 2,000 patients with three meals a day, and of a sufficient size to meet the requirements of the hospital. In 1868, ‘The Builder’ magazine articulated the need for appropriate sizing of facilities in the administrative or central block stating: ‘this being the great centre-  the store house – the manufactory of everything consumed by so great a number of people, it is of the highest importance to its economical working that every apartment within it shall be neither so unnecessarily large so as to cause waste in building and require extra labour and attendance, nor so small as to impede the due and proper execution of each attendant’s work. 

Severalls Vending machine

Vending machine outside the Hospital shop. Patients would have accessed their money via the hospital bank. At Whittingham in Lancashire, the Hospital shop took £42,000 one year, despite £90,000+ being withdrawn on behalf of patients, with no other realistic outlets. Some hospitals such as Whitecroft (Isle of Wight) and St Ebbas (Epsom) operated a system whereby items could be purchased using metal tokens. in the 1990s, discharged long-stay patients found to their dismay that these were not legal tender in local shops – an effect of institutionalisation.

 

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The buildings on the right include the nurses home. The open space was the drying ground for the laundry, which can be seen on the far left.  Nurses lived on site, as they had come from far and wide to work at Severalls. Being on site meant they could be called upon in emergencies, and it also contributed to a culture of belonging and ownership. The asylum was built to be wholly self-sufficient, although patients ceased to work on the farms when policy deemed it was unpaid labour and servitude. Produce was then purchased from elsewhere.

 

Severalls Echelon

The echelon layout is clearly visible from the water tower – the wards step back from each other to allow each to have a south facing prospect, whilst each still being accessible from the centre of the complex.

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The entrance to the yard by the stores and workshops looked as though it could still be in use.

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This ward block was on the periphery of the complex. It had likely fallen into disuse long before the hospital closed. The patient population had been on the decline since 1954, and outer ward blocks were closed as the population decreased. Anti-psychotic drugs enabled hospital stays to be shorter and targeted at managing acute symptoms, and the 1959 Mental Health Act enabled voluntary admissions, meaning that patients could discharge themselves if they wished.

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Severalls industrial therapy

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The mortuary refrigerators could accommodate 9 bodies. Many patients in mental hospitals were elderly or psychogeriatric – they lived, they became ill, they went into Severalls, they died.

In 2016, the hospital’s demolition commenced. Parts were retained for housing, although the majority of the site was demolished. The hospital estate had already lost land to Colchester United’s new stadium, and other parts had been sold for other purposes, including a main road passing through the site, and an industrial estate. The landscape of Severalls had continued to change both during the life of the hospital and through its afterlife.

Written by Winch

February 8th, 2021 at 5:44 pm

Posted in Asylums,Dereliction

One Response to 'Severalls Hospital (2007-08)'

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  1. Fascinating retrospective! Some lesser known historical nuggets to think about, especially the patient currency. Very sad about the Colney fire. Only got to visit Sevs once when it was well and truly being digested by the JCBs, the wild state we’d come to experience domesticated by new builds, cleared trees and lots of high-viz minions. Disapointing, though there were fleeting moments of exploring and former context to enjoy still in the villas. Glad they have kept renovated the iconic water tower (I think its the most characterful and unique-looking of them all IMO). Some surprising retainment of original features in the converted ward blocks too. Among the contemporary decor the interior design actually giving some roundabout clues as to the building’s former use among, which seems to be unusual. I wish I could find out more about Squirrels Boutique as the shops were always unique to each asylum.

    Francesco

    15 Oct 21 at 8:57 am

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