Brislington House, Bristol
Architecture Listed places

England’s Lost Asylums

Former institutions protected by listing for their architecture or significant contributions to medical science.

For centuries, mental illness was regarded as a spiritual affliction rather than a medical one. Thankfully social attitudes have changed, and the concept of an asylum now is outdated.

However, the treatment of people with mental illness can be traced through the institutions that cared for them, some of which provide us with a fascinating insight into medical history.

Many former institutions have been repurposed numerous times since their inception in the early 19th century. Those with special architectural interest, or that made a significant contribution to medical science, are protected by listing.

Warneford Hospital (formerly Oxford Lunatic Asylum), Oxford, Grade II listed

Black and white image of the entrance to Warneford Hospital, Oxford
Looking toward the front entrance of the hospital of Warneford Hospital, Oxford, 1909. Source: Historic England Archive. View image CC51/00720.

Private asylums built before 1845 are often given careful consideration for listing due to their rarity.

One such example, Warneford Hospital, built around 1821 was intended for ‘non-pauper’ patients who were split into three classes and would pay for treatment according to their financial circumstances.

Early 19th-century asylums were often constructed in a rural setting, as exposure to the outdoors was considered to be of great comfort to patients. The construction of Wareham Hospital is said to have aimed to recreate the atmosphere of a gentleman’s country house.

The site is still used as a hospital, albeit with extensive expansion.

Brislington House, Bristol, Grade II listed

Black and white image of exterior north west elevation of Brislington House, Bristol (former insane asylum)
Brislington House, as viewed from the north west. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive. View image BB93/22142.

Brislington House (around 1804) was the first private asylum, with deliberately laid out grounds. The list entry for this property states that it was constructed by Dr. EL Fox ‘to pioneer the humane treatment of the insane’.

The therapeutic regimes, including the use of plunge baths, informed developing practices in other institutions. The hospital was not absorbed into the National Health Service formation of 1948, instead serving as a nurse’s home and then a care home until it was converted into luxury flats.

Royal Earlswood Hospital (formerly Royal Earlswood Asylum), Redhill, Grade II listed

Black and white image of Royal Earlswood Hospital, a former asylum in Redhill, Surrey.
Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhill, Surrey. Grade II listed. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive.

Prior to the construction of the Royal Earlswood Hospital, people with learning disabilities were housed in asylums for the mentally ill.

Rev Dr Andrew Reed proposed that patients could be trained to lead relatively normal lives in the outside world, and thus the hospital was constructed as the first in the British Isles to cater specifically for these patients. Patients were taught manual trades such as carpentry and painting, as well as how to care for themselves.

The hospital closed in 1997 following the Government reform to place people with learning disabilities into the care of the community and was converted into apartments.

Knowle Hospital (Formerly Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum), Hampshire, Grade II listed

Black and white image of the front exterior of Knowle Hospital in Hampshire
Knowle Hospital, Hampshire in 1994. Grade II listed. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive. View image BB94/05257.

In the mid-19th century, the County Asylums Act and Lunacy Act (1845) required that every United Kingdom County should build an asylum.

Due to the increase in number of these structures (by 1888, 85 had been built), protection by listing is dependent largely on architectural interest. The Hampshire provision, Knowle Hospital, featured unique architecture including a large chapel constructed out of the local (Fareham red) bricks.

The hospital closed in 1996 and since 2000 has been redeveloped as apartments, an expansion of the village of Knowle.

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Further reading

3 comments on “England’s Lost Asylums

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    I agree that early 19th century asylums were often built in a rural and fairly isolated setting, but only partially because patients could benefit from the fresh air, exercise and sunshine that might help to mend the patients.

    This morning I was talking to the students about J Ward in Ararat (central Victoria). Admittedly the original building commenced in 1859 as a goldfields prison and not as a mental asylum. In October 1861 the solid, bluestone gaol was opened and 21 prisoners were incarcerated.

    But once the gaol was no longer required for criminals in 1886, the building was turned into J Ward for the criminally insane, part of the Ararat Lunatic Asylum. Sunshine and fresh air yes, but isolation from the rest of the non-insane population must have also been extremely appealing.

  2. merchocaerdydd

    Back in the 1980s, rumour was that there was a tunnel between the derelict Holloway Sanatorium and Royal Holloway College in Surrey. Students trying to access it were threatened with expulsion. The Sanatorium is a private residence now. I often wonder if the tunnel really existed and if students are still trying to find it!

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