The bleak beauty of Victorian asylums that masked hidden horrors

Historian and author Mark Davis at the cemetery at High Royds

A mortuary at High Royds

Asylum by Mark Davis. High Royds gated corridor

The ballroom at High Royds

High Royds hospital in Menston

The clock mechanism at High Royds

A double aspect corridor at High Royds

First published in News by

VICTORIAN asylums have long been places of mystery, inspiring folk tales and horror stories.

Anyone growing up near the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Menston - which later became High Royds Psychiatric Hospital - will be familiar with playground taunts and whispers of "all sorts going on" behind the thick stone walls of the cluster of gothic-looking buildings.

Today, the High Royds site is a smart residential complex, blending original buildings with new-builds, but many of Britain's old Victorian asylums stand in disrepair, with wind howling through open roofs and plaster peeling from walls of long corridors, empty dormitories and vast 'recreational halls'.

Bradford photographer and social historian Mark Davis presents striking images of these places in his new book, Asylum, which includes a chapter on High Royds. His photographs capture the bleak beauty of decaying Victorian architecture and the grim interiors of institutions that housed unimaginable suffering.

In the 19th century entering an asylum was the start of a potential life sentence. "At least with prison you had a release date. At the asylum there was only a 30-50 per cent discharge rate," writes Mr Davis.

County asylums were built at a rapid rate to cater for the "increasing human wreckage associated with the newly industrialised society". Patients came mainly from the pauper class, and most were either direct transfers from the workhouse or magistrates' courts on recommendation of a doctor.

In researching the 19th century patient, Mr Davis discovered that "the noted probable cause of insanity and how that cause manifests itself can appear worlds apart".

One patient, a 28-year-old woman, had the cause of her insanity labelled "conflict with husband". The "conflict" was that he had infected her with syphilis. This affected a significant proportion of patients, with other conditions including depression.

"Treatment for the Victorian patient ranged from opium, the main sedative in the mid-19th century, to laudanum, bromide and chloral hydrate. Physical treatment included Turkish or hot baths, wet sheet packs and electric stimulation," he writes.

"Staff were invariably employed from the local population. Experience in those early days wasn't required; quite simply if you were physically fit and either a good sportsman or able to play a musical instrument you were very likely to be offered a position."

Today's stigma of mental health is a mere shadow of Victorian intolerance, when families would disown a relative for being labelled insane. Rather than demonising asylums, Mr Davis tackles age-old preconceptions.

"Certainly it's true that for some people life in the asylum represented a living hell, but for others there came an acceptance and tolerance, and with that a quality of life," he writes. "It is wise to remember that no-one is immune from mental illness."

Through Mr Davis's book, featuring 17 former asylums, he lifts a veil on this hidden world and visits rooms where thousands of people lived under treatment.

The Menston asylum opened in 1888, taking in its first 30 inmates (all female) on October 8. They were all transfers from the overcrowded Wadsley Asylum at Sheffield. The first woman to enter the asylum was Elizabeth Johnson, who spent 16 years there before she died in 1904 and was buried in the asylum cemetery in nearby Buckle Lane.

The first male patients arrived in November. Like the women, many had spent time in other West Riding asylums prior to arriving at Menston and were in the main "wretched and worn out, the majority of them destined to live out their lives in the overcrowded wards".

In those days the hospital was known as the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Menston. By the 1920s it was Menston Mental Hospital, and in 1963 it became High Royds Psychiatric Hospital.

When closure came in 2003 it was one of the last surviving hospitals of its kind to be still functioning.

Mark describes it as "quite possibly the most magnificent example of Vickers Edwards architecture".

"It could certainly stake a claim to be the finest example of the broad arrow corridor system," he adds. A photograph of two bleak, seemingly endless corridors leading off each other illustrates the hospital's unique double aspect design.

At one time the institution included a library, surgery, dispensary, butcher's, baker's, dairy, even a ballroom. It also had its own railway, and by the 1930s there was a sweetshop, cobbler's, upholsterer and tailor's, completing what was, in effect, a "self-contained village for the apparent insane".

The beauty and grandeur of the original building is revealed in images of the central corridor, decorated with burmantoft tiles and an intricate mosaic featuring the white rose of Yorkshire, and the breath-taking ballroom, used as a "recreational hall". There are chilling images of the gated corridor, the old mortuary and the Barden Bolton wards, resembling prison cells, of the male epileptic block.

The building has been used as a location for TV dramas, including Bodies, No Angels and 2005 film Asylum starring Ian McEllen and the late Natasha Richardson. David Dimbleby featured it in his BBC documentary series How We Built Britain.

New life breathes through the old High Royds site with the stylish residential accommodation standing as a monument to Vickers Edwards' design. A very different fate awaited many other former asylums across the country that have either been destroyed or stand empty and neglected.

* Asylum by Mark Davis is published by Amberley Publishing, £15.99.

Comments (2)

Please log in to enable comment sorting

12:52pm Fri 29 Aug 14

Robin of Loxley says...

Rather apt article since Bradford is one gigantic asylum.
Rather apt article since Bradford is one gigantic asylum. Robin of Loxley
  • Score: 5

1:02pm Fri 29 Aug 14

Not so simple says...

"will be familiar with playground taunts and whispers of "all sorts going on" behind the thick stone walls of the cluster of gothic-looking buildings....

I stumbled across youtube and it looks authentic so check it out

https://m.youtube.co
m/watch?v=do_swOstGa
I

Freaky ****
"will be familiar with playground taunts and whispers of "all sorts going on" behind the thick stone walls of the cluster of gothic-looking buildings.... I stumbled across youtube and it looks authentic so check it out https://m.youtube.co m/watch?v=do_swOstGa I Freaky **** Not so simple
  • Score: 2

Comments are closed on this article.

Send us your news, pictures and videos

Most read stories

Local Info

Enter your postcode, town or place name

About cookies

We want you to enjoy your visit to our website. That's why we use cookies to enhance your experience. By staying on our website you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more about the cookies we use.

I agree