Thursday, 13 January 2011

Demolishing the Asylum

With the rise of Care in the Community in the 1980s and ’90s, the old Victorian asylums were finally closed.  What is less well known is that this period also saw the closure of children’s psychiatric units – places like Merrifield in Somerset and Gwynfa in North Wales (both were closed in the mid-’90s). 

The reason why the closure of these units is less well known than that of the adult mental hospitals is that very few people were aware these places existed in the first place.  Before Care in the Community reached its height, most people in any given area would know the name of their region’s ‘madhouse’, but hardly anyone would be aware of the equivalent provision for children.

Although my book, Delivered Unto Lions, is set in a fictional children’s unit in Mid Sussex, I make no secret of the fact that it is inspired by the Merrifield Children’s Unit which used to stand in the grounds of the former Tone Vale Hospital in Somerset.  Merrifield is gone now, completely demolished, as is most of the Tone Vale complex – only a few (Grade II Listed) buildings remain. 

Tone Vale is not unique in this respect.  This is what has happened to many of the old asylums in Britain – parts have been demolished (or allowed to fall down) while features considered to be of architectural merit have been preserved.

In some cases, new housing has been built on the sites of old mental hospitals, and some former hospital buildings have been converted into flats.  This is what has been happening with High Royds Asylum in West Yorkshire and the Cumberland and Westmorland Counties Asylum near Carlisle, to name just two.

This is also what has happened with Tone Vale.  A whole new village – called Cotford St Luke – has been built on the site.  But while the few remaining parts of the old hospital have been incorporated into the village, there is nothing left of the children’s unit whatsoever – you would never know it had been there.

On the whole, I think this is very positive.  To my mind it is quite right that a place where children were subjected to unpleasant institutional ‘care’ should have been ‘rescued’ from its dark history and put to new and better use. There is a sense in which Merrifield has been ‘redeemed’. 

Merrifield was an institution where children with a wide variety of mental health disorders (and sometimes with no real disorders at all!), were placed in isolation from normal society.  It was common practice to drug these children excessively, and often inappropriately, with no thought to what these substances might do to the developing brain.  Some children were also occasionally subjected to abuse, and many were treated in a generally punitive way, as though being depressed or anorexic, for instance, was some sort of moral offence.  But the site where these things happened is now a housing estate, providing homes for individuals and families.  It has been saved from its past.

Of course, not all of Merrifield’s former patients can say that they too have been saved from their past.  While some have made substantial recoveries from their original conditions and also overcome the trauma of their time in residential psychiatric care, others have had their lives permanently blighted by the way they were once treated – even if that treatment was well-intentioned.  As a former Merrifield patient myself, I can say that I am very lucky, having been able to live a relatively full and satisfying life since leaving that place – though I am still very much haunted by my memories.

This introduces another aspect to the demolition of Merrifield – and places like Merrifield.  While it is good that the unit is gone, having been replaced by something of greater community benefit, I have one particular concern connected with its destruction.  There is now no concrete reminder at that place of what once happened there.  While there are many adults still troubled by their experiences at Merrifield, there is a sense in which the evidence for these past traumas has been swept under the carpet.  While few people would have known of Merrifield’s existence when it was open, now there is no sign that the place ever existed at all

And so I conclude with a challenging paradox.  It is good to build over a place of past distress with something new and positive.  But it is also bad to bury the past as though it never happened.  In rescuing places and people from troubled histories, we should still remember those histories and learn from them.  How else can we make sure that history is not repeated?


Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5
For more information visit

1 comment:

  1. I agree that, with the demolition programme to make way for the new village, there was no sign that Merrifield Unit ever existed at all ---- until the publication of your book. To my knowledge there was no written record of this Unit for children until 'Delivered Unto Lions' appeared and now there is also mention of it in Joyce Passmore's book 'A Light in my Mind'.

    So its history did not remain buried. There does need to be an awareness of what went on in days gone by so that as a society and as individuals we learn from such traumas and the effects they have had (are still having) on people's lives.