Asylum's demolition marks end of era in mental health

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Media captionHistorian Jeremy Harte describes the rise and fall of West Park Hospital

The last remaining part of what was the largest complex of psychiatric hospitals in Britain is being demolished.

West Park Hospital in Epsom in Surrey is being cleared to make room for new housing.

The hospital once played home to nearly 2,000 patients and was the last of five psychiatric hospitals built at the site to house London's mentally ill.

The central tower and some buildings will be retained as part of the redevelopment.

Disciplined regime

West Park was completed during World War I and formed the final part of the "Epsom Cluster" of hospitals. The design consisted of an ornate central water tower, from which wooden corridors radiated out to groups of wards.

Like the adjacent hospitals, West Park was built for patients with mental health problems from the urban metropolis of London and was intended both as a place of tranquility and confinement.

"The hope was that people leaving the stressful narrow courts of London would be out there in the country air and would gradually recover some of their equilibrium," says Jeremy Harte, curator of the local Bourne Hall museum.

Image caption An original padded cell at West Park Hospital captured prior to demolition

Inside the hospitals, a highly disciplined environment was created both for patients and staff.

In the early decades before the development of anti-psychotic drugs, brute strength was used to control some patients, and until its demolition, West Park featured an original padded cell.

Electro-convulsive therapy would have also been deployed as the controversial treatment fell in and then out of favour.

But the hospital was later a place of innovation, says Mr Harte, where "industrial therapy" (light metal work) and music therapy were used, as clinicians developed a better understanding of mental health and the needs of individual patients.

The site also featured an elaborate recreation hall, which doubled up as ballroom and sports centre and which was used by the local community beyond the hospital for dances.

Image caption West Park Hospital from the air in its heyday

The historian and broadcaster Nick Barratt, who lives close to the hospital, believes the site was unique.

"The Epsom Cluster is one of the last remnants of a bygone ere when health care and particularly mental health care was paramount in peoples' minds.

"Mental hospitals were built with the wellbeing of the patients in mind. They weren't just there to be treated, but to be protected from the world, and so a lot of thought and care was put into these institutions."

But the Epsom Cluster is not without its controversies. A 2008 BBC investigation found evidence that at least 43 female typhoid carriers were locked up for life at the former Long Grove psychiatric hospital, after they were deemed a public health risk.

That site has also been redeveloped for housing.

Long decline

West Park's decline has been a long one, and began says Mr Harte in the 1960s when the then health minister Enoch Powell ordered the winding-down of institutionalised care.

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Media captionFormer worker Bill Rashleigh recalls his time at the hospital

"They didn't take anyone new in. That meant with some exceptions, particularly in the case of autism which continued to be regarded as appropriate for an institutional treatment, the hospitals were run down.

"The people were getting older and older, the community was moving from a mentally-ill community to essentially a geriatric one."

The Care in the Community programme of the 1980s signalled the end, although smaller psychiatric units have remained on the site to the present day.

Bill Rashleigh, who worked as an occupational therapist at West Park 20 years ago, remembers a foreboding building in which a vulnerable ageing community were provided with essential care.

"If you could picture the archetypal lunatic asylum - for want of a better word - austere brick buildings, a huge tower, long dark corridors, people lurking in the shadows. You could not invent a more atmospheric hospital," he recalls.

"But I'm curious to know what happened to all the people that were here - did Care in the Community actually work for all those people because from my experience, people should definitely not have been left to look after themselves."

In recent times, West Park has been the target of arsonists, who set fire to the recreation hall and other buildings.

The ruins have also been a destination for "urban explorers" who have been an annoyance to the authorities and the developers but who have provided a photographic record of the site during its final decline.

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