How different this scene was from 1895 when construction first began on Graylingwell Hospital. The often tortuous story of this formidable establishment began in 1889, when West Sussex County Council was established. It was decided that a new asylum was required for the county and the “Committee of Visitors for providing a separate Asylum” – chaired by the Duke of Richmond and Gordon of Goodwood House, with Lord Leconfield of Petworth House – was set up to explore possible locations for the new hospital. Graylingwell Farm was mentioned and after a site visit in September 1892, 239 acres of the farm were purchased.
Hope was the prevailing emotion when the plans for Graylingwell were drawn up: this hospital was going to revolutionise treatment for Sussex’s mentally ill. As far back as 1859 when the nearby Sussex County Asylum in Haywards Heath had first been established, there had been failed attempts to accommodate West Sussex residents who were suffering with mental illnesses. Graylingwell heralded a new dawn, and the beautiful farmland that had been chosen for the hospital, with its lined driveway of sweet smelling lime trees and gardens blooming with orchids and exotic trees, seemed to reflect the current optimism of the mental health authorities.
Renowned architect Sir Arthur Blomfield, (whose work included many churches and buildings such as the Chapel at Eton College, and the Royal College of Music in London), was hired to design the site, and everything that was built was to adhere to the concept of “containment”. Graylingwell was not only to be entirely self-sufficient, but its size and grandeur would symbolise the state’s power to confine those that were thought to be mentally ill. Everything patients required would be found there: a chapel, extensive gardens with a farm which grew vegetables and kept chickens and cows, a bakery, a fully-fitted theatre, a workshop block, an industrial therapy unit and even a bank. There would, in short, be little reason for anyone to leave the grounds. It was an island, intended to be a peaceful refuge from the cruelties of an outside world, which its patients did not seem able to cope with. The tragedy, however, was that some of those patients would spend the rest of their lives enclosed by those huge, impregnable brick walls.
At the time of Graylingwell’s inception, the field of mental health was shrouded in a lack of understanding and fear; people who were experiencing what we now call “mental health issues” or “learning disabilities” were outcasts from society. In these politically correct times – even accounting for the stigma which still surrounds mental illness – it is difficult for us to comprehend the shame and lack of compassion associated with the mentally ill. Families would hide sons and daughters away and were quick to commit them to the local asylum, and prior to the establishment of the great Victorian hospitals, patients were incarcerated in workhouses on the certification of a doctor. In 1890 The Lunacy Act was passed which stated that people should be moved from these workhouses to asylums as quickly as possible. The use of the word “lunacy” in this legislation sums up and it was accepted medical language which also included the words “idiocy” and “imbecile”. It was not until the Mental Health Act of 1930 that the word “asylum” – with all its connotations of imprisonment and deprivation – was replaced by the term “mental hospital”, words which one would not consider using in the twenty-first century. Yet despite the use of a language which is deemed unacceptable to us today, and treatments which we would consider barbaric, it can be argued that the medical practitioners of the time were doing all they could to alleviate the suffering of those who were afflicted with medical conditions that were little understood during the 19th and early 20th century.
In their fascinating exploration of Graylingwell’s history, Beneath the Water Tower, research volunteers from the Graylingwell Heritage Project have uncovered some of the case histories of the hospital’s patients. A look at these reveals the common medical conditions which would lead to a person being admitted – illnesses which we now treat with drugs and psychotherapy. The first patient was Grace Chick, who was admitted in 1897. Chick’s mental state began to worsen after giving birth to her eighth child, and reading her story now, there’s the suggestion that she was suffering from post-natal depression. William Willocks, who was admitted in 1911, had what was called “General Paralysis of the Insane” (the tertiary stage of Syphilis); Florence Denman, admitted in 1907, was holding down a good job and had been promoted a number of times before attempting suicide. Was it work-related stress that drove her over the edge? Perhaps saddest of all are the case histories of the children patients, who shared wards with adults and often had little more than epilepsy and congenital deficiencies. Entire lives were wasted because of these misunderstood, common conditions.
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