In last month’s blog we went to Margate and that’s where we start again this month. Margate’s seaside heritage is exemplified by the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital built practically on the seafront in the 1790s, back in the days when sea air and sea bathing were considered to cure all manner of diseases. This hospital was to specialise in treating tuberculosis and reached out to the poor. Later architecturally adapted, its yellow brickwork and classical columns glow in the sun and it really is quite stunning – and unexpected – situated on the road approaching the town.
Much later it became an orthopaedic hospital and was subsumed into the National Health Service (NHS). The hospital was first listed in 1973. However, it fell into a very sorry state as this slide show demonstrates and the decision was made to convert it from hospital to residential apartments
In February this year, a two-bedroomed flat in the Sea Bathing Hospital was offered for sale at £199,995. Click here to see a newly created luxury flat. At least the building has been brought back to productive use, but why do such buildings always seem to have their future as luxury and expensive private flats?
Shifting back to London where house prices are, of course, astonishingly expensive, we turn our thoughts to buildings designed and built for people with mental health issues. This next hospital is, so to speak, closer to home for me: according to the1891 census, a relation of mine languished here as a patient of the then Hoxton Lunatic Asylum, which had been on the site since 1695. The remaining part of this once extensive complex is a building is now known as 34 Hoxton Street.
Apparently, as a descendant of such a patient it is possible to ask for the records of what happened to them there. I guess this could well be traumatic so I will pursue it another time. It may simply have been that she was a pauper and had nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, I went to take a look as, by chance, it is just around the corner from the Geffrye Museum of the Home where I was presenting a paper. I found the place immediately having recognised the very attractive brick building and its grand entrance doorway from photos here. I wonder if some of the current residents in this hospital to home know what once happened there. Maye it isn’t of interest to some of them.
Another stunning building, once a hospital now a home, is at Leavesden and I include this as I once lived nearby. It was then still very much in use and was certainly an important part of the area. It had the dreadful title of Leavesden Imbeciles Asylum (although perhaps this is preferable to Lunatic Asylum?) and was erected by the Metropolitan Asylums Board set up in 1867 to care for metropolitan London’s sick poor. There is much interest in its history and many with stories to tell, click here, here and here. The idea of relocating people with mental health problems to ‘treat’ and ‘contain’ them was then favoured. This policy continued; for example, later, Shenley Hospital, also in Hertfordshire, was constructed for Middlesex County Council as its Mental Asylum, opening in 1934. Leavesden Hospital closed in the late 1990s, another unfolding part of the of Care in the Community drive. Needless to say, it is now converted into private apartments behind its grand Victorian facade.
Some may suggest that these old Victorian ‘prisons’, containing those with mental health problems and all they stood for, should be demolished once and for all, but I can’t agree. I like to see buildings that can be converted into something new and help maintain some of the character and sense of history of an area. But maybe I am wrong.
Whilst Shenley was built out in the country, the modernists in urban London were looking to design local health and health care settings with a new and progressive vision. Both Bermondsey and Peckham (and Finsbury which we will consider another time, along with the architect Lubetkin) have now, of course, become des-res, but back in the 1930s, and pre NHS, they were poor areas. Without major state intervention, it was down to pioneering individuals who set about radically enhancing local public health and wider health services.
Dr Alfred Salter was Labour MP for Bermondsey and Ada Salter was London’s first woman mayor. They encouraged Bermondsey Borough Council’s Public Health Department, which really was ahead of its time, covering not just health care but what we now call the ‘social determinants of health’. This series of films from the Wellcome Library show the 1930s environmental backdrop to the amazing things that were realised by such a vision. Part of what was achieved was the Grange Road Heath Centre in 1936, designed to then state of the art standards with space, hygiene, cleanliness and visitor flow in mind to treat conditions such as tuberculosis and malnutrition. Part of this building is now converted into flats known as Solarium Court.
Not far away, The Peckham Experiment was already in progress and Doctors George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearce were exploring health, illness and happiness. They raised funds to construct the stunning (yes, I know I’ve used that word a lot here, but it is!) Pioneer Health Centre in 1935 – again for light, openness, space, fresh air and hygiene, as well as an overall healthy feel. It even boasted an indoor swimming pool. It’s impossible not to feel uplifted here. The building formed part of the experiment in that it was a modernist designed, progressive setting that promoted health and wellbeing. This One Show clip shows the early vision of the Peckham Experiment and it also refers to the Bromley-by-Bow Centre (also worth a visit), which is thankfully still a health venue. Guess what the Pioneer Health Centre is now? Luxury flats, and very expensive.
Those who designed and oversaw these buildings could not possibly have imagined that in the distant future, their purpose would shift from public health settings to private homes. Whilst it is good to see the demise of terms like lunatic or imbecile asylum and what these settings stood for, it’s hard not to feel sad that the amazing modernist architects who designed such beautiful places with a vision to serve the public’s holistic health, are now in the preserve of the private sector.