The asylum at Denbigh was the first built in Wales in response to the County Asylums Acts. Until then, Welsh pauper lunatics had not only the afflictions of their particular illness, but also being confined to existing asylums in England, suffering the additional hardship of being far from home, friends and family, but also in most cases, of being completely unable to communicate with those around them due to the language barrier. This pressing issue was address by Dr Samuel Hitch, Superintendent at the Gloucestershire County Asylum (Horton Road Hospital), in a letter to The Times of 1842:
“So few of the lower class of the Welsh [speak English] while the officers and servants of English asylums are ignorant of the Welsh language…that when the poor Welshman is sent to an English asylum, he is submitted to the most refined of modern cruelties… Nothing can exceed his misery; himself unable to communicate, or to receive communications, harassed by wants which he cannot make known and appealed to by sounds which he cannot comprehend, he becomes irritable and irritated…”
This noble entreaty was somewhat dented by Dr Hitch’s additional assertion that “it is proverbial in our English asylums that the Welshman is the most turbulent patient wherever he happens to be an inmate”, but his point was that this, if true, was an entirely understandable situation and state of being. As a result of his letter, an inquiry was called into the conditions for Welsh lunatics in English asylums, and the results confirmed their dire conditions and disproportionately poor recovery rates. Action was taken in Wales just before the report was issued, as a group of land-owners, clergymen and industrialists met in October 1842 to discuss the idea of building an asylum for Wales. It was decided that it should be run on the humane principals demonstrated at the more progressive asylums such as The Retreat, The Lawn and Hanwell, and 20 acres of land were donated (originally anonymously) by Joseph Albert of Llanbedr Hall, where the asylum would indeed be built. Failing to make any headway at the local Quarter Sessions, the group decided to raise the money needed by public subscription, and by March 1843, £4,600 had been raised, including £100 from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and 100 guineas from the Prince of Wales.
Building commenced in September 1844, and by 1847, five other counties in north Wales had joined in with Denbighshire to contribute towards the costs of this large project. The North Wales Asylum at Denbigh was designed by the Gloucester architect Thomas Fulljames with guidance from Dr Hitch. Fulljames had already designed the covered market and Town Cross at Denbigh. Constructed in the finest limestone from nearby Graig Quarry, its façade is among the most impressive and lavish of all British asylums. A “Tudorbethan “ style, dressed with bathstone, covers a wide symmetrical façade projecting at the centre and outer wings. The central main entrance is a large wooden Tudor arched doorway, with conjoined oculi, scroll-work and spiral newels, very much giving the impression of a large, fine country mansion. A Committee room sat above the main doorway, with a small male and separate female chapel in the base of the clock tower. A large central clock-tower with octagonal cupola rises above to watch over the the whole asylum, seen from any part of the building. The clock was donated by a Mrs Ablett, in memory of her husband. Bay windows emerge from the front wings, which then fold back behind to create an overall U-shaped plan (which was amended out of easy recognition over the following century), with large walled airing courts laid out in front.
Originally built with space for 200 patients, some being private fee-payers, the North Wales Lunatic Asylum opened in October 1848 with George Turner Jones appointed as the first Medical Superintendent. As with all County Asylums, self-sufficiency was the goal, and North Wales (generally referred to as “Denbigh Asylum”) had its own farms, tailors, joiners, shoemakers, laundry, kitchens, bakery and smithy. The patients were the main workers on-site, with women typically employed in the kitchens, laundry and linen stores, and males working the grounds, which included them building the cricket ground, bowling green and the interiors of the airing courts with patient labour. Male patients thought likely to make a bid for escape were employed at the water pumps which were monitored all day and needed to be operated by hand to keep the asylum’s water supply running – a steam engine took over this task in 1857. Originally, there were only 9 attendants, 5 for the male and 4 for the female side, and there would be no-one present on the wards between the hours of 10pm and 6am – a situation which unsurprisingly lead to a high-risk of problems occurring during the night-time, none of which would be addressed until morning – on occasion staff had come on duty in the morning to find that patients had committed suicide or epileptic patients had suffered an attack and died overnight. Despite forceful pleas from the Lunacy Commissioners, night-shifts were not arranged until 1860, when the asylum had reached its capacity of 200 patients.
In 1862, a separate chapel was built at the rear of the asylum with room for 200 patients, releasing the original chapels at the front of the building for other use, and in 1865 extensions were built to the rear of the main block for an additional 150 patients. The only “treatment” issued at this time was chloral hydrate for sedation (not really a cure or treatment at all), and the asylum’s bill for wine and spirits accounted for more per annum than was spent on drugs. Turkish baths were introduced in 1871, and these were believed to address the effects of melancholia, scrofula, rheumatism and consumption. In 1874, Dr Jones was replaced as Medical Superintendent by Dr William Williams.
As with all asylums, the battle against overcrowding was constant, as soon as new wards were built, they were quickly filled, after which the problem would start anew. At Denbigh in the 1870’s, beds were being moved into corridors and hallways, and there were even patients sleeping on the floor. In 1881, more significant additions were made, with a 400-capacity dining hall, and a new wing for another 160 patients built, bringing the asylum’s total capacity up to 510. The chapel was also extended to hold 440 patients for religious services. During this period, the running of Denbigh was frequently criticised by the Lunacy Commissioners, who complained that the wards were overcrowded with beds “so close that patients had to get in and out at the foot of the bed” and that the lack of staff on the wards was leading to tension and violence. Although three other County Asylums had opened in the south of Wales by the early 1880’s (St David’s, Glanrhyd and Pen-Y-Fal, with a fourth, Parc to open in 1887), there was debate about opening a second asylum in the north of Wales, to serve Caernarvon, Anglesey and Merionethshire (three of the other counties which had joined in to build Denbigh). But in the meantime, Denbigh was so overcrowded that patients were once again being boarded out to English asylums, sadly for some, negating the primary purpose for which Denbigh was originally built. The plans to build a second asylum for North Wales never materialised, and instead approvals for extensions to Denbigh were finally granted in 1895. The asylum would now move into the phase which saw it evolve into a large, sprawling complex, becoming by far the most important reliable employer around Denbigh, as well as taking on a huge social significance for the local populace, their lives ever-more intertwined with the workings of this huge institution for the following century. Local school, charity and social groups would visit the asylum for dances, plays, concerts and performances regularly, the patients would be taken into the town often, and became known to locals, and many families in Denbigh had people who worked at, for, or with the asylum for several generations, ingraining the building in the local history and culture.
The new buildings consisted of a female ward for 243 patients (bringing capacity up to 753), a male and a female attendants block to house 30 persons each, a huge and lavishly decorated recreation/dining hall, kitchen, laundry, central bathroom, boiler house, engine house and isolation hospital and all were to benefit from a new modern heating system, a sewage supply which connected to the town’s network and the introduction of electric lighting (modern conveniences which were also to be extended to the rest of the buildings). This saw a works project which took much longer than expected; begun in 1897, it was due for completion in two years, but in fact the first new buildings did not come into use until 1902, with the final stages not complete until 1905.
In 1926 two local manor houses were bought for conversion into convalescent annexes, Gwynfryn House and Trefeirian, and in 1937, another local manor house Pool Parc at Ruthin, was also bought and adapted to house 80 convalescent patients. Pool Parc was a stately home built in 1829 by the Bagot family, and had formerly been used to hold prisoners of war.
In 1929, pathology labs and a mortuary were built onto the isolation hospital. In 1930, with the introduction of the Mental Health Act, the building formally changed its name to the North Wales Counties Mental Hospital. During this period, new chemical treatments were becoming available, used with varying degrees of success; cardiazol was used to induce fits, malaria for the treatment of schizophrenia (or dementia praecox as it was then known), insulin to induce coma and electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) in 1941, initially without first administering anaesthetic, which was subsequently introduced after patients were fracturing or dislocating their limbs during the process. Occupational Therapy was introduced in 1937, with patients going on to make lampshades, sand bags and camouflage nets for the subsequent war effort. During the late 1930’s, overcrowding became so intense, with Denbigh having around 260 more patients than it was equipped and staffed to accommodate, outbreaks of influenza, TB and typhoid and dysentery took their toll on the cramped wards, with well over 100 deaths recorded in some years. The large nurses home to the north of the site was opened in 1934.
The early 1940’s forced regime change at all British asylums, as staffing shortages meant that rules around the gender segregation for staff and patients became increasingly impractical. At Denbigh, female staff were now allowed to work on the male side as needed, and no longer had to leave the employ of the asylum if they wanted to get married, while male staff no longer needed to apply to the asylum’s commissioners if they wanted to get married or live off-site. Both genders were now officially allowed to talk to one another on site – such actions having been a punishable, even dismissable offence previously.
By the mid 1940’s controversial treatments such pre-frontal leucotomy had been introduced, along with barbitone sodium (which would put patients into a sleep-like state for up to 2 weeks), apomorphine to create aversion to alcohol or opiate-based drugs, and endocrine “treatment” for sex offenders, which would have included homosexuality at that time, and some of these practices, including the leucotomies, were still in use by the 1960’s. More progressively, Denbigh employed its first Psychiatric Social Worker in 1945, who could visit the home environment of patients being discharged to help offer support in life outside the asylum.
With the introduction of the NHS in 1948, Denbigh was able to mark its 100th anniversary by a name change to the North Wales Hospital, as its population reached over 1,500. But as new chemical drugs, including psychotropic and anti-depressants became available, wards were gradually unlocked, allowing patients greater freedoms and a more relaxed regime, as well as seeing patient numbers beginning to fall by the end of the 1950’s. All wards now had TVs, radios and gramophones, the recreation hall had cinema projection equipment, and a new cricket pitch, football field and sports pavilion were built in 1960. Later that year, the Minister of Health, Enoch Powell would visit Denbigh, and it was here that he first announced his plans for closure the of the country’s former County Asylums, which was summarised in his following speech to the Party Conference in 1961, some excerpts from which are below:
“I have intimated to the hospital authorities…that in 15 years’ time there may well be needed not more than half as many places in hospitals for mental illness as there are today. Expressed in numerical terms, this would represent a redundancy of no fewer than 75,000 hospital beds.
But that 50 per cent or less of present places in hospitals for the mentally sick – what will they look like and where will they be? We know already what ought to be the answer to that question: they ought for the most part to be in wards and wings of general hospitals. Few ought to be in great isolated institutions or clumps of institutions, though I neither forget nor underestimate the continuing requirements of security for a small minority of patients.
Now look and see what the implications are of these bold words? They imply nothing less than the elimination of by far the greater part of this country’s mental hospitals as they exist today. This is a colossal undertaking, not so much in the new physical provision which it involves, as in the sheer inertia of mind and matter which it requires to be overcome. There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside – the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault.
The resistance is not only physical. Hundreds of men and women, professional or voluntary, have given years, even lifetimes, to the service of a mental hospital or a group of mental hospitals. They have laboured devotedly, through years of scarcity and neglect, to render the conditions in them more tolerable, and of late they have seized with delight upon the new possibilities opening up, and the new resources available, for these old but somehow cherished institutions. From such bodies it demands no mean moral effort to recognise that the institutions themselves are doomed. It would be more than flesh and blood to expect them to take the initiative in planning their own abolition, to be the first to set the torch to the funeral pyre.”
In line with this plan, patient numbers were declining much more rapidly by the late 1960’s, and many of the social and physical activities could no longer be supported with these dwindling numbers. During the 1970’s, the work regimes of the patients were also gradually curtailed in line with national ideas intended to avoid the exploitation of patient labour, a boon to some patients no doubt, but leaving others with far less options for useful and productive ways to spend their time – some had already worked on particular farm or labouring jobs for decades by that time, and it was a hugely significant part of their daily lives.
The 1983 Care in the Community Act saw the closure of the great mental hospitals begin in earnest, and by 1987, a plan had been drawn up for the closure of Denbigh itself. Pool Parc closed in 1991, and still lies in a derelict state today. After 147 years, the North Wales Hospital finally closed in August 1995.
After closure, Denbigh’s Grade II listed buildings were subject to one of the most controversial and complex sale and re-use dramas of any British asylum. Like most, it was quickly and thoughtlessly sold off at a cheap price (£350,000), eventually passing into the hands of an offshore-based owner, Denbigh Freemont, who submitted plans deemed unacceptable by the local Council. Thwarted, the buildings were stripped of everything of sale-able value, and left to deteriorate, much to the ire of the Council and locals who had little choice but to stand by and watch a key part of their collective history crumble away, suspended in bureaucratic deadlock. In 2004 Prince Charles visited the site and placed all the buildings under the protection of the Phoenix Trust in a bid to ensure that the buildings future, but in 2008, the recreation hall was completely destroyed in a suspected arson attack. The still-absent owners were served with a notice to carry out repair works with a deadline of the close of 2009, but these were ignored, and the Council served an Urgent Works notice in 2011, spending around £900,000 on measures to slow the decay of the building. Plans have now been drawn up to complete a Compulsory Purchase Order and redevelop the site within the next few years.