The Essex parishes of East Ham and Southend-on-Sea had boarded their lunatics out to Essex’s main asylum at Warley since 1853, but in 1914 and 1915 respectively, were designated as their own County Boroughs, and so were compelled to build asylums of their own. The contract they had already agreed with Warley lasted until 1927, and from then, for a time, East Ham was able to board out to the West Ham Asylum at Goodmayes, while Southend-on-Sea spread its Essex-born patients far and wide, even as far as St Nicholas (Newcastle) and Digby (Exeter).
The Board of Control (BOC), who from 1930 had replaced the Commissioners in Lunacy to oversee mental health provision, made the suggestion that the two struggling Boroughs might go into partnership, and the respective Council Committees met on 8th November 1928, eventually agreeing to build a new asylum with 850 beds, 500 for East Ham and 350 for Southend-on-Sea. After many visits to different sites, Runwell Hall Farm Estate was chosen, 509 acres within 1.5 miles of Wickford station. Formal agreement was made between the two County Borough Councils in 1931 and in accordance with BOC legislation, a Joint Visiting Committee was established, made up of members from both Councils, and holding its first meeting in the City of London Guildhall on 13th January 1932, at which Alderman HB Harper, a JP from East Ham, was unanimously elected as Chairman. A Compulsory Purchase Order was made for the site, authorised by the Minister for Health, Sir Hilton Young (1879-1960), which meant the former owners had no say over its sale and subsequent use, for which they were paid £9,000 plus costs.
Four architects were interviewed, and the Committee agreed upon the plans submitted by Charles E. Elcock and Frederick Sutcliffe. The firm had been linked to the building of 18 other hospitals during the previous decade, which included the mental hospitals Bethlem Royal and Cell Barnes. Runwell was designed to an ultra-modern parallel colony plan, which fused the typical inverted-triangle layout of the older echelon-plan asylums with the detached, separate buildings which the US-influenced colony plan had popularised in Britain since GT Hine first implemented it at Purdysburn in 1900. Unlike most colonies however, the “parallel” aspect saw the buildings laid out along an inverted-triangle grid system, rather than the “scattered”, more haphazard layouts (designed to give the look of a small village, rather than a large institution) most often associated with them, but roof-lines were staggered across the blocks and the various buildings given some variation in style to soften this aspect somewhat. The only corridors were centred around the main administrative and functional buidlings.
The foundation stone was laid on 20th June 1934 by LW Brock (later Sir Lawrence Brock) chairman of the BOC. Dr Rolf Strom-Olsen was appointed as first Medical Superintendent (previously Deputy Medical Superintendent at the Cardiff City Asylum at Whitchurch), a title soon changed to Physician Superintendent in 1936. SL Frost was appointed as Clerk and Steward (formerly doing same role at the South Yorkshire Asylum, Middlewood). MJA Titterington was appointed as first Matron, also from Middlewood.
Runwell is among the most plain and un-showy of all British pre-war psychiatric buildings, with only the admin block and chapel receiving anything in the way of ornamentation. The admin block is a simple but handsome art-deco structure in yellow brick, with a large stone art-deco doorway leading up to a bay-window, above which sits a copper clock-tower. Parole units Brookside, Sunnyside and Woodside (first two female, last male) were positioned for patients who didn’t require much supervision and who were allowed to wander the grounds reasonably freely. They were also placed closer to the workshops, farms, kitchen gardens and laundry so those patients could access such places more easily.
The St Luke’s Chapel at Runwell is very unusual among asylum chapel designs, and similar only to Elcock’s earlier work at Bethlem Royal. As at Bethlem, it was not tucked away but occupied a prominent position, with its modernist mix of old and new design traits seeing a barrel-shaped interior, with more typical rectangular tower. Seating for 320 persons with a “beautifully furnished Sanctuary and Baldachino Chancel” and a “Lady Chapel of quiet and dignified beauty”, “The whole building is light and airy and engenders an atmosphere of rest and tranquillity.” It features a series of oxydised lamps along each wall, to a pattern supposedly based on a Roman design (actually looking more like something from Arabian Nights). Chapel service was broadcast to all patients on the wards, but discontinued in the early 1950’s when the wireless system was removed.
Dr SL Last (from the Northamptonshire County Asylum, St Crispin) was appointed in late 1936 as Senior Physician and was Deputy Physician Superintendent in 1938. He remained until 1951 and was the man largely responsible for setting up Runwell’s EEG department in 1940, one of the pioneers of its use in the UK. In keeping with the progressive nature of the institution, Dr Strom-Olsen was quick to open up outpatient services at General Hospitals in East Ham and Southened-on-Sea, and both were established as early as November 1935, two years before Runwell would formally open. The first patients were seven people coming from East Ham on the 21st May 1936, with another eight from Southend coming the following day. By early 1937, air-raid drills were being carried out due to the looming threat of war, but although Runwell had already been functioning for over a year, it was then formally opened by new Minister of Health, Sir Kingsley Wood on 14th June 1937.
The Committee’s first annual report (for 1937) stated that:
“Everything was done to ensure the comfort and well-being of the patients. The clothing of the patients was, as far as possible, varied in style, material and colour, so as to avoid the stereotyped appearance so often encountered in such institutions. Arrangements were made so that the patients take their meals at separate small dining tables. A special endeavour was made to render all wards light and cheerful, and the buildings are widely spaced so as to allow for ample admission of sunlight. A feature of the hospital is the treatment and training of patients in the specially designed OT workshop.”
A slickly-produced brochure was handed out at Runwell’s official opening, intended to further demonstrate that Runwell was planned to be a progressive institution:
“…change was reflected [by] the passing of the Mental Treatment Act, 1930, which empowers local authorities to receive into their hospitals uncertified voluntary and temporary patients. By this means, cases of nervous and mental disorder can now be treated at a much earlier stage than formerly, thereby considerably increasing the chance of recovery.”
“One of the most important contributory factors for the success of early treatment is undoubtedly the construction of the hospital itself. The buildings should be unobtrusive and pleasant, so as to avoid any impression of a forbidding institution. Facilities must be available for proper and effective classification of patients according to the particular illness they are suffering from, preferably by separate villas. The needs of modern psychological medicine must be satisfied by adequately equipped special deptartments for treatment and diagnosis, such as OT, Hydrotherapy, gymnasium, x-rays, operating suite and laboratory. The importance of providing laboratories and the necessary equipment for whole-time research workers cannot be overestimated. It was on the basis of the foregoing ideas and sentiments that the whole design of Runwell Hospital was planned. Everything has been done with the aim of convincing both patients and the public that nervous and mental disease must be treated with the same intensive care, scientific means and human understanding as any physical disorder. The buildings as they stand today have brought to fruition a scheme which it is hoped may initiate useful precedents for future hospitals of this type.”
By 1939 as war loomed, an Air Raid Precaution Sub-Committee was formed, and preparations were made against possibility of gas attacks, with gas masks and supplies being stockpiled. Air-raid shelters were also built around the site. By 1940 the Runwell Emergency Hospital (REH) had been incorporated and the regime and routines changed due to war. By 1944, 32 high-explosive bombs, 170 incendiary bombs and two parachute mines had dropped on the buildings and grounds of Runwell, Amazingly, there were no injuries but damage was done to parts of the buildings, water mains, underground cables and surrounding road systems. The hospital’s own fire brigade tackled the fires, along with volunteers. Many V2 bombs landed around the hospital but caused only broken windows and other minor damage. On 2nd January 1944, a Dornier 217 aeroplane which had been shot down by local anti-aircraft fire crashed behind the boiler house creating a large area of burning fuselage. Despite the risk this caused by lighting Runwell up as a potential target for other planes, evacuation was not called and the hospital’s own fire brigade again tackled the burning plane and pools of oil and prevented further damage.
Mr T Fitzroy Kelly replaced Mr Frost as Clerk and Steward (yet another transfer from Middlewood where he had performed the same roles) in 1939 and would stay for 20 years, retiring in April 1959. Insulin therapy was being used for schizophrenic patients and ECT began soon after, with the research teams searching for drugs comparable to curare. Chemotherapy and ECT were used during the war (without anaesthetic), along with 34 pre-frontal leucotomies by Dr G.C. Knight – Runwell was among the very first mental hospitals to introduce the controversial practice. Electro-coagulation (diathermy) was introduced for safety in 1943.
REH closed after the war in 1946 and services returned to normal. On the 5th July 1948, Runwell became part of NHS, and the JVC became Runwell Hospital Management Committee. The BOC visited 3rd March 1948 and commented:
“It is as unusual as it is pleasant to visit a mental hospital where there is so much to admire and so very little to criticise, and where the standards of medical and nursing care are so high. Dr Strom-Olsen and his committee may well be proud of their hospital and of the condition in which it will be transferred to the Regional Hospital Board as agents for the Minister of Health.”
In 1950, Dr John Corsellis began to build the UK’s first collection of patient brain samples – initially only from patients who had died at Runwell and received a post-mortem in the hospital’s own mortuary. Corsellis had trainined in psychiatry but was unable to follow that path after being diagnosed with tuberculosis at a fairly young age. While in convalescence, he trained in neuropathy and pathology, and applied this to the building of the collection, eventually building the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world, with over 6,000 examples. This contributed hugely to research on a wide range of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases and brain injuries, including epilepsy, depression, Parkinson’s disease and CJD. The collection was tranferred to St Bernard’s Hospital (former Hanwell Asylum) in 1997,
In 1954, the Minister of Heath decided that farms at asylums were no longer needed and should only be retained if they are “an essential part of running the hospital”, so Runwell was considered and the Committee decided to dispense with it, selling it back into private hands (in which it now remains and still functions) in 1959. The Minister stated that “unless farming and market gardening activities are necessary to provide training and occupation for patients, they represent a diversion from the main purposes of the hospital which cannot be justified.”
1956 Dr GD Fraser Steele, formerly Physician Superintendent of Dundee Royal was appointed as Consultant Psychiatrist, and replaced Dr DW Liddle (who left to do the same role at St Francis (formerly Brighton Borough Asylum) as Physician Superintendent the following year. Going against the prevailing political will to empty the asylums, Dr Strom-Olsen said regarding future changes to mental health provision:
“as to what will happen in the future, no-one can foretell. The assertion that mental hospitals will all be half-empty within the next 15yrs verges on the irresponsible. Certainly many chronic [patients] if discharged to their families would prove a great burden in many instances. Hostels are practically non-existent at present and one can see little likelihood of a sufficient number being built in the foreseeable future… As a result of the Act there is a drive for the development of psychiatric units at general hospitals…however we may juggle with terminology and alter places of treatment, the fact remains that there will always be, rightly or wrongly, a stigma attached to mental disease. No Act of Parliament or Regional Board decision can alter this attitude, which is a fundamental one in human beings and has been so since time immemorial. It is well known that psychiatric depts of general hospitals on the continent and Scandinavia often have a stigma attached to them by the general public. It is a pity that this attitude is still with us but I do not believe that it can be totally eradicated.”
In 1964 Dr Strom-Olsen finally retired after 30yrs service at Runwell, succeeded by Dr Fraser-Steele, and Runwell hit its patient population peak of 1,100 patients. In 1969 the Physician Superintendent role was removed from all hospitals and requisite responsibilities of medical administration placed in hand of a Medical Committee. Dr Fraser Steele continued as Consultant Psychiatrist until retirement in 1976.
As with all the former asylums, patient numbers at Runwell were wound down throughout the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, with only around 680 in-patients and 60 day patients by 1986.
In 2006, part of the roof of the recreation hall collapsed, but fortunately (and partly due the very low number of patients still resident at the time), no-one was inside at the time.The last patients would leave to community-based care in 2009, the admin block was finally closed in 2010, with the boilers that had power the building for 63 finally switched off for good. The same year, the Regal group arranged to collect the antiquated cinema projectors from the hall for safe-keeping, and on the 11th August 2010, Graham Gee, who had been a member of staff in the Works Department since 1968, finally locked up for the last time as the hospital closed, although an official ceremony had taken place on the 9th, with the admin block doors symbolically locked up by a former patient who had gone on to become a full-time staff member at Runwell.
A new mental health facility was built on a small part of the former site, and plans to build a prison followed quickly after closure, to local opposition, spurred by the discovery of a rare breed of mice who lived onsite. The plans for a prison were shelved in late 2010, and by 2012, new plans were in place for a 600-unit housing development instead, with demolition beginning in July that year, retaining only the admin block, chapel and boiler-house.