The County of Essex managed a diverse area, varying between rural and isolated populations in parts of the north east and north west, to the industrialised, urbanised south west adjacent to London and the settlements along the Thames estuary. From 1851, the County opened a lunatic asylum at Brentwood, which was enlarged on a number of occasions to cope with the swelling population. West Ham, in the farthest southwestern corner became a municipal borough in 1886, then a County Borough under the Local Government Act two years later, meaning that the county was no longer under direct obligation for this area whose population approached 130,00 at the time. West Ham provided their own Asylum near Chadwell Heath in 1905.
Already by the turn of the 20th century the Essex County Council had acknowledged that the provision of a second asylum was essential and considered that this would be best placed in the north east of the county, furthest removed from the Brentwood Asylum. Planning for the new asylum commenced in 1902 and a site was selected the following year. The site was located to the north of Colchester in an area known as Myland, on land purchased from the Borough Corporation. The main site was bounded by the Boxted Road (formerly Long Road) to the west, Mill Road to the south east and Severalls Lane (or Tower Lane)to the north east. Beyond the latter was Cuckoo Farm, which was to form the farmland attached to the new asylum.
Colchester was already home to the Army Garrison, the Union Workhouse and also the Royal Eastern Counties Asylum, the latter of which lay a short distance to the north of the town centre, a distance to the south of the asylum site. To the east had recently been built the areas Infectious diseases Isolation Hospital to the far side of Mill Road.
The new asylum was to be constructed to designs provided by the architects Frank Whitmore and William H Town of Colchester. The designs followed the echelon plan arrangement typically used within County and Borough Asylums of the period. Also included were a number of villas which were included for specific patient accommodation purposes. Similar complexes had already been built for East Sussex County Asylum at Hellingly, Surrey County Asylum at Netherne and the Horton, Bexley and Long Grove Asylums for the London County Council at Epsom. As at these asylums the echelon wings formed an almost continuous range of buildings to the main facade to the south with each ward block interlinked. Additional blocks to those constructed were also planned but with the onset of war were never constructed. Within the grounds were provided detached hospital villas for acute admissions, a children’s villa to the north and a larger building for male and female private patients to be known as Myland Court. Also within the grounds were cottages for the gardener and engineering staff as well as detached residences for the medical superintendent, male senior attendant (known as the Inspector), clerk of works and chief engineer. A lodge was provided at the main gate for the gatekeeper. To the south of the main asylum complex a residence was provided for the assistant medical officers, linked to the main building by a two storey corridor. Homes for unmarried male and female attendant’s were constructed convenient to each side of the asylum.
The foundation stone was laid on 21st June 1910 by Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard, Chairman of the Committee of Visitors. The committee was formed by a majority of members representing the County of Essex, although the Municipal Borough of Colchester also formed a minority constituent and the institution was known officially as the Essex and Colchester Asylum.
The hospital was ready for the admission of the first 50 patients on the 27th May 1913 under the Superintendence of Dr. R. C. Turnbull, under whom a team of resident senior staff ran the hospital. The chief engineer was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the hospital and it’s power, heating and water supplies, the farm bailiff oversaw the production of the asylum farm and productive areas to feed the hospital, the Clerk and Steward oversaw the administrative and goods purchasing, and these formed the non-medical contingent of the asylum. The medical staff consisted of the Assistant medical officers who took direct responsibility for the admission and day-to-day treatment of patients, the Inspector who managed the male attendants and wards and the matron who dealt with the nurse’s and female wards.
World War I was declared little over a year after the opening of the asylum and for a period troops were billeted in the grounds. Severalls was combined with the other 10 asylums in East Anglia to form a group unit from which the patient’s from one asylum would be vacated to the others. Severalls was designated a receiving hospital along with others (West/ Ham, Brentwood, Suffolk, Ipswich, Norwich, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and the Three Counties Asylum in Bedfordshire) to which the patient’s from the Norfolk County Asylum at Thorpe were transferred. The Thorpe Asylum was used for military casualties until after the cessation of hostilities when the Norfolk patient’s returned.
During the interwar period Severalls underwent a change of name in common with all County and Borough Asylums, and becoming the Essex and Colchester Mental Hospital, Severalls. A new pathological laboratory was developed for the investigation into causes of mental disorder. In 1928 a new home for night nurse’s was constructed to the north of the main complex, followed by two extensions to the main nurse’s home in 1931-35. A bungalow for the Fireman was added in the north of the grounds and an estate of cottages for married male nurse’s was built on Mill Road and Defoe Crescent. A further farm was added to the hospital estate in 1930 with White House Farm being purchased and incorporated into the Farming Sub-committee.
A number of new wards were constructed, whilst others were extended. Chestnut villa was expanded to the west in 1930, with additions to Myland Court East, the male and female acute hospitals and dormitory wards were added to the isolation hospital in 1933. A pair of temporary villas to the south of the sports field were commenced in 1932 and four permanent structures in 1934, Myland Lodge and Eden Villas followed as observation wards, with Orchard and South Villas for working chronic patients. A new Sister’s home and lecture room complex was built to the north of the nurse’s home in 1935.
Simultaneous with the expansion of the Severalls complex, the nearby Royal Eastern Counties Institution (of which Essex formed one of the constituents) also developed a new colony for mentally defective males on Turner Road, with it’s original site south of the North Station retained exclusively for females.
No further expansion of the Severalls site was commissioned from this time as the Essex County Council pursued plans firstly for a large complex for the elderly at Suttons Institution at Hornchurch which was opened in 1938, an also a planned 3rd Mental Hospital between Brentwood and Chelmsford. The 400 acre site at the Margaretting Hall Estate had been proposed since 1933 and plans for the site designed in 1937. The hospital’s road layout and foundations were commenced in 1939 but with the onset of World War II any further development was held in abeyance. In the interim the site was farmed by the Brentwood Committee as a productive farm to support the Brentwood Mental Hospital.
Dr A. G. Duncan took over the role of Superintendent from Dr. Turnbull in 1940 and part of the hospital site was planned to be vacated for the Emergency Medical Services Hospital. On 11th August 1942 the hospital was hit by a string of three bombs which detonated on impact with the officer’s laundry and two adjacent female ward blocks, largely destroying them and killing 38 female patients whilst injuring another 23 there. The dead, aged between 38 and 78 years of age were buried in marked graves at Colchester Cemetery. Initially the remaining sections of the ward to the east and west of the bomb site remained in situ, albeit derelict whilst the corridor immediately behind was reconstructed. The officers’ laundry was never reconstructed and the area between the main laundry and sewing room was cleared and damage to surrounding areas made good. For twenty year the remains of the ward survived, but the majority was eventually demolished in 1962. The surviving eastern quarter of the block consisting of a day room and dormitory above was rehabilitated as a staff day nursery and the appropriately named Phoenix Club.
After the hostilities ended the hospital became part of the newly formed National Health Service, with administrative responsibility passing from the County Council to the Severalls Hospital Management Committee under the North East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board. In 1957 both Whitehouse and Cuckoo farms were disposed of in line with Ministry of Health directives of the time which brought about the agricultural activities of hospitals within the NHS. Margaretting Hall estate was also disposed of during this period, with no further development for healthcare services taking place there, the land being sold for farming purposes to R.H.Currie Ltd.. During this period of time Dr. Duncan left and was replaced by Dr. Russell Barton, who would be the third and last Superintendent.
Dr. Barton set about reforming many of the practices at the hospital including sectorisation of wards in 1963, mixing male and female staffing and abolishing the old airing courts. Severalls reputation improved significantly as a progressive and developmental psychiatric hospital in common with other developmental and experimental institutions of the time such as Mapperley, Shenley, Netherne, Warlingham Park and Fulbourn Hospitals. During the next wave of administrative changes in 1964, the hospital’s own management committee was abolished and instead Severalls came under the control of the St. Helena Group Hospitals Management Committee where it was clustered with the services provided at Essex County, St. Mary’s, Myland and Colchester Maternity Hospitals. General hospital services for surgical and medical patient’s were set up in Ashley and St. Michael’s wards respectively and provided with an operating theatre, a move seen as a means of eroding Severalls distinct identity and autonomy. Severalls House, no longer inhabited by Dr. Barton who lived off site, was converted for occupation by medical staff and a further block of homes, Rivendell, built in it’s grounds. Industrial units were constricted to aid rehabilitation of long stay patients and a discharge rates improved. The Phoenix group homes were also set up providing a halfway house model in discharge in Colchester and the surrounding area. A mother and baby unit for the treatment of conditions such as post natal depression and puerperal psychosis was set up on Myland Court East enabling affected mothers to maintain healthy contact with their babies throughout their inpatient treatment.
Dr. Barton continued to spearhead improvements despite coming into conflict with the HMC. By this time the NHS had brought about the abolition of the post of Superintendent and replacement with the role of Consultant Psychiatrist and given Dr. Barton’s comparable youth the decision was made to abolish the post rather than wait for him to leave or retire as had happened in many other hospitals. Dr. Barton, resisting a move to a role which would leave him with much reduced power to bring about change outside instead left the hospital and the United Kingdom to become Director at the Rochester Psychiatric Center, New York.
A further round of re-organisation spelled the end of the St. Helena Group HMC and in 1974 the Hospital’s management was formed throughout three tiers of administration – North West Thames Regional, Essex Area and Colchester District Health Authorities, the lowest two tiers being reformed in 1982 into the North East Essex District Health Authority. Each change of local area administration brought Severalls into grouping with more local hospital, resulting in the interests of the psychiatric services diluted amongst competition from general services. The Royal Eastern Counties Hospital had also been merged into the same authority from 1974 and provided the means for developing a much anticipated new District General Hospital on the grounds north of the Turner Village site to consolidate most services there from opening in 1985, although mental health services were not incorporated until many years later.
Updating schemes continued through the wards at Severalls, with some being subdivided and cubiclised to allow patients more privacy. An alcoholism and addictions service was established within Larch Villa in 1977 and served as a inpatient regional unit. The isolated hospital chapel was vacated from 1985 and a room set aside in the former Tailors workshop for worship. In 1987 The Bungalow, formerly home of the hospital fireman, was leased to Headway, a charity providing support and services to people with brain injuries. The following year saw the development of a Garden Centre to the west of the former male wards, near Severalls House, which was run in conjunction with the League of Friends.
As the hospital population grew smaller through the implementation of community care initiatives, wards gradually closed, typically those isolated, unmodernised or on upper floors being vacated first. The hospital laundry was relocated to a centralised district laundry service operating at Turner Village and the premises were remodelled (in part) to provide a new cook-chill kitchen, making the original kitchen and the existing on-site facilities redundant. The hospital became part of the North East Essex Mental Student Nurse training and accommodation continued on the Severalls site, with the former Sisters’ and Nurses’ homes becoming part of Anglia Polytechnic (Later Anglia Polytechnic University – APU) as Alpha, Beta and Gamma Houses. Chestnut Villa was taken on as a base for pathological laboratory services for the area.
The main building finally closed in March 1997 although administrative and inpatient services continued in the Birchwood, Maplehurst, Severalls House and Rivendell buildings to the west of the site closest to Boxted Road. With the exclusion of the APU, Headway and Chestnut Villa buildings the remaining site was decommissioned. Remote structures such as Iris House and Tamarisk Villa, with little prospect for re-use were demolished immediately on closure. APU also subsequently vacated their buildings on the site.
A number of plans have been made over the years to redevelop the Severalls Hospital site, but at the time of writing the buildings remain derelict. As part of a new road scheme to upgrade the main access routes within North Colchester has resulted in the construction of a new road from the North Station throughout the grounds of Turner Village and Colchester General Hospitals as far as Mil Road. From Mill Road the new A134 Northern Approach Road entered the hospital grounds through the demolition of ten former hospital houses (Nos.54-72 Mill Road), then followed the southwestern boundary behind Defoe Crescent before joining Nayland Road at the junction with Boxted Road. Whilst not resulting in any direct demolition works, the new road which opened in 2003 resulted difficulty with keeping the grounds secure and a number of incidents of arson followed, destroying the former AMO’s residence, the former Social Club, the Recreation hall and the neighbouring Wentworth/St. Michaels ward block. Ivy Villa and Orchard Cottage, located outside the main security boundary to the north were also destroyed by arson. Further development to the north of the hospital on the Cuckoo Farm site resulted in the relocation of Colchester United’s Stadium there as well as housing and retail developments linked to the A12 via a new junction. In line with this major project a new link, which had originally been envisaged at the time of the hospital’s original development master plan, was constructed through the eastern portion of the hospital site largely parallel to Mill Road before veering north to the new junction. The projected line of the road led to the demolition of Fernholme Villa, which had survived comparatively intact. The new road was opened in April 2015 leaving the remaining hospital site continuing to deteriorate. A new adolescent unit, the St. Aubyn Centre, has been constructed on green space to the south of Severalls House and Rivendell, all of which remain in mental health use.