The Suffolk County Borough of Ipswich had been boarding its lunatics out to its two private asylums, the Belle Vue Retreat on Woodbridge Road and Grove Retreat opposite Alexander Park, as well as making use of nearby asylums in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, housing the remainder in the Ipswich workhouse. By the 1860’s, the fact that places at other asylums outside Ipswich cost more and were becoming harder to find, as well as the need to meet its requirements as a separate County Borough, saw the Ipswich authorities agree by 1865 to build their own, finding a 52 acre site known as Blackheath, around 2 miles outside the town.
Moving quickly by usual standards, W.R. Ribbans’ plans for a 120-bed asylum (the smallest of all Victorian County Asylums) were accepted by the Committee set in place to oversee its construction, and the Ipswich Borough Asylum opened in 1870. A fairly plain single-corridor plan building in red brick, with minor white brick dressing in a muted Italiante style, the admin block at the front centre sports a small doric portico, which leads into an entrance hall with ornate staircase, but there are none of the towers, turrets or cupolas that many County Asylums boasted, giving a friendlier and more human-scale appearance than almost any other such building. The admin block is not detached, so the two-storey wings, with male wards to the west and female to the east, present a single unified façade. Behind the admin block lies a dining room on the ground floor, with small recreation hall above. Single-storey male and female infirm wards lie at the back of the main building, where there are also separate male and female walled airing courts, which remain to this day. The infirm wards also had attached solariums, which also survive. The asylum had its own farms and gardens, and a large cricket pitch and croquet lawn were laid in 1878.
The first Medical Superintendent was a Dr Long, previously of the Stafford County Asylum (St George’s), and the asylum was also staffed by a Head Female Attendant (who also doubled as Housekeeper), a Head Male Attendant, along with 5 Male and 5 female Attendants – all lived within the asylum on their respective wards. They were joined by a cook, a porter, maids, a seamstress, a farm bailiff and artisans who in addition to maintaining the upkeep of the hospital were employed to instruct inmates in learning new skills. In its first decade, the Ipswich Borough Asylum took in 936 admissions, of whom 427 were discharged as “recovered” or “relieved”, with 262 dying in the asylum in that first decade. A typical dinner for inmates in 1871 consisted of 4oz meat, 12oz vegetables, 2oz bread, and half a pint of beer.
In the late 1890’s, an extra floor was added to most of the existing wards, leaving most of the building at three floors in total, while an extra floor was added to the infirm wards, bringing those to two storeys. This brought the asylum’s capacity up to 200. Although the exact date is not confirmed, the asylum proved ahead of its time by adopting the “mental hospital” (as opposed to asylum) suffix as early as 1908. A small detached chapel was added to the east of the site sometime c.1920.
During the 1940’s, the asylum’s population peaked at around 420. The farm was closed down in the 1960’s in keeping with national thinking around the exploitation of patient labour, although the grounds were still used to grow vegetables on a small scale for therapeutic and OT purposes for many years on. In 1948 with incorporation into the NHS, the site became known as St Clement’s Hospital.
By 2002, the last in-patients had left St Clement’s, but the building continued to be used for NHS administrative purposes, much altering the internal appearance, with all former ward space (besides those in the empty former medium-secure unit and annexes) looking like typical office spaces.
Plans to redevelop the main building into luxury housing and build another 200 housing units on the grounds were on the table, then off, and as of September 2014, back on again and scheduled for 2016.