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I'm sitting in the Hollybush having a beer with Norman. There's been a pub here for centuries. Merthyr Road, the main pack horse route south from the iron at Dowlais to the quay at Cardiff. Today there's also a sizzling steak restaurant, awnings, outside umbrellas, and a couple of working-class bars tight with locals almost all of whom smoke. On quiz night they come from miles. A bandit blinks in the corner. The extractor whirs and fails. A giant screen, which no one watches, shows men with a ball running across a great green field.

This is Coryton. North Whitchurch. Squashed between the older village and the just as ancient Castell Coch at Tongwynlais. John Cory built a mansion here1 . His plans were for a garden village like that at Rhiwbina but the Great War intervened and the development never happened. As a separate entity officially the district doesn't exist. But on the old Rhymney Valley Railway line which passes just to the pub's south the suburban stop is called Coryton. Could have been Asylum Halt if the early twentieth century developers had been given their head. Over the bridge and in the Elysium fields beyond stands Whitchurch Mental Hospital. Norman has just come from there.

He's big, Norman. Ungainly. Cord trousers, a tweed jacket from Howells. He has five paintings with him. Oils, large, portraits, all done front-on and showing madmen with balloon faces. Puffed brows, cheeks full of air, otherness in their eyes. Norman's work involves therapy, he tells me. Could be his own. Who can tell. The paintings won't sell. He's hung them at a city gallery and along the railings on the front at Penarth. No takers. No passer by even slowing down.

These are patients, or the idea of patients, the lost souls, the ghosts in the underbelly, the raging in the air. Norman turns out these things with captivating dexterity. They hang on the Asylum walls. To illuminate, he tells me. Lights in the endless corridors. His favourite painters are Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh, Theodore Roethke, Jackson Pollack and Ralph Albert Blakelock. All, to varying degrees, were mad.

The Hospital, back over the road bridge which crosses the railway, was opened in 1908 as the Cardiff City Mental Hospital. Greenfield site. Well outside the city boundaries. Spread over 120 acres of farmland between the Taff Vale Railway and the Glamorgan Canal it was a masterpiece of Edwardian Lego build2 . Red brick, copper covered water tower, theatres, wards, restraining rooms, workshops for tailors, upholsterers, carpenters and brushmakers, recreation hall, stage, admin block, outbuildings. A standard Victorian-era lock-up as found in endless out-of-town locations right across England and Wales.

The farms - Ty Clyd and Llwyn Mallt - were kept on as an exercise not so much in therapy as self-sufficiency. Trouble no one, grow your own. Cae John Hent, Cae'r Ywen, Nine Acres, Six Acres, Cae yr Gubin Ddegum, Sunny Bank Field, Five Acres, Cae Yr Gubin, Ten Acres Cross Road, Velindre Field, The Lawn. Field names, gone now. The mansion at Velindre, home of successive proprietors of the now declining Melingriffith Tinplate Works next door, was pulled down.

In the grounds was a 800 seater neo-gothic church, playing fields, bowling green, and endless gardens each with its own paths, benches and green-painted octagonal gazebo. The immediate perimeter fence sat in a ditch, concealed from inmates' view. The wards ran in two enormous horseshoes. There were 750 patients.

Whitchurch Hospital Tower
The Tower at Whitchurch
Photo: Peter Finch

Cleanliness, clarity, fresh space, cool air, real air, pure air, comfort. Exercise, breath, arms out, arms back. Knees bend, knees straight. Vests. Indian clubs. Medicine balls. Hats. Moustaches. Liberal supplies of all sorts of objects which can interest and amuse3. Brilliantly coloured woollen rugs. Gramophones. Board games. Cards. Sunlight. Space. Sky. Cloud. Carbolic. Water. Soaped-up skin.

Victorian care for the mad hardly changed until the nineteen sixties. Lunatic meant the deranged and the unhinged and the depressed and the poor who were strange and the criminally inexplicable. In the public mind poverty, promiscuity and insanity were all linked. The mentally ill were removed from society and locked up, corralled with their fellows, in places far beyond the booming cities. The nineteenth century's failure of asylum therapy to change absolutely anything had convinced many in the general population that insanity was actually incurable. The prevalent fear was of racial degeneracy 4, that a submerged tenth of the population, damaged or congenitally marked, promiscuous and unhinged, would begin to outbreed the rest. We would be swamped. The land would go down. Madness would stalk the earth. To prevent this idiots and imbeciles who could not be treated would be removed from society. Locked. The morally harmful would join them. Defectives would be separated from the nation's gene pool. The clean, pure world of industrial Cardiff would stay that way.

This early Guantanamo solution had, of course, a long pre-history. Society had never found managing the mentally ill easy. In early days if you were unstable then you were possessed of demons. Heads full of smoke and serpents. Skulls were rent to let the devils back out. In the Roman era the mad were made to suffer starvation, fetters and flogging and anything 'which thoroughly agitated the spirit'. Make it shout. In the dark ages they let your blood, they burned stones and sat you on them, they sought the black bile within you and tried to remove it. In 1290 in England if you were a natural fool then de praerogativa regis the King took your land. In the fourteenth century mental instability made you a witch and got you burned at the stake or drowned. If you were a woman who stirred men's passions or a deviant or loose with your morals then you had the devil in you and you were damned. Madness and profligation became intertwined.

The madhouses of the seventeenth century were private places where the insane who acted like animals were treated like animals. Harried. Bound. Spat on. Gagged. Purges were applied and the organs of dead creatures smeared up the unfortunate's shaven skin. In the eighteenth the insane were locked in asylums - "dark holes, less comfortable than cow houses" - restrained, barred, chained. If you were a pauper lunatic, mad with no money, then you had no rights. If you were a lunatic of resource then you paid for your own medical certificate and then they sent you down. Treatment was by bloodletting, purging, ducking, cold water therapy, isolation. If you were not unstable to begin with then after treatment you certainly were. In the minds of the public guardians deviancy, sexual prolongation, and criminal obsession merged with psychological uncertainty, psychosis and paranoia. Fit the norm or be cast out. Everyone must be the same.

The nineteenth century asylum was as much a prison as a house of cure. In the early years of that century there was hope of improvement but by its end, and especially after Darwin's Origin of Species had appeared, the prevailing opinion was that madness was hereditary and that the possessed should be removed from our midst and locked permanently up. Doctors hunted for a cause, dissected brains, pulled out nerves, examined the blood, measured spinal columns, weighed glands, scraped, scratched and stumbled. Mental disease could be nothing more than an infection. Find it. Burn it down. Their patients languished. Their patients screamed. Their patients aged and greyed and failed. The rest of the world refused to look.

Were social cures possible? Could therapy help? Could the institutionalised be helped and through a mix of open door and half way house get a foothold back in normal society, whatever that was? No one seemed prepared to try to find out.

The Whitchurch enterprise was developed at considerable cost. It took ten years to plan and build and when it was done the bills topped £350,000. Its self-sufficiency was paramount. Its distance from the top end of Cathays, the then northern extremity of the new city, was at least five miles.

Whitchurch Hospital Playing Fields
The Hospital playing fields
Photo: Peter Finch

Today, a hundred years later, parts of the grounds have already been sold on for private residential development. At the brand new Clos Coed Hir there's upmarket housing on the field that used to be known as nine acres; the northern meadows will soon have two hundred new town houses, and on the westerly reaches, where the hospital touches the Glamorgan Canal, are day centres, The George Thomas Hospice, Tegfan and Hafan. But the greenness is still overwhelming. You turn from busy Park Road and enter a wash of sylvan meadow. Poetry after red top prose. Emmylou after Metalica. There's a gatehouse 5 but no keepers. Then fields and space and a red-brick domed water tower, vacant faces for clocks on its sides , watching all from eight stories up. Ian Wile, Senior Nurse Manager, who meets me, reckons that early arrivals must have found the place a Shangri-La. Lyonesse, Middle Earth, Narnia. How could this be the real world?

Gary Rix, the Hospital Manager, has that slightly grey look of a bureaucrat dealing with change. Harassed but winning. Maybe. He hands me a copy of Hilary M Thomas's 1983 hospital history. The only official publication to use the word "shag" as its logo, he tells me. And there it is on the pamphlet's corner. SHAG - the initials of the old South Glamorgan Health Authority placed in a circle, spelling out a word their creator had not intended. The Hospital is now in the hands of Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust. Change, the driver of contemporary society, is happening again.

The sub text to all this is that regime change is about to create us a new world. The present, vast, and slowly falling apart complex is an anachronism. Elsewhere in the UK they've pulled them down. In 2002 there was a ceremony at Bexley in London when they demolished their water tower, symbol of Victorian madness, beacon of the wilderness. Lots were drawn and a former nurse got to push the plunger blowing the tower, and to huge cheers brought the red bricks down. At Cardiff most of the complex will be sold to a developer, hospital listing notwithstanding. A new 100-patient unit will be constructed on ground near the former Glamorgan Canal. No extra cost to the NHS. Smaller because, although there may be more of us in the population today, we are no longer as mad. We have as much pain but we dribble less. We come as day visitors. We are controlled by psychotropics. We are talked to not tied up. Unbelted, rehinged. We live in flats and bedsits and wallpapered rooms. We visit facilities not asylums. When we are ill hospitals help us. Arms open. Smiles. Stethoscopes. Gowns. We mix. We mingle. We emulsify into the community. Out there amid the roaring. We are the community. Unbolted. Unlocked. Lost. Found.

From Gary's office window above the Baroque entrance can be seen the pristine bowling green with its scoreboard and the vandalised, brick, lancet-style chapel. Windows smashed. Lead loose and twisted. Bath stone fractured. But the bell not yet gone. Beyond them the vastness of almost empty playing fields. Three teenagers on the bench smoking when I passed, another on a small Kawasaki doing slow wheelies across the pitch.

Songs sung at Whitchurch before the Great War:

My Little Chimney Sweep - Miss Jessie Ewart
Daises in the Grass - Miss Paull
Selection on Tambourine with Bones - F. Harries
Two Little Sausages - Miss Mary Mander
A Bovine Barcarolle - Fred Wilshire
Ring Out, O Bells - Patients
Dear Little Sunbonnet Lady - Mr Frederick Mantell
English Hearts of Oak - Mr Geo Goodwin
Aderyn Pur - Miss Hilda Morgan

After that came the physically fractured, the ripped open and the blown apart. In 1915 the Hospital was taken over by military and became the Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital. In 1919 it was given back. The bandaged war wounded went home. But most, those whose minds had been shattered by shells, stayed on.

Ian keeps up a commentary as we walk, disorientated (me anyway), along the main horse-shoe shaped corridor. An electric-wheeled tug passes us towing a train of trolleys holding food waste in scratched aluminium trays. Alan Davies, Project Coordinator for Mental Health Service Development, and John Briggs, the photographer, are with us. John never likes to miss an opportunity to record some slipping part of Cardiff's past. Railways, empty work shops, closed factories, collapsed mortar, failed brick. He gets Alan and Ian to hold open the flapping green doors between units and smile back at us as if in welcome. Shot photo. The gates of hell.

Whitchurch Hospital staff
Alan Davies, Ian Wile and Gary Rix.
Photo: Peter Finch

In the yards at the back the red brick has hardly aged. The sun burns it. Before us is the water tower, brick, eight stories high, green cupola on top surmounted by a further junior version of itself, reaching for heaven, a lighthouse, a beacon, a Tardis. Hard-hatted we climb through the floors on a mix of built wooden step and metal runged ladder. Bob Bosley, Estate Engineer, talks us through tanks, pipes, pumps, valves, insulation, ventilation, boilers, water pressure. This tower still functions. The huge main tanks, eight floors up, still push water right around the site. Each floor we pass through is empty. Abandoned pipe valves, sheared bolts and debris litter the corners. Detritus. Dust. The lime washed walls are like those of an early church. If I scrape the surface will I find images of the ancient mad beneath? At the top we emerge onto a balconied platform ineffectually netted against marauding birds. In the middle are cell phone repeaters from Orange. White doves sit along their tops. The world is green again, greener than I imagined it could ever be, the city hidden beneath tree top, hedges hiding roadways, fields rolling always in an unmolested stream. No cattle, no crop. Castell Coch in the northern distance, the high rises of the city centre to the south. What you don't expect is the silence. These spaces were once the hospitals own market garden. Llwyn Mallt growing flower and veg, Ty Clyd managing cattle. All that finished in 1953 when central government policy changed. It seeps off slowly now into the private sector as housing advances and speculators make their claims. As we are handing our hard hats back on the ground floor I spot a stair well leading down to a space below. Where does that go? Inspection chamber, pipe distributor, fan complex, service duct. Passage ways running under the wards and outbuildings. Across the courtyards. Under the roads. Another complete hospital down there right under this one. Dark and full of muck? Bob Bosley nods.

The main hall and theatre has largely been abandoned as a place for concerts or dances. League of Friends Jumble sales, patients five-a-side, training facility for managing the violent and the aggressive, exam hall, place of dusty silence. Church-like windows bear coats of arms; gold painted heraldics carry words of inspiration: Deffro Maen Ddydd Y Ddraig Goch Ddyry Gychwyn. The slumbering world as it once was.

Ian is strong on explaining the philosophy of the care system, putting the battered building into its historical context, describing how shifts in attitude and changes in technique have all contributed to this institution's demise. How can disabled people and Muslim women manage in a mixed ward of thirty patients, all crammed into the same day room? They can't. Through the windows the gazebos rot slowly, roofs sliding off, wood still painted Edwardian green. One with the word FART on it, in huge letters. Here are the wards, tall-backed chairs, abandoned wheeled-zimmers, silvered trolleys, clamps, flower arm-chairs with the stuffing loose, mobile toilets, fractured tables. Everything scuffed and buggered. Locked. On one of the wards there is a sign which reads "Most Patients Are Here Voluntary And Are Free To Leave If They Wish. Should You Wish To Leave Please Contact The Nurse In Charge." The word "Please" has been scratched flat, all its paint removed. The names on the ward doors read Gwynedd, Enfys, Dewis.

Can we visit a ward? We do. On Gwynedd Cerian Evans, the Manager, tells me this ward should be called Dewis. Names are wrong. Doesn't matter. She's got seventeen patients in a ward that used to hold forty. They're here, the patients, because they have to be. Sectioned, mostly. You're an in patient when there's little hope. In the Hospital entrance a framed script carefully explains that "People with mental illness are admitted into hospital only at times of severe need as one would expect for any other form of illness." These are those. These times. The seventeen are mostly controlled by drugs. When we come through they are lying about the dayroom. Trainers, tees, miss-match trackie bottoms. Lethargic desultory conversations. No television. That plays, quietly to itself, in an empty yet sun-filled room further on. In a dismal side-chamber containing four chairs, a low table and a number of foil trays filled to busting with butt and ash a young man, rough shaven and grimacing with fear, pulls smoke deep into himself. They've voted, Cerian tells me. The patients. They've decided unanimously to ban cigarettes from all communal areas. Unexpected and rather dramatically they've taken the healthy option. I ask how many actually smoke. All of them, she says.

Bed numbers have been falling steadily since Enoch Powell, then Minister of Health, made his famous Water Tower speech in 1966. That was the one which ushered in care in the community. Erving Goffman had written his masterwork, Asylums, in 1961 which questioned the whole basis of custodial keeping. Suddenly more than a hundred years of asylum as prison began to be swept away. Patients in bedrobes were found wandering the stores of Whitchurch village. Dressing gowns appeared on the buses. A man in pyjamas ordered a pint at the bar of The Plough. But it's as bad as that now. Cardiff has community health teams out there today to support those who need help to live in their own homes. So how many staff have you here, I ask? 1100. And how many patients? 244. Good numbers.

But I've got this feeling that I'm missing something. One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest runs across the back of my mind. Images of straight jackets, trolleys full of drugs, people screaming, cells with padding on the walls. Do you have these things? There might have been a padded cell here once but that would have been a long time ago. Cold water immersion? Abandoned. Lobotomies? In the whole of Britain there may be one carried out annually, but not here. Restraints? Maybe. Drugs? Yes. Endemic, like in prison. Illicit substances flow in and out. Best we can do is to manage. Bans. Sniffer dogs. Searches. You can't control everything that moves. You can't be the person you manage.

In the back of the pre-First World War cuttings book I've been loaned I find tables showing the number of cures that Whitchurch achieved. Lunatics made normal and returned to society. Great victory. Doctors deserve pay award. (applause). Better than that now.

The jobs they had here once:

Laundry Maid, Coal Porter, Kitchen Mistress, Locum Tennens, Night Sister, Mess Room Maid, Plumber, Hall Boy able to drive a quiet horse, Nurse Probationer, Farm Attendant, Bandsman Attendant, Stoker, Brushmaker, Farm Hand, Painter, Wardmaid, Waggoner, Resident Surgeon, Tailor, Resident Physician, Baker, Storekeeper, Officer in Charge, Singer.

For what?

Acute stress disorder Adjustment disorder Agoraphobia alcohol and substance abuse alcohol and substance dependence Amnesia Anxiety disorder Anorexia nervosa Antisocial personality disorder Asperger's syndrome Attention deficit disorder Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder Autism Avoidant personality disorder Bereavement Bibliomania Binge eating disorder Bipolar disorder Body dysmorphic disorder Borderline personality disorder Brief psychotic disorder Bulimia nervosa Circadian rhythm sleep disorder Conduct disorder Conversion disorder Cyclothymia Delusional disorder Dependent personality disorder Depersonalization disorder Depression Disorder of written expression Dissociative fugue Dissociative identity disorder Dyspareunia Dysthymic disorder Encopresis Enuresis Exhibitionism Expressive language disorder Female and male orgasmic disorders Female sexual arousal disorder
Fetishism Folie à deux Frotteurism Ganser syndrome Gender identity disorder Generalized anxiety disorder General adaptation syndrome Histrionic personality disorder
Hyperactivity disorder Primary hypersomnia Hypoactive sexual desire disorder Hypochondriasis Hyperkinetic syndrome Hysteria Intermittent explosive disorder Joubert syndrome Kleptomania Down syndrome Mania Male erectile disorder Munchausen syndrome Mathematics disorder Narcissistic personality disorder Narcolepsy Nightmare disorder Obsessive-compulsive disorder Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder Oneirophrenia Oppositional defiant disorder Pain disorder Panic attacks Panic disorder Paranoid personality disorder Pathological gambling Pervasive Developmental Disorder Pica Posttraumatic stress disorder Premature ejaculation Primary insomnia Psychotic disorder Pyromania Reading disorder Retts disorder Rumination disorder Schizoaffective disorder Schizoid personality disorder Schizophrenia Schizophreniform disorder Schizotypal personality disorder Seasonal affective disorder Separation anxiety disorder Sexual Masochism and Sadism Shared psychotic disorder Sleep disorder Sleep terror disorder Sleepwalking disorder Social phobia Somatization disorder Specific phobias Stuttering Tourette syndrome Transient tic disorder Transvestic Fetishism Trichotillomania Vaginismus

Ian returns to his Ward duties. Pleased to help, follow up on whatever you want. Welsh learner. Easier to do that over a pint, I tell him. Un peint, dau beint, tri pheint 7. In the concert hall we'd both tried to translate the Welsh heraldic slogans. Looking back we'd both got it wrong. We don't do this as our day job, says Gary. Walking people like you around. For us this is fun.

Could I get access to any of the patients? The institutionalised, the ones who have been here for decades. Knitted cardigans, poor haircuts. Sitting outside in wool hats smoking. Do they know their world may soon be ending? Sure. Next time, says Ian, next time.


Whitchurch Hospital from the Tower
The Hospital from the Tower
Photo: Peter Finch



1. Coryton House was built on part of Llwyn Mallt Farm by J. Herbert Cory (1857-1933), shipping magnate, director of thirty five companies, conservative MP for Cardiff and millionaire. After his death the building passed into the hands of the civil defence, then the GPO and eventually to BT. BT sold the land to Belway Homes in 2005. This wedge of brown field and trees between the Village Hotel and Leisure Club and the Forest Farm Nature Reserve is now Bellwood Park, apartments and family homes, orange brick, wood laminate floors. Coryton House in its lost glory slumbers among the trees, boarded-up but not yet vandalised, guarded by a uniformed Zimbabwean who wants to take my camera from me but fails. "They told me no photos." I assure him I haven't taken any.

2. The Asylum was built to plans from Architects Oatley and Skinner of Bristol who had won the commission in open competition. Their previous experience included Asylums at Surrey and Lancashire. Foundations were dug in 1902.

3. Report of the Commissioners 1913.

4. In 1910 the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, planned the forcible sterilisation of 100,000 moral degenerates. Didn't happen. Plans kept secret until 1992.

5. The Whitchurch gatehouse is now the Department for Clinical Psychology - Learning Difficulties

6. Planned but never actually installed

7. One pint, two pints, three pints. The mutation is different in each case.

Peter Finch

Real Cardiff #3: The End of the Boom - Senedd - Whitchurch Hospital - Leckwith Bridge - Contents


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