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
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
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.
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.
The Hospital playing
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
The Hospital from
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
Real Cardiff #3: The
End of the Boom - Senedd - Whitchurch
Hospital - Leckwith Bridge - Contents
to the top