I’m respectfully making an enquiry as to a bit of history that isn’t talked about much and may be quite sensitive for some. This is a subject that has long interested me in one form or another, and I think it’s about time I mentioned it on the blog. For over a century, on the outskirts of Burntwood, on the far side of Hammerwich, existed the Staffordshire County Lunatic Asylum, latterly know as St. Matthews Hospital.
This reasonable large facility was closed in the late nineties as part of the then government policy to shut down as many such institutions as it could, and transfer psychiatric care into the community, with varying degrees of success. The subsequent disposal of such hospitals, often set in massive grounds – several of which still lie derelict and rotting – was the single largest disposal of assets by the UK Government in British history. The story of these hospitals is largely unknown and has only really been dragged into the light by a small community of dedicated urban explorers, many of whom made it their business to record the fabric, history and social influence of these places before they were lost forever.
If this sounds morbid or unsettling, please don’t be disturbed; these people really care about what they’re doing and recording. I first became aware of the movement around 2004. If you’d like to see what it’s all about, I recommend two sites; Urbex|UK and Mechanised. Simon Cornwall, the genius behind Urbex|UK, has a beautifully presented site documenting his explorations of many places, from MOD installations to tin mines, but his main focus is on closed hospitals. His work to document the haunting Cane Hill Asylum in Coulsden, Surrey set the standard, and is beautiful, moving and startling. Simon has also documented Rauceby, his work with which gained him national attention on the BBC’s ‘Restoration’ program.
Mechanised, on the other hand, is a more personal, involved account of many places, but involves some fascinating explorations of former asylums. The photography is more artistic than documentary, and the prose burns. This is real, gut-wrenching stuff.
St. Matthews, the hospital close to us, has long since gone. Sold and mostly demolished soon after closure, it’s now a modern housing estate, up on the hill above Coulter Lane. The administration block and chapel remain, and were converted to modern apartments and a nursery respectively. Few now talk of the past. I know of few pictures of the hospital; oddly to us, many of these hospitals featured on postcards, yet I’ve never seen one of this institution. There is some mention online, but not much, and some very good material in the book ‘This Won’t Hurt! – A history of the hospitals of Lichfield‘ by Mary Hutchinson, Ingrid Croot and Anna Sadowski. I wonder how locals remember the place?
I’m not asking for patient or relative stories, but if you feel comfortable relating them, that’s fine; what I’m thinking is that this was a large community all of it’s own. Many local people worked there – as medics, nurses, domestics, handymen, engineers, gardeners. They had their own social club, sports teams and musical ensembles and groups. There was an economic relationship with the wider community. The place must have it’s own tales, stories and characters. There has to be a social history here that’s worth trying to record.
Please comment or contact me on BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.