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Bethlem at Beckenham and the Scottish Village Asylums by Dr Gillian Allmond: Part One

Aerial Site Drawing 1930 1

Drawing of the plans of Bethlem at Beckenham

In laying out the hospital, the modern system of separate residential blocks for different classes of patients has been adopted, and the appearance of the buildings and their setting represents a complete emancipation from the barrack-like structures of the past

– The New Bethlem Hospital’ British Medical Journal, 12th July 1930

On Wednesday 9th July, 1930, the fourth hospital bearing the name of ‘Bethlem’ was opened at Monk’s Orchard near Beckenham, on the site where it remains to this day. Visitors to the new hospital would have been struck immediately by the contrast with the old ‘corridor’ asylum at Southwark with its imposing dome and portico and forbidding frontage. At Beckenham the hospital authorities had constructed something smaller-scale, and much more approachable, with all the hospital functions split into separate buildings and spread over a tree-covered rural estate. This style of asylum is often called the ‘villa system’ although several alternative names are used, such as ‘village’, or ‘colony’, and Bethlem can claim to be the first complete hospital for the mentally ill to be built on this plan in England.

Although the colony layout had been used in some institutions for epileptic patients since the 1890s and for those termed ‘mentally deficient’ after WWI, no general hospital for the mentally ill had used this plan in England before Bethlem. Hospital authorities at Bethlem had set out to build something that would be at the forefront of treatment for mental illness at the time. Bethlem’s medical superintendent in 1926 stated that he wanted the new hospital not only to be ‘up-to-date’ but even ‘beyond date’ and that it should give ‘a definite lead in the development of an ultra-modern type of building for the treatment of the mentally afflicted’.[i] The ‘villa system’ design was clearly seen as part of the hospital’s claim to be ‘ultra-modern’. Not only was its scale less daunting, it allowed as much air and sunlight as possible to reach all the rooms. Better classification of patients was also possible, so that the ‘restless’ did not disturb the ‘quiet’.

[i] Superintendent’s report 1926, 8 Bethlem Hospital Archive: BMO-10 B10/1, cited in McLaughan, R One dose of architecture, taken daily: Building for Mental Health in New Zealand, Unpublished thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2014


A Plan of Alt-Scherbitz, taken from Sibbald's published report

What is often not realised, however, is that the ‘villa system’ was already well established in continental Europe for mentally ill patients and had been so for some decades. In fact European, particularly German, asylums on this plan had inspired Scottish asylum authorities to adopt the ‘village’ plan for all district asylums built in Scotland after 1900. The Edinburgh District Asylum, Bangour Village, opened in 1906, was the most well-known of five ‘villa system’ or colony asylums built in Britain and Ireland before Bethlem. A colony was built for Crichton Royal Asylum in Dumfries, a charitable institution, as its ‘Third House’ for poorer patients between 1898 and 1914. Kingseat Hospital, the new district asylum for Aberdeen, commenced in 1901 and opened in 1904 on the village plan. Work began in 1902 on ‘Purdysburn Villa Colony’ the new asylum for Belfast, where Scottish medical influence was strong, and the asylum was completed in 1913. Dykebar Hospital (Renfrew District Hospital) was built on the village plan between 1904 and 1909. All these asylums were directly inspired by an institution in Germany, near Halle in Saxony, called Alt-Scherbitz, which had been founded in 1876.

By the late nineteenth century Alt-Scherbitz had become a standard stop on tours of the continent by officials and doctors hoping to see the latest developments in asylum care. Alt Scherbitz was such a big draw because it pioneered a unique regime combining personal freedom and outdoor work for mentally unwell patients. It was claimed that 90% of patients were engaged in productive work usually on the farm, helping to sustain a self-contained asylum ‘colony’. Alt Scherbitz was also architecturally forward-thinking - there was no wall around the asylum and no corridors connecting buildings. The only enclosures were gardens connected with villas for the more severely affected patients. In addition, the asylum practised the ‘open-door system’, meaning that most doors were unlocked during the day.

Dr John Sibbald, Commissioner of Lunacy for Scotland, visited Alt-Scherbitz and published his impressions in 1897, having become a great enthusiast for its regime and layout. He was particularly struck by the villa buildings which were designed to resemble private suburban houses, both in their architecture and the way they were laid out on the site. The villas were all different in order to avoid uniformity, and because there was no single huge asylum building Sibbald felt that ‘no inmate can be oppressed…with the feeling that he has lost his individuality and is only an insignificant unit in a great aggregation’. Sibbald considered Alt Scherbitz to be ‘the most modern and the best idea of what an asylum ought to be’. [ii]

[ii] Sibbald, J (1905) On the plans of modern asylums for the insane poor. Edinburgh: James Tuner & Co

Alt Scherbitz

A Villa at Alt-Scherbitz

Part Two of this blog will be coming shortly...

Dr Gillian Allmond is a Visiting Scholar at Queen's University, Belfast. Her recent PhD thesis (forthcoming BAR Publications 2021) was an analysis of the architecture and interiors of village and colony asylums in Scotland, Ireland and Germany and she has several publications on this topic. Gill is currently working on a commemorative project for the 175th anniversary of the famine in Ireland and is also researching the development of 'open-air treatment' in Britain and Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century. She welcomes interaction with interested individuals or groups and can be contacted at [email protected] .