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Mansions in the Orchard: Bethlem, Our Playground

Personal recollections of Bethlem contributed by Sue Grime (née Gifford):

A short while ago I was having a clear out and came across some pictures of Bethlem – the opening of the hospital by Queen Mary in 1930 and some aerial photos of the site. These were in my possession because my Dad, Roy Gifford, worked at the hospital becoming Hospital Secretary in the 1960s and my Mum also worked there as a psychiatric nurse.

I forwarded the photos to the archive department and was asked if I could contribute to the Mansion in the Orchard project with memories of the hospital. This sparked a lot of reminiscences with my brother, things we hadn't thought about for over 50 years and inevitably much of it is rather vague. But basically, as we grew up, Bethlem & its grounds were our playground.

When we were young we visited the hospital grounds regularly with Dad sometimes going down to the farm. I remember hanging over the pig enclosure fascinated to watch them then moving on to say hello to the horse, whose name I cannot remember, but I think was a carthorse.

There were also a number of fields of barley and corn and at harvest time we would be taken to watch the combine harvester sometimes being allowed to have a ride. I must have been only 8yrs or so at the time and my brother 3yrs older.

I attended primary school in West Wickham and I remember once missing my bus home. At that time we lived between Eden Park and Elmers End. I walked down to the hospital hoping my Dad would still be there. It seemed a long way to me then and of course he had already gone! I remember bursting into tears, however, the kindly porter put me on the staff bus which passed the end of our road and so all was well and I got home safely.

Our house, which was owned by the hospital, had a garden adjoining another long garden of a neighbour. If we were careful not to be seen, we could climb over our fence, make our way to the wild end of the neighbours garden and access the hospital grounds through the railings. This led us into part of the wooded area where the paths were bordered by huge rhododendrons. We had our own paths underneath these and could find our way round without ever having to resort to walking on a proper path for some considerable distance.

Bethlem 248
Beyond the railings, c. Max Reeves

Then we would make our way to a corner of the barley field that was also wooded. We dubbed this area 'cartridge case corner'. Here, to our delight, we would find spent cartridges of different colours from the different bore shotguns and amassed quite a collection. There was quite a lot of shooting of rabbits, pigeons and foxes as I recall which, as a lover of small cuddly animals, did not appeal to me but searching for cartridge cases was fun.

Our other treat, being fond of animals in general, was to visit the laboratory where we were able to handle the white rats which were lovely with their pink eyes.

My brother and I would sometimes be treated to tea with the Matron Miss Robinson, known affectionately as Robbie. This would be in her sitting room on the first floor of the Administration block. I just recall sitting very still on her sofa whilst tea was arranged on a small table in front of us with a proper three tiered cake stand. I remember her as a very kind warm lady even in her starched uniform.

Mum, Jo Gifford, was Sister when the day hospital, Dayholme, opened in 1960. This was housed in what was previously a cricket pavilion bordered on 3 sides with trees and looking out onto open fields. There was a bridleway leading up to the main hospital and we would generally walk our dog here in the evenings.

As a teenager, on my way home from school, I would walk along Eden Way, and find the entrance to Dayholme between the houses on a roughish path. I would sit and have a cup of tea and a bun with the patients whilst waiting for Mum to finish at 17.00 before we walked home together. My recollection is of a pleasant building with a comfortable and relaxed feel, attractively positioned in a country setting. As with most pavilions, one end housed the kitchen with a wide serving hatch onto the main room divided into an eating area and a lounge. Mum had an office off this area and there were consultation rooms further into the building. At that time I remember Dr Jack Dominion was one of the doctors working there.

There were also some other wooden 'huts' next to the main building where treatments would take place but I don't think I was ever allowed into those.

Bethlem 487
Bethlem's woodland, c. Max Reeves

Both my brother and I recall the time when there was a suicide at Dayhome. A patient was noticed to be missing and Mum went to look for them. She found the patient hanged from a tree. This was a time when parents didn't really share details of such things with their children but Dad told us that Mum was very upset and not to trouble her with anything else. She did recount to my brother at a later time that she had cut the patient down on her own. Knowing my Mum, I understand that she wouldn't want to have subjected anyone else to the trauma of that event.

Some time later she left Bethlem to work at Farnborough. We cannot remember the time frame between the two but it seems likely that this experience had some influence on her changing her place of work.

When I was 16 or 17 I worked in the canteen for the summer. I remember enjoying this very much although I was just cleaning, clearing tables and generally tidying up. At the end of my shift I would walk home, down the path that led to Dayholme, in the dark!

I have no real recollection of meeting many people during our excursions through the woods but looking back it was apparent that neither of our parents had any concerns about our safety whilst we played in the hospital grounds.

I was recounting some of this to a friend recently whose face became more and more incredulous as I continued, but it was just normal to us at that time - but possibly not so common these days. Maybe I would not be so hasty to wander through the grounds in the dark now, but of course, I cannot run so fast now as I could fifty years ago!

If you would like to contribute your own memories of Bethlem and its grounds to this project, please contact us.