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The History of Mental Health Nursing

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Pantomime at Bethlem Royal Hospital in 1953, largely performed by nursing staff By kind donation of Brian Woollatt

As part of the Mansions in the Orchard project, we've been very interested to hear from a number of current and retired mental health nurses. Their experiences of work and life at the Bethlem and Maudsley hospitals, and the changes to inpatient institutions over the years (such as the closure of the hospital farm), has often encouraged comparisons with large psychiatric hospitals across the country.

"It [Bethlem] doesn't have the foreboding look, like places like Cane Hill and Netherne, these great structures, the ones that are near me, up in the North of London."

"Enoch Powell was the Minister of Health at the time that the hospital lost its farm. But it was nothing to do with him personally against Bethlem. It was a trend, all hospitals were reducing their farms at that stage."

Dr Niall McCrae, lecturer in mental health at King’s College London, and Professor Peter Nolan, author of the seminal History of Mental Health Nursing (1993), are currently writing a book around nursing in these institutions: Echoes from the Corridors: the Story of Nursing in the Mental Hospitals in Britain.

To add to existing material, the authors would like to hear from nurses who worked at any of the large psychiatric institutions in Britain. Experiences and insights of nurses will contribute to a rich account of mental hospital life, giving a voice to workers neglected in conventional histories of psychiatric care and treatment. Nurses’ perspectives will be presented on all aspects of daily life: caring for patients; tasks and routines; relationships with peers, matrons and charge nurses, and doctors; and social and recreational activity. Recently the authors have interviewed ex-nurses of Shelton Hospital in Shropshire, St George’s in Stafford, St Lawrence’s in Cornwall, Hartwood near Glasgow, and Bexley and Cane Hill in London. The mental hospitals had much in common, but these interviews show that each institution had a unique identity, with a culture shaped by staff of diverse background.

"That is a change within nursing over those years in every hospital, general hospital or here, that we all came in my era [1960s], we were all sort of 18-20 and that was the beginning of our career. We were put into a nurses’ home, which was very cosy, we were put into a uniform, we were paid and had lodging and we were given food as part of that. So there was nothing to think of about fending for ourselves. So that has changed tremendously with nurses today, who do degrees, they come, they live at home, they are married, they have got families. The one thing they don’t have is the bond with the hospital that they train in, like we had."

The authors are willing to receive information in any form, including face-to-face or telephone discussion. Please contact: Niall McCrae, or telephone 020 7848 3619.

Teaser: at which mental hospital was a young Michael Jagger (of later Rolling Stones fame) employed?