Losing asylums

Arsonists strike at former Denbigh asylum for third time in a month

Denbigh is far from the only building being targeted by vandals.

Some of you might remember back in 2004 and 2011, Hartwood Hospital, formerly Lanark District Asylum, caught the attention of some arsonists, too. Rumour had it that magnesium had been stolen from local schools and used to set the fire that quickly got out of control in a building where most of the original features, furniture and even the paperwork were left behind.

Everyone expected those Towers to be ripped down after that. Yet, despite that they’re still standing today.

The most recent attack was in March this year. Another fire, pretty sizeable, in a different building from the original one that pretty much burnt the central block up from the inside and left only the stones and architectural structure behind.

And again came the chatter about tearing it down.

From the Centenary Pamphlet for Hartwood Hospital/Lanark district asylum, (1995).

From the fire in March, 2016. Posted on: http://urbanglasgow.co.uk/archive/hartwood-hospital-asylum__o_t__t_812.html

Now obviously I’m biased – I love these institutions – and there was quite a bit of grumbling in the community about the possibility of demolition. I mean, everyone and their nan worked in that place. But there were just as many who seemed quite cheerful for them to go.

Could it still be the spectre of the towers looming that makes people uncomfortable, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just naive and don’t realise that people just see an old. burnt, meaningless building that using us land that could be used for something else.

Like a luxury housing complex. Ugh.

And arson isn’t the only way people are stripping back these old, forgotten asylums. The copper wires, old piping systems etc were looted years ago, probably not too long after the hospital’s closure in 1995. But they’re always going back to find more.  Various little snags of history have been pilfered from the floor, filing cabinets, library, wards… though I can’t be angry about this much at all really, because at least they’re going to people who’ll preserve them. See – so idealist. The fire department also took their turn, using the fenced-in complex to train and repeatedly setting a skip or container on fire. But in order to do so, the mortuary was taken down.

I would love to see something done to preserve these buildings. They were built with palatial facades and are beautiful to look at. We know the history didn’t always reflect this but still.  I wouldn’t even mind following the lines of Colney Hatch and turning it into flats (if just a bit more affordable), if the original character of the building – the external masonry and the complex at least, could be preserved.

Then I read this on the Canmore website:

The remaining buildings of the former Hartwood Hospital site are an important remnant of the extensive late 19th century asylum hospital complex which was designed with fine Scots Baronial features and stonework including prominent paired clock towers and near symmetrical flanking wings. The surviving buildings act as striking architectural landmarks in the wider open landscape.

Let me tell you a bit about Hartwood asylum.

It opened in 1895, and took about 75,000 tons of building material to finish.Including the farm it eventually covered around 200,000 acres. It’s first Superintendent Dr Archibald Campbell Clark was an advocate of occupational therapy (especially out of the wards), non-restraint and open doors, and reportedly recognised the danger of the monotony which could so easily develop inside the asylum. He even contributed to Scotland’s first ‘Handbook for the Training of Mental Nurses’ in 1885. In it’s first two years, Hartwood had one of the best release rates in Scotland.

But. It also used patients as a means of generating income – it actively looked for private and out-district patients. If oral histories are to be believed, it had real problems with keeping patients away from the onsite lake. Patients who ran away, we brought back – like one 19 year-old boy who was scheduled to get ECT in the Summer on 1968.

It’s significant. It’s significant to the wider history of mental healthcare in Scotland and it’s significant to the stories the communities like to tell each other.

And I’m sure this is true for all the asylums falling into dereliction or already demolished.

I obviously don’t know the finances around any project that could possibly save buildings like Denbigh and Hartwood. We all know that pockets are being pulled a little tighter these days. I know charities have been interested in Hartwood. I know that private builders have been interested. I know that the NHS is most certainly not.

But I do hope something can be done for them. They;re an important part of our history – socially, professionally, and an important part of community identity and shared experience, I’ve found. Would be a shame if they were left to be burned down again.



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