This grid includes Canwick Avenue, Lichfield Road and the old St John’s Hospital site....

In this programme, we wheeze our way up Cross O'Cliff Hill on our bikes to the village of Bracebridge Heath where we visit the old St Johns Hospital site.  Once home to thousands of psychiatric patients and staff, the spooky abandoned buildings now attract intrepid photographers eager to record their beautiful decay before the forthcoming redevelopment.  We also hear about plans for the future of the area from a local parish councillor and learn about the history of the hospital.  All this plus a contribution from series regular Tref and another round of A Question of Lincoln.  Click the player below to listen online or subscribe to us on iTunes using the button on the right...

The History of P17

by Joanna Hughes of the Lincolnshire Archives

This grid square covers a large area on which stands the remains of St John’s Hospital, Bracebridge. It was built in 1852 and enlarged on several subsequent occasions throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The hospital was set in grounds of 120 acres which included gardens, farmland and a burial ground. St John’s was closed in 1989 with the remaining patients transferred to other establishments. The site was sold for housing and most of the buildings, apart from the central block, were demolished.

St John's has gone by many names since it was built, only including the word “hospital” as recently as  the 1960s. Before then it was variously know as the Lincolnshire County Lunatic Asylum or the Lincolnshire County Pauper asylum, amongst other names. The way the name of this institution changed throughout its lifetime reflects the changing attitude towards the treatment of those with mental health issues. It’s geographical setting is eloquent of earlier attitudes too; it’s situated, like so many of it’s kind, in a grand Italianate building, in the fresh air, on the outskirts of the City, away from the centre of habitation. The nineteenth society in general regarded mental illness with fear and horror (not to mention a sometimes a morbid fascination) and so the situation of this new building couldn’t have been better placed to allow Victorian sensibilities to forget the problem. The isolation of the hospital on the heath, which had all its own amenities, vegetable gardens, water supply, chapel and graveyard, could have done nothing to help its patients benefit from regular healthy contact with the outside world.

It’s easy, though, from a modern perspective, to condemn the Victorians and their attitude but to be fair the medical profession was gradually making progress towards a more enlightened approach to treatment. Don’t forget that The Lawn, Lincoln’s other mental asylum built in the heart of the city over 30 years before St John’s, was paving the way in the treatment of its patients with the pioneering work of Dr Charlesworth and his staff. He was developing treatment which reduced the use of mechanical restraints in favour of social, occupational therapy which was way ahead of its time – like the construction of a purpose built theatre to be used by some patients. Such new ideas must have been taken on board during the development of St John’s as there was indeed a theatre there.

Nevertheless, when you look through some of the St John’s hospital documents we hold at the Lincolnshire Archives, they paint a picture of Victorian mental health care which still clearly had some way to go.

As well as administrative books relating to the running of the establishment  - minute books, staff salaries, building plans, clothing, food and supplies, we hold hundreds of patient records which date from the time of its opening.

As we come forward through time if the records are less than 100 years’ old, they’re restricted access, subject to the 100 years’ Data Protection legislation, due to the sensitive nature of the information they contain about people who may still be alive. Registers and admission papers contain information like name, age, gender, date of admission, marital condition, occupation, type of mental illness, religion, who was liable to pay the cost of treatment. Journals and case books go into further detail, with information about diagnoses, detail of treatment, the names of those under mechanical restraint or seclusion, details of deaths, injuries and violence.

The reasons for comital and the causes of the so-called mental illness during the early days are often surprising to our modern day understanding. Women could be committed for “lactation” (which refers to what is now understood to be post natal depression), other common reasons for comital include “side effects of syphillis”, “Religious Mania” with “Melancholia” being a term which covered a large array of problems.

The “apparent or alleged causes” were divided up into three sections: moral, physical and hereditary. Here are just a few examples from the Male Patients’ registers (the names are omitted for obvious reasons).

Cause = Moral: always peculiar

Cause = Physical; fell on head many years ago

Cause = Physical: Epilepsy

Cause = Moral: Unsettled habits of life

Cause = Moral: Anxiety about business matters

Cause = Hereditary: Was observed to be deficient of intellect when a child.

Cause = Hereditary: Has been considered a congenital imbecile

Cause = Physical: Much exposed to the sun 

Cause = Hereditary: Father slightly demented.  

Those patients who weren’t discharged or transferred would end here days here and the Archives holds a register and plan of graves, the site of the graveyard being to the south of our grid square.

The hospital closed in the 1980s due to various factors, while understanding and treatment of mental illness had moved on a great deal from the early days depicted in these documents. Now the hospital stands empty, with only the Physician’s House in use and renovated into a pub.

P17

Bracebridge Heath

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Rob’s fantastic pictures of inside St Johns can be found here.

Here’s a short video from Ashley Wilks about the past, present and future of St Johns Asylum....