Victorian photos discovered in a loft illustrate new book on historic hospital
Photographs dating back to the 1870s will be used to illustrate a new book about the first half-century of Wales’s first ever specialist mental hospital.
The book, written by Clwyd Wynne, a former Nursing Manager at the North Wales Hospital, hits the bookshelves just as planners have thrown a lifeline to the iconic Grade Two Star-listed building in Denbigh.
Victorian Asylum, the story of the North Wales Hospital from its opening in 1848 to the end of the 19th century, is the first of three volumes covering the history of “The North Wales Asylum for the Insane”.
After the hospital closed in 1995, the buildings were neglected and fell into a state of dangerous decay, hastened by vandalism and arson attacks, before Vale of Clwyd-based contractors Jones Bros drew up ambitious plans to redevelop the site and save the magnificent original central building.
Those plans have now been approved by Denbighshire County Council, subject to detailed agreement, paving the way for a project which will boost the local economy by £75 million and create 1,200 jobs.
Clwyd, now 74, who began his career at the hospital as a 19-year-old nursing assistant in 1965 and worked there for 30 years, said: “It’s got to be good for Denbigh and I’m glad that the original 1848 building is being retained and restored.
“I’m pleased that it is a local firm that is carrying out the redevelopment because it will provide jobs for the area and apprenticeship opportunities for young people.
“At last something positive is being done. I was very frustrated by all the comings and goings with people buying or selling the place.
“Some people wonder why we want to retain it but it was a major part of the town and provided most of the employment in Denbigh for many years.
“Keeping the original building is good but from the point of view of what happens to the rest of the site that’s a decision for the county council.
“Things do change but as long as what is done is sensitive to the community in Denbigh then that’s fine.”
Clwyd, whose wife, Carol, was also a nurse, retired in 1999 after helping find new roles for the 500 staff who remained when the hospital closed in 1995 when there were still 600 patients.
He then took charge of the Ablett Ward, the psychiatric ward of Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, Bodelwyddan, named after Joseph Ablett, the wealthy benefactor from Llanbedr Hall, near Ruthin, who donated the 20 acres on which the original North Wales Hospital was built.
He is chairman and a founding member of the North Wales Hospital Historical Society and as Chairman of Vale of Clwyd MIND is still involved in supporting people with mental health issues.
In the book he documents how the five counties of North Wales, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Merionethshire, Caernarvonshire and Anglesey, came together to plan and build the very first psychiatric hospitals in Wales.
It also tells of the dreadful conditions in which unfortunate people were often kept if they were judged to be insane by their families.
Dr Richard Lloyd Williams, of Denbigh, the driving force behind the building of the hospital and later the Visiting Physician at the Hospital, described the conditions of a woman, found in appalling squalor in a room above a blacksmith’s forge in Llangefni in 1844.
“In the middle of this loathsome chamber was Mary Jones, the lunatic, on a foul pallet of chaff or straw and here she had been confined for a period of 15 years and upwards… seated in a bent and crouching posture on her bed of nauseous and disgusting filth.”
The hospital opened in 1848 with 200 patients but by 1890 that number had trebled – many of those sent to the hospital from across North Wales came from the workhouses which existed in most towns and it was cheaper for the county councils to keep them at the hospital.
There was a strict regime for the patients but treatment consisted simply of work and recreation and Clwyd said: “Life was very hard for poor people in those times and often it would have been easier for the patients who would have regular meals and clean and sanitary conditions.
“Many of them probably lived longer as a result of being at the hospital – a lot of them were there for very many years. One of those admitted in the first week of the opening in November 1848, died there in 1907.
“There were a lot of people there with severe mental illnesses and people with learning disabilities.
“There were children there as young as six, people with epilepsy which was considered a mental illness, women who were pregnant and whose babies were born in the hospital and a lot of elderly people and even a number of private patients whose fees were paid for by their families and helped subsidise the hospital.
“It wasn’t until the 1920s that any idea of treatments started and then it was very rudimentary, experimental and sometimes horrific and that was the case until the NHS was founded in 1948 but from then on the hospital had a very high reputation for the care and treatment it provided.
“At the same time the people of Denbigh were very welcoming and accepting of the patients and many strong friendships were forged and obviously it was a big employer and many families worked there for generations.”
Clwyd, who wrote a brief history of the Hospital in 1995, is already halfway through volume two of the hospital story which will cover the years from 1900 to the foundation of the NHS with the third and final book taking the story up to its closure in 1995.
It has involved trawling through masses of information documented in the minutes of the monthly meetings of the Management Committee in bound volumes from 1848 to 1958, copies of many newspapers but mainly of the Denbighshire Free Press and finding photographs, many of them donated.
One cache was discovered in the loft of the tower at the front of the main building and included photos dating back to the 1870s: “We were gobsmacked,” said Clwyd: “No-one knew they were there.”
Jones Bros have already built a brand-new training centre at the Hospital site which employs seven people and can train 60 apprentices a year while it will also be used to update the skills of the company’s 340 staff.
Under the plans the Hospital’s U-shaped central section with its impressive façade is to be restored and turned into residential apartments and the hospital chapel is also to be preserved complemented by services which could include shops, restaurants and perhaps a gym for local residents.
The development of the site is expected to take 10 years and include the phased construction of 300 homes after the safe removal of asbestos and the restoration of the 50-acre site’s attractive woods and parkland.
Helen Morgan, who leads the development project for Jones Bros, said: “The Hospital has played a huge part in the life of the town in the past and Clwyd’s work will ensure that its memory will live on.
“As a local firm which employs many people from the Vale of Clwyd this history is important to us and is very much at the heart of what we plan to achieve.”
Victorian Asylum is published by Fineline of Clwyd Street, Ruthin, and is available for £13.95 from Denbigh Museum, currently housed in the former Frongoch School, in Denbigh, but due to move to The Old Buttermarket, or by pre-order for £11.95 from Clwyd at firstname.lastname@example.org