One off my Bucket List. The creepy list that is.
A warm welcome from Alison and Willie awaited me at their farmhouse with homemade cake and tea. It was a nice afternoon, so we sat out in their terraced garden with the lovely flower scents filling the air. For the first half of our tea, Alison described how during the summer Willie would give racket lessons while she was forced to deal with everything else.
My trip from London took me along the A267 for 60 miles.
Their 17th Century farmhouse is in the small village of Hellingly, but isis my connection to a mental hospital I want to explore.
The East Essex County Mental Asylum opened its doors in 1903. It is built close to the small village by architect G.T. Hine designed the Victorian hospital on a very large scale, spreading the many buildings on a huge campus, complete with it’s own railroad.
Isolated from everything, having only one single road and its own train line, the psychiatric asylum remained self-sufficient for years.
Patients & staff used to live under the same roof in the many red bricks buildings linked by closed hallways, and offering “therapeutic” and relaxing views onthe surrounding quiet and green countryside.
The funeral of a former neighbour, who was friends with my parents 60 years ago has brought me here. I remember my mum telling me about the hospital - I remember being intrigued as she’d rarely talked directly to me about the hospitals she worked at.
Hellingly was a unique hospital by the fact that it had an electrified railway - the rest of the County Asylums that had railways were served by steam trains. The purpose of the railway was to supply the hospital with coal for the boilers and to also offer a passenger service. The line was considered for ambulance trains during WW2, to serve the Canadian Military who had taken over park house.
I knew little about the hospital until I started asking around the village.
My mother had done some of her psychiatric nursing training there and worked at Hellingly a for short while before, during and after the war. Hearing accounts today, and reading some of mother’s letters she sent home in those days, there’s clearly an awful lot about the Hospital that I didn’t know, and even more that I remember differently from the stories passed down.
My cousin Moire, a retired nurse, who lives on my farm in Ireland, tells me, “in 1968 the hospital hosted an experiment in student nurse training with eight (8) started on the Regional Collegiate Scheme sometimes called RCS (sometimes called a lot worse by the other students).”
“My early recollections after starting at the hospital include the Barbadian independence celebrations in about late Sept ‘68. I remember when I arrived at Hellingly, it was like and Indian summer and the grounds were wonderful. When I left 10 years later and began seeing the Psychiatric Hospitals in Lancashire, Cheshire and Merseyside I realized just how special Hellingly was.” Moire said. Moire is my mum’s younger cousin.
“I remember Matron Bradley’s 1968 Christmas Day visit to the ward (and getting told off for wearing a very pale blue shirt not the regulation white). My first Hospital Suit! What can you say. They were Hardy Ames and other well know labels, but they must have mixed up the measurements. They certainly rarely fitted properly.”
“I remember that shortly before I arrived the HMC had decided that naming the wards was more conducive to recovery and normal life than A1,
G2 etc. This was confusing, not only did I have to learn all the new names based on local villages, also cope with some of the ‘old lags’ referring to them by their old names. I also remember some helpful sole telling me that the key to the maze of corridors was the colour of the floor tiles. Blue, green and brown. I’m not sure of the sequence, but these corresponded with male side, female side and admin, dining rooms, hall etc. The change list told what ward you went on AND what days off you were allocated - for three months at a time.”
“I remember trying to campaign to stop the Hospital Farm closing - without success, and being taken aback when one of the farm labourers firmly pointed out that I was misguided if I thought he didn’t want an inside job as a porter. He said something like ‘When you’re up a 6 to pick Brussels sprouts on a frosty morning, old kiddie, then wouldn’t you want a porter’s job?’ “
In February 1938 my mum had travelled from Killarney to Dublin, and on to Holyhead in Wales and London. She arrived at Euston Station and took the Underground to Victoria. She got a train from there to Hellingly Station in East Sussex. A publican and his wife ran a restaurant across the road from the station. She had arrangements with the hospital to meet the London train and take any hospital staff to the hospital.
He was there when the train arrived. She went across with him and met his wife, and they treated my mum very well, gave her a lovely lunch. She stayed there until four o’clock. We arrived at the hospital about 4.30pm. A warm welcome awaited her there and she felt very happy there - shoe wrote many years later.
She started work the next morning in E1 ward. The sister in charge was from the Isle of Wight, the staff nurse was from Belfast. There were four student nurses including herself. It was a convalescent ward, where the patients from B1 surgical ward were sent. My mum wrote that they enjoyed their work. She worked from 7am to 7pm. It was a twelve hour shift on every ward.
In one letter home my Mum wrote, “My uniform consisted of six blue long-sleeve dresses, six white starched aprons, six pairs of white stiff starched cuffs, six white stiff starched collars, six starched caps, six blue stiff starched belts and a navy blue cape lined with red baize. It had two red straps that crossed over at the front. We also wore black stockings and black shoes. We had to send our washing to the laundry every Monday morning. It used to cost us four shillings and six pence per week.”
“We had a busy time as we were having lectures for our Preliminary Exams. We took them in July so at least we got them over and got our results. Ten Irish Nurses took them. Eight passed, five were from Kerry — one from Firies, one from
Killarney, two from Tralee and myself.” It was not long before everything changed — when war was declared. By then, my mum was used to working on each of the ten wards. “We did about two months on each ward. I did two months on night duty. I liked it as I was with a lovely Sister from Newport in Wales. We were busy but the time went so fast. We had a lot of deaths.”
“The morning war was declared, we had gone to bed about nine o’clock. We were all awakened and told to go to the dining room. We were joined by some of the day staff who had their day off. We were advised about what our duties would be. Much did not change, except the air raid sirens started about 12.30. They may have been testing them, but we did not get much sleep that day.”
“When we went on duty that night, a few wards had already had their blackout shutters up, and the day staff had been helping put out the blackout blinds. We were given torches to walk around and look at our patients. No lights could be put on until all the wards were checked from outside to make sure no lights were showing if they had been switched on accidentally. We got used to walking around in the dark. I knew my way well from one ward to the next. Instead of being on my own ward, I was given the round, as it was called, on ten wards. I had to walk through them all night. Sometimes I used to meet up with the night sister. There were only the two of us on the round.”
My mum wrote, ‘We were unable to move bodies to the mortuary because of the blackouts. Instead, they would have to leave the bodies out on mattresses on the floor. One night, when she was working duty as a night nurse, she heard a thud. One of the other nurses had been walking so fast that she had fallen straight over a body.”
‘In 1940, our admission hospital became a Military Casualty hospital. There were about 300 soldiers walking around with crutches and sticks. We were not allowed to mix with them and they were not allowed to come up the drive to our hospital.
Our final lectures had been cancelled. This was the first week of war. Everything was quiet on the night floor. The sirens got to be a regular sound for waking us, but we got quite familiar to hearing them every day, sometimes during the day. When I went back on day duty again, bombing had started. There was no change in our work in the wards. We were so busy we did not notice the planes flying overhead. They had started bombing London, Liverpool, Coventry, Manchester and several other towns and cities. The London Blitz started in September. Massive raids on Southampton, Bristol and Cardiff. Coventry Cathedral was destroyed, and many civilians killed.’
‘We never had to go into an air raid shelter as we had such a big basement under the hospital. The hospital never got a direct hit. The station did but nobody got hurt.’
One letter my Mum wrote stuck out in my mind. In it she wrote, ‘I was on a TB ward with twentyeight very sick patients. The veranda outside the front of half the ward had to be left open in all weathers. One of our girls got sick, and died shortly after. She was a happy young woman, always smiling and giggling.
My mum only returned to Ireland once during the war. She remembers that the only noticeable impact of the war in Ireland was rationing. They were short of everything — especially tea! That trip was at the beginning of the war. In fact, she could not have returned to England under normal circumstances, but due to her work of national importance, she was permitted to return. After 1940, all the ports to Ireland were closed. She could not return after this visit until after the end of the war. She went on to work in Hospitals in Canada after she met and married my Dad after the war.
After closure, most of the buildings fell into rapid decline, suffering from arson, vandalism and theft. By 2003 the site had become popular with urban explorers who came to document the vast abandoned complex. In mid-2010, work began to clear the site for new housing. Only a few of original buildings now remain, although the Ashen Hill secure unit continues to operate on site. Another medium secure unit is on the site known as Southview which was opened in 2000. Plans are underway for more units alongside the new housing.
With Alison and Willie’s assistance, I was able to gain access and spend the night. One night. The room I chose to sleep in was small, but a manageable size for my fears. During the night I was woken to a soft sound that sounded like giggling. For a few seconds a saw a face, that I later sketched and included in this piece. Given my Mum’s description, I couldn’t help wondering it was that young nurse that died.
My bucket list contains some items that are connected to my parents. This was the last one connected to my mum who died of cancer 22 years ago.
Nine months later my Dad died of a massive heart attack...I would like to think of a broken heart. I decided that I would take a detour to Spain, working my way to Germany, in order to check off the last two remaining items on my bucket list. Besides the extravagant items on my list, these family connected experiences are giving me a better understanding of myself and where I have come from. They are putting my inflated sense of myself in perspective, when I think of the challenges experienced by those who came before us. Humbling indeed. “
...continued next time: Spain - Riding with Pablo William