Changing mental health: Three Counties Asylum

PUBLISHED: 12:39 16 October 2017 | UPDATED: 12:39 16 October 2017

One of the ornate gothic towers designed by prrincipal architect George Fowler Jones (photo: Jane Housham)

One of the ornate gothic towers designed by prrincipal architect George Fowler Jones (photo: Jane Housham)

Jane Housham

Today they are desirable flats in a grand Victorian building near Letchworth, but once they were home to ‘pauper lunatics’ subject to both the good and bad of the day’s mental health treatments. Melanie Dakin spoke to the author of a new book that explores the history of Three Counties Asylum

Excercising in the grounds in front of the main entrance - exercise and productive activity were key to the ethos at the siteExcercising in the grounds in front of the main entrance - exercise and productive activity were key to the ethos at the site

Panic attacks, anxiety, phobias, depression, stress – are all words used to describe mental health, and according to charity MIND, one in four of us in the UK will experience mental health issues each year.

For many people, talking to friends and family and using social media gives a chance to discuss thoughts and feelings and gain support, a response that is supported by the Mental Health Foundation You are not Alone campaign.

It was a very different story in the Victorian period. At the time when the vast gothic Three Counties Asylum was built in 1860, on what is now the edge of Letchworth, people then termed lunatics were to be hidden from public view and not talked about by relations.

Asylum farm labourers c. 1890Asylum farm labourers c. 1890

In his book A Place in the Country released this month, Rory Reynolds charts the changes in mental health care at the site from its founding to its closure in 1999, an account co-written by Judith Pettigrew and Sandra Rouse. Rory is a systemic family psychotherapist for the Bedfordshire Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service and worked at what was by then Three Counties Hospital and later Fairfields Hospital from 1977 until its closure. Today the buildings have been transformed into a complex of desirable flats with an on-site health club and restaurant.

‘People didn’t talk about mental health in Victorian times, it was seen as something to be ashamed of,’ Rory explains. ‘Nowadays we all talk about it and prepare the ground properly so everybody is ready. Back then it was seen as a weakness of the mind and people in hospital became objects of sympathy really. I had a relative go into hospital and it was never talked about in our family.

‘Thankfully things are more open now. In their lifetime a quarter of people in this country may have a mental health problem, if you’re under enough stress, and it is quite curable through good treatment programmes. The reason it wasn’t talked about was because it felt a bit hopeless in those days as they didn’t know patients were going to get better.’

The Arlesey Gate entrance, showing railway line, into Three Counties Asylum (Bedfordshire Archives)The Arlesey Gate entrance, showing railway line, into Three Counties Asylum (Bedfordshire Archives)

Three Counties Asylum was a huge improvement on what had gone before, however. A Place in the Country states: ‘Under the terms of the 1845 Lunacy Act, the mentally ill were to be provided with humane treatment in specialised and carefully monitored institutions, which were to replace the harsh treatment meted out to them in private madhouses, prisons and workhouses’.

Rory says the redrafting of the Lunacy Act came about because of the controversy of people locked in cages in the notorious Bethlem Hospital in London, also known as Bedlam.

‘What went on was never opened to the light of day, people were locked up and the key was thrown away and they didn’t know where they were or how they got there. In the 1830s a family got very interested in a relative at Bedlam who they complained was being kept in a cage and they petitioned parliament, which was the motivation to draft new legislation.’

Kitchen staff c. 1920 (Bedfordshire Archives)Kitchen staff c. 1920 (Bedfordshire Archives)

Before 1860, Bedford Asylum catered for patients from Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Huntingdonshire but the facility built in 1812 only had provision for 40 beds. By 1843 it had a population of 136. Samuel Hill, superintendent of the ‘model asylum’ in York, was drafted in to make a report alongside architect George Fowler Jones. They found the current building unsuitable and plans were put forward to find a more therapeutic environment for patients.

‘The Ampthill Road site in Bedford was where the town boards would send their ‘pauper lunatics’,’ Rory explains. ‘But by the 1830s things were getting quite busy and they needed to extend the asylum, which was in a terrible state. One of things set up by new act was the idea that people should live in the countryside rather than the towns and Bedford Asylum didn’t like this because they were making money from it and it caused a furore at the time.’

The proposed new asylum near the village of Arlesey was to provide patients with good food, fresh air and a routine of work, leisure and exercise. It also had it’s own railway line from nearby Arlesey station, a chapel, laundry and its own fire brigade.

Nurses on the roof of the hospital in 1937 (Bedfordshire Archives)Nurses on the roof of the hospital in 1937 (Bedfordshire Archives)

‘It was struck up with great hope,’ says Rory. ‘The theory was that you don’t cure people by locking them up – it’s better to keep them active. If they were out in the fresh air working on the land they got far better than if you locked them in a darkened room.’

He adds that all asylums at the time were overseen by ‘commissioners in lunacy’ who had powers to make sure they corresponded with what a government asylum should look like.

‘The commissioners determined all asylums should fulfil the same function and provide one acre of land per four patients.’ Rory explains. ‘So at Three Counties Asylum they needed 250 acres for up to 1,000 patients. The site included a farmyard, and patients as well as staff worked on the land and grew wheat which they sent to mill in Hitchin for wheat flour and semolina. They made their own bread and grew root vegetables and raised cattle and sheep that were sent to the slaughterhouse in Hitchin.’

Fairfield Hall today - a complex of luxury flats (photo: Jan Housham)Fairfield Hall today - a complex of luxury flats (photo: Jan Housham)

When it opened, Three Counties Asylum admitted an initial 12 patients, six female and six male. Two years later this had expanded to 485.

The first man to be admitted was 77-year-old ‘FH’. He spent 26 years in the asylum, dying there aged 103. The first woman was ‘HC’, a 56-year-old widow from North Mymms who recovered and was discharged in September of 1860 but was readmitted twice. She died in the asylum aged 84.

Many patients were detained for no psychological reason. People suffering from epilepsy and learning disabilities were being housed alongside those with serious mental disorders including the criminally insane. Even up to 1938 the asylum was still admitting children from the age of six who had learning difficulties.

Spa at Bannatyne's health club in the former hall of the hospitalSpa at Bannatyne's health club in the former hall of the hospital

Soldiers suffering shell shock as a result of the First World War were also sent here.

There were changes in treatments, including occupational health and outpatient clinics as well as the development of antipsychotic drugs and more controversially, electroshock therapy. An alarming passage in A Place in the Country details how Dr Robert Russell, an ‘electronics hobbyist’ built his own electroshock machine as he was dissatisfied with the low voltage of the commercial one.

‘Looking at the hospital with the best of intentions, these large institutions became silos for people with mental health problems,’ says Rory. ‘But people did get out. The asylum had a very active discharge policy as it was expensive to keep people there. People went home in the 1880s to 1890s. The 1930s Mental Treatment Act formalised the idea that you could be an informal patient, not everybody had to be certified.

The cemetery at the site with the graves of patients who ended their days here (photo: Harry Hubbard)The cemetery at the site with the graves of patients who ended their days here (photo: Harry Hubbard)

He adds that while a lot of people made it back home, to their families and communities, they were by then institutionalised.

‘By the 1970s we tried to rehabilitate people. When you are institutionalised people do everything for you and after three months people would forget how to go shopping or how to catch a bus and it’s very very hard to help people take back charge of their lives. There are lots of people on wards today who haven’t done things for themselves for so long they lose independence and don’t particularly want it back. That’s the baleful effect of an institutionalised life.’

The closure of the psychiatric hospital in 1999 was due to a shift in thinking away from institutions and towards care in the community. It ended 139 years at the site of treatment and care for those suffering mental health issues. Its rooms, corridors and surrounding parkland are the legacy of a revolution.

A Place in the Country is published by University of Hertfordshire Press, priced £12.99.

For more images and documents relating to the site, as well as accounts by former staff, patients and those living nearby, visit, a website authored by Richard Knight of the Three Counties Asylum Historical Group.

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