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Page last updated at 14:50 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009
The history of Herrison Hospital
Sue Paz, BBC Dorset
By Sue Paz
BBC Dorset

The original asylum building (south front) in Charlton Down - taken in November 2009
Anti-psychotic drugs were not available to treat the patients

The Herrison Hospital was the Dorset County Asylum - the first part was opened at Forston House, near Charminster, in 1832.

By 1843 there were 113 patients and overcrowding meant a new site with 300 beds was opened at Charlton Down in 1863.

In 1913, at its peak, there were 957 patients at the hospital.

It provided accommodation and shelter for people with mental illness and learning disabilities.

The Forston site remained open once the Herrison site was built and did not close until 1895.

The hospital's archive is held at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester and includes: Visiting Committee minutes, 1832-1948, treasurer's accounts, 1892-1960, farm account books, 1900-1919, admission registers, 1837-1960, patient case books/registers, 1842-1909, medical journals, 1852-1928, and patient order papers from August 1832.

The language [the doctors used in the hospital records] is quite shocking for modern ears
Anne Brown, from the Dorset History Centre

"Strict and harsh"

Anne Brown is an archivist at the Dorset History Centre.

She said: "The treatment that the patients received at the hospital, through our modern eyes, was really quite harsh and not very humanitarian.

"There were no anti-psychotic drugs, or medication like we have today.

"It was just a case of keeping people in secure accommodation away from the rest of society."

In 1895 electricity and heating were introduced to the hospital, and a church that seated 400 people was built.

Herrison House was opened in 1904 for private patients and by 1932 the hospital had become a self supporting community with its own farm, laundry, ballroom, cinema, theatre and dentist.

Despite this, Anne explains it was a "pretty strict and harsh" place.

She said: "Looking at the patients records I've been working on I can get a feel for what some of the doctors were like.

"Some of them have come across as very humanitarian and very sympathetic.

"Others I have taken a disliking to because of the way that they refer to their patients, using words like 'lunatic', 'idiot', 'imbecile' and 'feeble minded'.

"This language is quite shocking for modern ears and they're terms which we don't use today for absolutely the right reasons!"

The former female annexe of Herrison Hospital, Charlton Down - built in 1895-6
Some of the archive records are for "very young children"

Entering the asylum

In 1938 a nurse's home was built at Herrison for 95 female staff.

1948 saw the introduction of the National Health Service and, like many other Victorian institutions, the hospital was nationalised.

Records over 100 years old are now on open access at the Dorset History Centre, but all records under 100 years old, and which contain information about patients who can be identified, are on restricted access and an application process exists to access those records via the NHS.

Anne said: "We do have a lot of patient's record which are over a hundred years though, including ones for very young children.

"The youngest we have is a little girl who was only six years old when she was taken into the asylum, because her behaviour had become 'unmanageable' and was causing 'danger to herself and to others'.

"It's quite clear from her records that she had epilepsy and I think now she would also be termed as having 'learning disabilities'.

"As a six year old she would have been taken into the women's ward - both boys and girls under eight years were admitted to the women's ward.

"After aged eight, boys would have had to go to the men's ward.

"There wasn't really much differentiation between children and adults."

In 1859 a competition was held for the design of Herrison Hospital at Charlton Down
The original architect was Henry Edward Kendall Jr.
Additions were made by George Thomas Hine FRIBA, who built the female annexe in 1895-6 and private block in 1903

"Poignant" pictures

The archive includes plans of the hospital buildings and from the 1880s onwards some of the patient records have accompanying photographs.

Anne said: "These can add a very poignant dimension to their story.

"Edith was admitted to the asylum when she was a young woman.

"Her condition is quite curious.

"One of the doctors writes very negatively about her because she likes to decorate her room in lace and ribbons - which actually seems quite a nice way, to me, of making her life a little bit nicer than it probably was.

"It turns out, looking through her records, that she had witnessed her father, who had also been admitted to the asylum, attacking and then murdering at least one of her siblings.

"In modern times we would probably say that she was suffering from some sort of post traumatic syndrome."

Herrison Hospital's chapel building - now a health spa
The hospital has been converted into flats and the chapel is now a health spa


During the 1950s modernisation took place, in both the treatment of the patients at Herrison and to the building.

By the late 1960s overcrowding resulted in reorganisation.

The 1970s saw efforts to help patients move back into mainstream society, and by 1979 there were just 200 long stay patients left at the hospital.

Anne said: "There were various changes in the way that people with mental illnesses were treated over the years and a more community based approach started in the 1970s.

"This accumulated in the hospital closing down to patient care in 1986."

Strong stories

The hospital continued as the headquarters of West Dorset Health Authority until it finally closed in 1992.

Anne said: "It's now been converted into a block of flats.

"Perhaps there are echoes of the past there - certainly there are with the records we have at the Dorset History Centre.

"We can hear the voices of those patients and their stories coming through very strongly."

For more information about the Herrison Hospital archive, contact the Dorset History Centre on 01305 250550.

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