Monday, 20 September 2021

Wargrave Local History Society

MEMBERS were given a talk on Fair Mile Hospital in Cholsey by Ian Wheeler, the author of a book about the Victorian asylum, at the June meeting.

Mr Wheeler’s  great grandparents worked at the hospital and he lived with his grandparents there and also worked there for a short time.

After discovering photographs of family members in the hospital’s archive, he began researching its history using documents from the Berkshire Record Office and talking to former staff. 

Under the 1845 Lunacy Act, responsibility for caring for people with mental illness was assigned to counties and was administered through the county courts, which in Berkshire was a union between the boroughs of Reading and Newbury.

They did not provide any facilities and contracted the Littlemore Asylum in Oxford to take on the task.

By the mid-1860s, Littlemore was reaching 
capacity so the Moulsford Asylum was created.

This was later renamed the Berkshire County Lunatic Asylum, then the Berkshire Mental Hospital and finally Fair Mile Hospital.

The 67-acre site, later extended to 100 acres, was set in a rural landscape with a river frontage and views of the Chilterns.

The asylum, which was designed by a specialist architect C H Howell, was “built to suit its purpose”.

It opened in September 1870 with provision for 285 patients. As well as a water supply, it had its own gas works and electricity generator, a kitchen garden, orchard and a mixed farm, sports fields and a chapel.

It aimed to provide “peaceful surroundings”, seen as important in the treatment of the mentally ill. 

With that in mind, the walls around the exercise yard were kept low so the patients could enjoy the views of the Chilterns but with a deep ha-ha to make it difficult for anyone climb over the wall.

Recreation and entertainment were provided and, over time, additions were made to cater for up to 650 patients, later raised to 850 and reaching a maximum of 1,400 by the end of the First World War.

Until the Thirties, the senior staff were predominately male and many lived on the ward. 

The female attendants often had a nursing background but the men tended to be former police officers or servicemen.

Many of the staff stayed for long periods. The chaplain, Rev Philip Raynor, appeared in photographs in 1917 and was still working there in the Fifties.

By the early 1900s, sedatives such as laudanum could be used and early anticonvulsants became available soon afterwards.

From the Forties, electro-convulsive treatment could be used. Although not pleasant, it was seen as effective.

There was little advance in drug treatments until the Fifties, when anti-psychotics were developed, followed in the Sixties by anti-depressants.

Fair Mile Hospital had been designed without specialist treatment facilities so these would be administered on the wards with just a screen around the patient.

This situation was alleviated in the Fifties when a dedicated facility, the George Schuster Hospital, was opened in Wallingford.

In the Twenties a mental nurse qualification became available to staff and the Moulsford Manor School of Nursing, set up in 1956 in a house in the village, became one of the major teaching hospitals.

Modern medical treatments meant there was less need for patients to be housed in the hospital and, after a period of decline, it closed in 2003.

The historic buildings were subsequently made into homes.

The society’s next event will be a visit to Dorney Court in Windsor in July.

For more information call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit www.wargrave

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