When I was little my grandparents owned an antiques shop in Menston, a small village split between the cities of Leeds and Bradford. Menston is suburban, but if you drive 5 minutes outside the village you quickly find yourself in semi-rural landscapes: farms, fields, and, to the west, ‘the tops’ – the long stretch of moor that eventually brings you to Ilkley. As a child my knowledge of Menston revolved around the park and my grandparents’ shop – my granddad’s workshop in the cellar, my grandma’s ridiculously large shoe collection under the bed, and the white wrought-iron chair on the pavement where I’d sit and watch cars go past on the main road. Even at that age Menston seemed small.
It wasn’t just a child’s perception – Menston really is small. If you search Menston on google maps a red pin falls onto a small patch of grey a way north of Leeds and Bradford, closer to the brown patchwork of Ilkley Moor than the city centre. Go back through old ordnance survey maps and Menston shrinks before your eyes; in 1906 the major landmarks are there but the modern bungalows are missing; in 1896 Main Street is a dark thread running through fields; in 1851 Menston Methodist Church and Menston Hall are surrounded by blank space, interrupted by occasional quarries and coal pits that are still faintly visible on satellite images today. On the 1851 map, to the south of Menston proper, sits a small holding called High Royds. In 1896, a dark semi-circle appears east of the holding: a cluster of rectangular buildings, roads, and labels; Mortuary, Infectious Diseases Hospital, County Lunatic Asylum. This is the Western side of High Royds Hospital, split between two different ordnance survey maps.
High Royds Hospital opened in 1888 as the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum and closed in 2003, one of the last institutions of its kind to be shut down. The complex of gothic buildings was designed by the county architect, J. Vickers Edwards, and was situated on a 300 acre site removed from the urban centre. This isolation was intentional: the asylum was conceived as a self-contained village, complete with its own doctor’s surgery, fire station, shops, graveyard, and railway, which peeled discreetly away from the main line somewhere between Guiseley and Menston. Like many of the grand civic projects executed by the Victorians the hospital combined function with art: the main corridor featured a mosaic floor patterned with the white Yorkshire rose, the walls were decorated with glazed Burmantoft tiles from Leeds, and the main building housed a full-sized ballroom with arched windows and a gracefully curving roof.
Visible for miles around: High Royds clock tower from Menston
For those familiar with High Royds’s history, its grand buildings may seem at odds with its grim reputation. At the time of its opening, however, High Royds was perceived as a symbol of progress – an interpretation that was not entirely unjustified. Victorian asylums such as High Royds were, at least to some extent, a genuine attempt by the state to improve the lives of people with mental illness, constructed as a response to abuses at private asylums such as London’s infamous Bethlem Hospital and increasing discomfort at the notion that those with mental illnesses were ‘degenerates’ who should be imprisoned rather than treated. Significantly, the Lunacy Act of 1845 stipulated that the mentally ill should be seen as patients rather than criminals, and made provisions for the establishment of new County Asylums where treatment, not punishment, was the order of the day. Without this context, it is easy to dismiss High Royds and other County Asylums as symbols of a backwards era in which mild conditions were ‘treated’ with lobotomies; for all their many failings, however, High Royds and similar asylums did represent a departure from earlier understandings of mental illness as a form of criminal degeneracy, towards a less judgemental perception of mental illnesses as conditions that could be treated like any other.
A further complication to absolute condemnations of the asylum is the mixed record of the treatments used at High Royds, and particularly the experimental cures developed in the early twentieth century. Perhaps the most infamous of these treatments is Electric Convulsive Therapy, in which electrical currents are passed through the patient’s brain in order to induce seizures. Archival footage of patients undergoing Electric Convulsive Therapy is unsettling, but ECT is still used – albeit with caution – to treat severe depression and psychosis, and has vocal defenders among those who have found it effective where more conventional treatments have failed. During the 1970s, the use of lithium as a treatment for depression and bipolar disorder was developed by Dr Roy Hullin at High Royds; like ECT, lithium is still used today to treat severe cases of depression. Another challenge to black and white interpretations is posed by the minority of patients who express fond memories of High Royds in its later years. Among the many personal stories hosted on the High Royds Hospital blog (sources listed at the bottom of this post) is that of Wendy McNeill, an American exchange student at the University of Leeds who was hospitalised at High Royds in the 1990s with bipolar disorder. In her account, Wendy describes the positive relationships she formed with staff and expresses gratitude for the standard of care she received. Whilst High Royds should not be romanticised, these more positive accounts do complicate blanket characterisations of High Royds as a symbol of a backwards era.
Despite the good intentions of its founders, however, many aspects of High Royds’s history do fit the popular image of the asylum as a warehouse where vulnerable patients were routinely abused and subject to devastating clinical ‘treatments’. Among the many failed interventions used at High Royds was insulin shock therapy: developed in Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s, this treatment involved injecting schizophrenic patients with large doses of insulin so as to induce short-term coma. Footage of insulin shock therapy shows patients sweating and undergoing seizures before being brought round via a nasal tube. Lobotomies – the surgical severing of the frontal lobe – were carried out at High Royds into the 1970s. The procedure essentially amounted to the wiggling of a sharp instrument in delicate areas of the brain in the hope of severing the ‘bad’ connection, and could leave patients incontinent and unable to speak. In 2010, the BBC broadcast a documentary named ‘Mental: A History of the Madhouse’, which examined High Royds’s status as an archetypal Victorian institution, and highlighted the enduring effects of experimental treatments of patients’ lives. One scene shows Maggi Chapman, a housewife who was hospitalised in the 1960s due to violent outbursts, describing how a doctor convinced her to sign up for a promising new treatment – the insertion of an electrode into her skull in order to burn out a piece of her brain. The archival footage of the procedure is unpleasant: Chapman is clearly distressed when the electrode is switched on, and asks the doctor repeatedly why he had to do it. He brushes her off as if she were a naughty child. In the documentary Chapman recalls how the doctor knew when he’d found the ‘right’ part of her brain when he saw her pupils dilate in fear. If patients were subjected to traumatic clinical procedures, danger could also come from outside: in 2014, a report into Jimmy Savile’s crimes in Leeds and further afield revealed that he had been accused of sexually assaulting several women at charitable galas held at High Royds in the late 1980s. This association with Savile did little to redeem High Royds’s already questionable reputation.
In 2007 I left my old secondary school in Pudsey and began taking the bus to Menston where I met my future partner, Chris. My school and his house were situated just across the road from High Royds. Over the years his family told similar stories to the ones I’d heard from my family about patients who would wander off-site and into the village, sitting on the white chair outside my grandparents’ shop or turning up in back gardens. Some of these stories were darkly comical, like the time my dad encountered a man sitting on an antique chaise-lounge in my grandparents’ shop, claiming to be the Duke of Bedford’s son only unrecognisable on account of his extensive plastic surgery. Some were less so, like the woman who wandered into Chris’s house and said she was in High Royds because she hurt people, even though she didn’t mean to. By the time I started sixth form the hospital had been shut for 4 years. The site had been purchased by a developer and was earmarked as a luxury housing complex with Victorian architectural features. One lunchtime, when building work was still in its early stages, I walked around the site perimeter with friends: the buildings were fenced off, the grass was dry and the saplings that had been planted by the developers did little to break the monotony. Despite the signs of construction the site still felt distinctly abandoned. Later that day an online search alerted me to the existence of a graveyard over the road from the main site, tucked behind the ambulance station on Buckle Lane. 2,861 unclaimed bodies were buried in this small field between 1890 and 1969, sometimes deposited three-deep. The only clue as to the field’s purpose was a run-down stone chapel. Once, walking home from the pub with Chris, I jokingly suggested a night-time detour via Buckle Lane. Neither of us dared go.
The old mortuary: welcoming
For a long time my interest in High Royds could be described as a macabre fascination. I enjoyed the eeriness of the graveyard and the hospital grounds in the same way I enjoyed watching horror films, taking pleasure in the feeling of uneasiness. At this time, High Royds seemed less like a real place where real people had lived than it did a symbol of all the unpleasant things that society swept under the carpet. In this respect, High Royds fulfilled the same function as the derelict house in the woods or the old building at the end of the road – it provided a vessel for the expression of deeper fears about the unknown and the hidden. One side effect of this symbolism, however, is that the urban legends that grew up around places such as High Royds can obscure the actual histories of the people who lived there. If High Royds represented the dark and the unknown, its inhabitants quickly became what the German philosopher Edmund Husserl would have described as ‘the Other’ – people who are fundamentally different from ourselves, who don’t belong. To put it in less elevated terms I thought people who had been committed to High Royds were probably loonies, and assumed they were nothing like me.
As I grew older my interest in High Royds became less detached. Some time around 2010 I started to wonder if I was entirely sane. I’d begun having strange thoughts that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and which didn’t bear much relation to my daily life. One Sunday afternoon I found myself sitting a metre above the floor on the sink in my room, imagining that I was sitting on a skyscraper about to jump. It was ridiculous, but I found myself climbing onto the sink repeatedly over the next few weeks. Then it stopped, and I shrugged the incident off and forgot about it. Then, in 2014, I read a news article about a man who was burned alive in a horrible industrial accident. It was as if a switch was suddenly flicked on, and for the next week I found myself sleep-deprived, ostensibly writing my thesis but actually trying to imagine how it would feel like to burn alive, what it would be like to watch a loved one burn alive, holding my hand over the hob for a split-second to try to get a sense of what it would feel like, and being afraid to sleep. I set myself a time limit: if this didn’t stop by the end of the week I’d visit a doctor and find out if something was medically wrong. And then, again, it receded. Only to flare up again a fortnight later when I read another article that made passing reference to an unsolved kidnapping. Over time I developed the ability to spot these fixations before they developed, and if I saw something that set alarm bells ringing I’d imagine locking a series of doors to shut out the image. I eventually visited my GP, who said I probably had some form of mild undiagnosed anxiety or OCD and that I could see a psychiatrist if I wanted. I didn’t bother, figuring that there’d be no shortage of psychiatrists if I changed my mind.
Whilst hardly severe, these bizarre intrusions showed me that you could be living a normal life and suddenly be confronted with strange thoughts and preoccupations. It was an uneasy realisation and it made me wonder how many of the patients at High Royds had held down jobs, relationships, families, only to find themselves unexpectedly gripped by something beyond their comprehension. It wasn’t just because of my own experiences; during this period I was studying for a PhD, which led me to research the treatment of mental illness – and particularly the incarceration of women on spurious grounds – in turn of the century asylums. Although I didn’t focus on High Royds, researching other grand old asylums such as the Salpêtrière in Paris made me realise just how flimsy the medical evidence for commitment could be, and the gendered dynamics that meant women were disproportionately locked up for reasons that often amounted to little more than scientifically legitimised prejudice. I was struck by the sweeping diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ in female patients, a condition that seemed at best a vague catch-all descriptor for diverse psychological conditions, and at worst a way for male clinicians to incarcerate women who didn’t fit society’s view of appropriate feminine behaviour. Re-watching the BBC documentary on High Royds, I realised just how easy it was for ‘normal’ people to wind up in an institution and never leave. I was struck by the story of Jean Davison, born in 1950, who left school at a young age and quickly became depressed. She was initially admitted to High Royds for a week of respite, but was sedated and convinced to sign up for a course of ECT. One week turned into 5 years. In High Royd’s early decades the discharge rate was just 30 per cent. If High Royds represented a noble aspiration – to provide asylum, in the truest sense of the word, to those who needed it -, the asylum quickly became a place that kept people ill, with powerful sedatives and institutionalisation giving little chance of re-engagement with the outside world.
Learning more about the people who lived in asylums like High Royds, and the social attitudes that helped keep them there, made me look at the site in a new way. In 2018 I was in the middle of a multi-leg move from Bristol to Leeds. We’d handed in notice on our flat just in time for the winter storm nicknamed the ‘Beast from the East’, and found ourselves moving back to the North in terrible conditions. One night we stayed at Chris’s house, directly opposite High Royds. Snow was beginning to settle and there was a stiff wind. I suggested a night-time walk round High Royds to get out of the house. We entered through the back road. I tried to take photos of the old clock tower and ended up with blurred, blackened images that looked like out-takes from The Blair Witch Project.
High Royds, Blair Witch Edition
This time, though, the site didn’t feel as eerie as it once did. In the eleven years since I’d first walked round the grounds the development had mushroomed, and the snow and the darkness couldn’t muffle the tell-tale sounds of habitation – doors opening and closing, light spilling onto the pavements, cars creeping cautiously over black ice. Several weeks later we returned in daylight. This time we could see the extent of the development – new builds nestling among older sandstone, banners proclaiming new luxury apartments in the old clock-tower, women on horses heading for a ride out. Occasionally something would jar: on our way into the complex we came across the old mortuary, still abandoned and fenced off, looking squat and unwelcoming. For the most part, though, the site seemed to have suddenly lost the atmosphere it once held. I wondered if I could ever live in the old buildings. I decided I probably could.
Luxury Apartments in the old clock tower: I probably won’t move in just yet
I still don’t know exactly what I think of institutions like High Royds. In many respects its closure was long overdue. Generally speaking, I’d say that people with mental illnesses should be supported within their communities rather than in institutions. The problem is what happens when there is no community, when mental health services are overstretched and underfunded. Although the abuses at High Royds and other asylums were more than sufficient to justify their closure, it is wise to remember that Thatcher’s emphasis on ‘care in the community’ was intended in great part as a cost-cutting measure, and that the enduring stigma attached to mental illness could make re-integration difficult. Part of me also wonders whether there is a place for institutions like High Royds – a space where all necessary services are provided on-site, giving patients time away from a pressured environment. Then I remember that this fine in theory, but the reality was that the majority of High Royds’s early patients never left the asylum, and a significant number wound up in the mass graves at Buckle Lane. Despite the failings of community care, it was only after leaving High Royds that people like Maggi and Jean regained control over their lives; if they had been hospitalised twenty or thirty years earlier they might never have been able to do so.
The asylums are not going to re-open any time soon, which leaves a question – what do we do with sites like High Royds today? Although High Royds might be the most impressive asylum complex remaining in the UK, it is far from the only historic site of its kind (the former buildings of the Stanley Royd hospital can be found in nearby Wakefield, and there other well-known abandoned sites at Glasgow and Barrow Gurney in Somerset). An obvious solution would be a museum, where the story of the asylum could be made accessible to the public. A friend who studies linguistics is currently researching letters that were written by patients at asylums including High Royds, but which were never sent to their intended recipients by staff. The letters are held in the collections of the West Yorkshire Archives in Wakefield and I had no idea that they were held there until recently. Part of me thinks these letters should form part of a public exhibit – not just on account of their obvious public interest, but because it seems fair that people who received little attention in life should receive some in death.
High Royds is not going to become a museum. In this case, perhaps the best alternative is what is currently taking place – re-development. Visiting High Royds over several years I’ve seen the grounds slowly being re-inhabited, people moving into the old buildings, and maybe discovering the history of the site. Perhaps over time High Royds will become just another residential area, a normal part of the landscape. This might seem a risky approach: if High Royds becomes just another part of Menston, maybe the hospital will become just another jumble of buildings and its history will fade from collective memory. I think this is unlikely, however: the distinctive character of the buildings hasn’t been diminished by the re-development, and local engagement with the history of High Royds seems to have increased steadily over time, with ex-patients frequently taking the lead. In 2009 a group of local volunteers raised funds to restore the chapel and construct a new memorial garden at Buckle Lane cemetery. The group in charge of the restoration was overseen by Derek Hutchinson, who had himself undergone ECT and a lobotomy whilst a patient at High Royds. The opening was attended by Jean Davison, who has written a book about her experiences since leaving the hospital. The rise of urban exploration and photography has also resulted in a renewed fascination with High Royds, allowing those lucky enough to find a way inside to develop a more personal connection with the old site and share their findings with others. I’ve never set foot in High Royds, but after a friend uploaded photographs he’d taken inside on social media it’s been easier for me to reconstruct the interiors in my head. So long as the buildings remain and the stories of its inhabitants are preserved, I can’t see the public fascination with High Royds fading any time soon.
High Royds’s legacy is complicated. Some of the treatments used at High Royds did have a medical benefit, and some patients such as Wendy, who was hospitalised in the hospital’s later years after the most damaging treatments had been phased out, found that the asylum provided a useful service. Nevertheless, a greater number of testimonies emphasise the loss of freedom, failed treatments, and enduring trauma experienced by patients. Although some doctors and medical staff held a genuine belief in the value of High Royds and similar institution, some also used patients as experimental guinea-pigs with little regard for the devastating effects of failed clinical experiments on their lives. Although it is true that ‘things were different back then’, it is still hard to shake the feeling that some of the things that took place at High Royds – documented abuse, patients signing consent forms under heavy sedation – were unacceptable even by the standards of the times. Talking about lessons to be learnt from High Royds might be a cliché, but given more recent scandals in care homes and closed wards it still seems necessary to emphasise the damage that can be done by prejudice, ignorance, and lack of empathy. Hopefully the increasing public interest in High Royds’s history will help us to cast a more critical eye on the present, and to recognise that whilst the use of lobotomies and insulin therapy may seem incomprehensible today, the attitudes that enabled the mistreatment of patients at High Royds have not entirely faded.
Sources you might like:
‘Mental: A History of the Madhouse’, 2010, 59 mins, BBC 4, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oswUssXzFlY>
Wendy McNeill’s story appears on the High Royds Hospital blog, which is run by local historian Mark Davis. See <http://www.highroydshospital.com/galleries/better-than-wuthering-heights/>
A 2008 newspaper article from The Wharfedale Observer detailing the restoration of Buckle Lane, featuring quotes from David Hutchinson, can be found here:< http://www.wharfedaleobserver.co.uk/features/featuresbehindnews/2291095.how_a_group_of_people_are_trying_to_restore_dignity_to_2_800_forgotten_souls/>
Recent abuse scandals at care homes and institutions suggest that social isolation of residents and staff prejudice are recurring themes in the present. See:
The John Rylands Library in Manchester has numberous photographs related to High Royds, which can be viewed here: Picturing the The West Riding Asylum, Menston, Yorkshire, 1901