Keeping Us in Mind – A Hidden World

Exhibition panel 3

The hospitals and the town

The cluster of five psychiatric hospitals, originally called asylums, was built between 1899 and 1924. Resembling self-sufficient villages secluded in the countryside, each had its own chapel, playing fields, recreation hall and extensive farmland.

Plans for the asylums to care for up to 10,000 mentally ill Londoners were controversial from the start. In 1907 former Prime Minister and Epsom Resident Lord Rosebery described them as a ‘plague spot’. Local tradesmen disagreed.

An ambiguous relationship continued throughout the twentieth century. The hospitals were a major employer, and part of everyday life for people who worked in them. Yet they were regarded as separate from the rest of the town, as childhood memories reveal:

My parents were nice about it and said “don’t talk to the strangers”. Others used other words.” Tim Cole

It was a bit of a hidden world. There were people who lived on the other side of the long, grey concrete wall. Something happened behind the wall, and these people trickled out and you had to avoid them.” Susana Cater

Some interviewees recalled patients being employed in the town, and felt that the people of Epsom had been fairly accepting of the patients.

Yet unease remained. A small number of former residents with a learning disability lived in sheltered accommodation on the site of The Manor after the main site was redeveloped as Manor Park housing estate. Sue, a former hairdresser at West Park, bought a house there:

One day one of my friends said “I’m so scared of the patients“, and I was shocked.”

Sheila Berry, former Mayor of Epsom and Ewell, received a letter from one disgruntled new homeowner:

“He said that had he realised that these ‘loonies’ were going to be near him, he would never have bought his house.”

Bicycles, parties and fairs: growing up with the hospitals

Tony Catherall with his parents

Tony Catherall with his parents

Tony Catherall grew up in Ewell in the 1950s. Like many children in Epsom and Ewell, both his parents worked at the hospitals. He remembers the start of the night shift:

You’d see all these bikes going past from all over Chessington. Probably a hundred bikes.Quite a thing to see everyday!

Helen, whose mother worked at the hospitals, recalls Christmas parties for the staff and patients at Horton:

There was a huge big staircase. That was the staircase Father Christmas came down with a big sack of presents.

Summer fairs were also a highlight for the children, as Helen remembers:

We would go on the rides with the patients because they didn’t have families to do it.

Listen to Helen’s childhood memories.

Listen to Tony’s childhood memories. (Tony’s interview was by phone. Apologies for the sound quality).

Listen to Recordings Here

If you would like to record an interview, please email: [email protected]

Read more about the Epsom Cluster.

Find out more about the project.

Click on the following links to see the exhibition panels created by the project team: