Introduction to Mental Health Hospitals in Surrey

Surrey had more mental hospitals than most English counties and this is reflected both in the quantity of surviving records and in the increasing numbers of people visiting Surrey History Centre to look at them. In the 1990s many mental hospitals were closed as developments in medication allowed society to move away from residential care to ‘care in the community’. Many of the buildings were left to decay while others such as Brookwood were converted into private accommodation.

Surrey Heritage worked with Surrey’s health authorities to try to rescue and preserve the records from the hospitals. Thousands of documents had been stored in forgotten cupboards, attics, cellars and sheds in these huge institutions

Rescuing documents from abandoned hospitals

The beginnings of Mental Asylums
In 1700 an anonymous author of a pamphlet entitled Some Thoughts concerning the Maintenance of the Poor suggested that each county should erect ‘one General Hospital’ for ‘lunatics, idiots, the blind, crippled and chronically sick’ to be regulated by the county. It was only a century later in 1808 that this idea received official recognition in an Act of Parliament.

Agreement between ‘Dr’ Irish of Stoke near Guildford and Joseph Chitty of Witley.
Surrey History Centre ref. G5/4/69

During this time charitable foundations as Bethlem in Moorfields, Jonathan Swift’s hospital in Dublin, or The Retreat in York, seems to have been ad hoc and largely provided by unqualified practitioners who specialised in treating the ‘insane’. These private houses were often handed down through the same family, applying skills derived from years of practice. One such family were the Irish family of Stoke near to Guildford in Surrey.

One of our earliest references to the care of the mentally ill is dated 1702 and is an agreement between ‘Dr’ Irish of Stoke near Guildford and Joseph Chitty of Witley. Joseph’s wife was suffering from something called ‘Hipocondriak melancholy Madness’ and the agreement is for Irish to cure her for the sum of ten pounds (SHC ref: G5/4/69).

The agreement explains that Dr Irish was to receive five pounds for Mrs Chitty’s board and treatment and the rest if she was cured within three or four months. If she died before that time or was no better he would not receive the balance. If she was cured but suffered a relapse, the ‘doctor’ was to supply future medicines free of charge for three years. An advertisement published by Irish in 1700 also tells us that he took in ‘lunatics’ not deemed to be curable. He would look after them for life and provide good fires, meat and drink and all necessities as long as he was paid quarterly. This was far beyond what was provided at Bedlam to patients and cheaper. By 1807, however, the high standards advertised by Irish in 1700 seem to have been forgotten by his descendants as we have Quarter Session records showing that the current Mr Irish had been ordered to discontinue the practice of keeping patients in chains.

See our leaflet ‘Early Mental Health Records’ for a summary of the surviving records.

County asylums
Under an Act of 1828 Justices at Quarter Sessions were allowed to create county asylums to house people who could not afford private asylum care. Funding for their construction was paid by mortgaging the county rates. A further Act of 1845 said that all counties had to provide an asylum but by then Surrey had already opened its first asylum at Springfield, Wandsworth, in 1841. A second asylum was built at Brookwood, near Woking, opening in 1867, and a third at Cane Hill, Coulsdon, opening in 1883. A fourth county asylum was established at Netherne Hospital, Coulsdon by the newly-created Surrey County Council in 1907. Most of the patients in these county asylums were poor ‘pauper lunatics’ because anyone who was able to pay usually went to a private asylum. ‘Pauper lunatics’ were generally cared for by county and borough asylums but the expense of their maintenance was paid by their local poor law authorities. Many of the patients were admitted to workhouses first before being moved to the county asylum so, having found your ancestor in a county asylum you may have to go back to workhouse records to learn the earlier part of their story.

More information on Mental Hospital Records

Brookwood Hospital plan 1862.<br />  <a href="https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/collections/getrecord/SHCOL_3043" target="_blank" rel="noopener"><strong>Surrey History Centre ref. 3043/1/13/1/4</strong></a>

Brookwood Hospital plan 1862.
Surrey History Centre ref. 3043/1/13/1/4

Charitable institutions
The mid-nineteenth century also saw the foundation of charitable institutions by individuals with specific aims to cater for mental illness or handicap. Surrey History Centre holds records of two of these institutions, the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots at Redhill established in 1855 and Royal Holloway Sanatorium at Egham created in 1885. The records from these homes in general are similar to those of county asylums but the people they catered for and the treatments they used were often quite different.

Epsom cluster
In 1896 the newly created London County Council, faced with the need to provide for huge numbers of the mentally ill, purchased the Horton Manor estate at Epsom and built the five large hospitals that became known as the ‘Epsom Cluster.’ The Manor opened in 1899, Horton in 1902, Ewell Epileptic Colony, later St Ebba’s, in 1904, Long Grove in 1907 and West Park in 1924.

To find out more about the Epsom Cluster click here.

Photograph of West Park

Access to mental health records

Due to the nature of these records there can sometimes be access restrictions. For more information please read the access to mental health records page.

To find out more about the type of mental health hospital records we hold see the mental health hospital records page.

To find out more about the history of Disability and Mental Health in Surrey click here.