Note: This is a list of British asylums. If you know of more from around the globe, let us know
Perhaps it’s the hollow yet the forbidding facades. Probably it’s the neglected and decaying interiors, riddled with gusty corridors and the relics of their former purpose.
More likely still there’s something in the fear and stigma attached to mental disorder itself. Abandoned buildings of all descriptions seem haunted by the ghosts of their past – but when the ghosts are the souls of those declared clinically insane and sectioned, the place is likely to hold more bad memories than most; bad memories but also great character, rare solace, and irresistible magnetism for urban explorers.
Many modern psychiatric hospitals – which themselves replaced the old lunatic asylums – were closed down during the late 20th century as Britain moved away from a policy of isolating people suffering from mentally illness in secure institutions – a transition marked by the Care in the Community Act of 1980. We’ve taken an expedition to show you the ten creepiest yet most fascinating abandoned asylums in the UK.
10. Whittingham Asylum
Set in woody grounds in Lancashire, the now-decaying Whittingham Asylum was at one stage the largest in Britain. Built in 1869 from the designs of Henry Littler, by 1939 its main building and annexes housed 3533 patients and 548 staff.
Surreal decay and growth: Hallway and day room in Whittingham Asylum
With its own farms, telephone exchange, post office, reservoirs, gas works, orchestra, brass band, butchers and brewery – plus railway station – Whittingham was the epitome of a self-contained asylum. It also pioneered the use of EEG, the recording of the brain’s electrical activity.
The military took over the asylum during WWI and II, before large institutions like Whittingham fell out of favour with the Mental Health Act of 1960. Allegations of abuse against patients in Whittingham also led to a public inquiry and staff were dismissed. Patients were given new therapies and relocated during the ’70s and ’80s, and the hospital was at last closed in 1995. Since then, this massive site has been derelict and in a bad state of disrepair, one section has been flattened, and plans are underway for redevelopment.
9. Hellingly Asylum
If abandoned asylums are seen as creepy places then names like Hellingly Asylum don’t help. On top of a hill overlooking the East Sussex countryside lie the decrepit remains of this once grand psychiatric hospital – soon to be no more.
Rotting Carcass: Hellingly Asylum fire damage and corridors
Built by GT Hine, one of the esteemed asylum architects of his time, Hellingly opened its doors in 1903, and was a prime example of the ‘splendid isolation’ philosophy evident in the design of institutional buildings of the era. Self-sufficient for years, it even had its own tram and railway.
Until quite recently Hellingly retained its sense of isolation but sadly is currently being stripped out by contractors, ready to be razed to the ground. Most of Hellingly’s buildings were closed in 1994, after which it grew increasingly run-down and suffered attacks by vandals, not least arson. Urban explorers were drawn here due to its size, extensive grounds, great dilapidation, and stand-out features – including its vast laundry, patients’ shop, sewing rooms, water tower, large boiler house and inspiring ballroom.
8. Denbigh Asylum
Denbigh Asylum in North Wales offers a magnificent, even daunting exterior to the outside world, but inside is rotting away. Built between 1846 and 1848 from plans drawn up by Thomas Fulljames, this pioneering example of early Victorian asylum architecture was constructed because of the appalling conditions faced by Welsh people with mental health problems.
Dark and decaying: Denbigh Asylum corridor and main hall
Originally Denbigh only housed 200 patients, but to relieve overcrowding it was later extended, reaching its peak capacity of 1,500 in 1956.
Denbigh was finally closed in 1995, and its limestone Grade II listed building – surrounded by acres of wooded, landscaped grounds originally donated by a local landowner – was left to ruin. Destructive human action has played its part in Denbigh’s demise, with machinery stripped and rooms smashed to pieces. Meanwhile, natural decay has also set in, such that sections of the floor have rotted through, making navigation difficult if not dangerous. Ironically, the most intact part of Denbigh is its morgue.
7. St Mary’s Asylum
Battered but not yet broken, St Mary’s Asylum in Northumberland lies in an isolated location yet with several access routes to its chapel, superintendent’s residence and main entrance.
Derelict but not forgotten: Old hall and dilapidated corridor in St Mary’s Asylum
Its compact arrow plan was the work of GT Hine, and is not unlike that the same architect designed for Hellingly – also in similarly red-brick in style. Opened in 1914, St Mary’s was soon commandeered during WWI; then, after the modification of the isolation hospital to form a sanatorium for TB patients, it was again used through WWII.
Despite various proposals for redeveloping St Mary’s, today this relic from a bygone era of mental health treatment is disused apart from a few occupied staff residences. The Grade II listed buildings have remained in remarkably good condition, probably because of their remote location, though the boiler house chimney has collapsed due to structural failure and its emergency medical huts were demolished prior to the hospital’s closure in 1995. Most of the equipment has now been taken from inside; most but not all.
6. West Park Asylum
West Park Asylum in Surrey is a sprawling complex of red-brick buildings that radiate out from idiotically the burnt-out shell of its central hall. Designed by William C. Clifford-Smith, and opened in the 1923 after use during WWII, it was the last in a long legacy of psychiatric hospitals in the London area.
Decaying interior: West Park Asylum nursery and day room
West Park was built to the American ‘colony’ plan, with wards clustered together in the same building, creating isolated communities, and each building linked to the others via a web-like maze of corridors.
West Park housed up to 2000 patients of mixed class and so needed to be large, with enormous kitchens and extensive boiler houses and plant rooms. Yet in the mid ’90s the hospital fell into neglect and by 2003 was all but closed. A few outer wards remain in use, but West Park is now derelict, its impressive buildings slowly going to ruin. That said, it does draw urban explorers, who are able to see patients’ belongings still strewn around, hospital items like beds and equipment, and even a padded cell.
5. High Royds Asylum
With its 130-ft tall clock tower dominating the surrounding West Yorkshire landscape, High Royds Asylum is perhaps the most grandiose presented here – a stunning piece of architecture replete with Italian mosaics and elegant tile work.
Ghosts of High Royds Asylum: Inside the hallways and wards
With its intricate details and dramatic views, this 300-acre Grade II listed site has been compared to a palace rather than a psychiatric institution. Even so, it has deteriorated a great deal since its closure in 2003, and is currently being redeveloped for housing.
Opened in 1888 as the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, High Royds was designed by J. Vickers-Edwards and is arguably the finest example of a broad arrow layout. Self-contained like Hellingly and West Park, High Royds formerly boasted a library, surgery, butchers, dairy, tailor, sweetshop, bakers and cobblers – as well as its own railway system – and at one stage could house up to 1,300 patients. Today the energy of High Royds’ past residents is said to still be present despite its demise.
4. Severalls Asylum
Ranging over 300-acres, but now-fenced off and hazardous, time was when Severalls Asylum housed some 2000 patients. Designed by Frank Whitmore and opened in 1913, it was based on the ‘echelon plan’, with buildings linked to one another by a network of interconnecting corridors, allowing staff to move around without having to brave the weather.
Echelon bowels: Interconnected corridors riddling Severalls Asylum
Most of the structures were built in an unembellished, typically Edwardian style, and those still standing have changed little since the hospital’s closure in 1997.
Although doubtless not alone, Severalls was an asylum where psychiatrists were free to experiment on patients using treatments now considered inhumane – like electro-convulsive therapy and frontal lobotomy – before reforms were introduced in the ’60s. Today, its buildings have suffered vandalism and fire attacks, leading to the demolition of the charred main hall in 2007, yet people are still attracted by the remnants of Severalls’ past – including leftover medical equipment and a mortuary containing body refrigerators.
3. Deva Asylum
In the grounds of the still-in-use Countess of Chester Hospital is an abandoned gem in Deva Asylum. Opened in 1829, it was originally designed by William Cole Jr. to house up to 500 patients, but over the years was expanded with new annexes until it could finally hold over 1,500.
Do not enter: Hazard room and hallway inside Deva Asylum
The asylum eventually closed in 2005 and since then has lain deserted and exposed to the forces of nature. Yet despite this, some sections look as though they are still in use – if that is you ignore the discarded patient logs.
Though completely derelict, Deva is beautifully preserved. Certain parts are even said to have power and running water, while its cramped rooms, labs and pharmacy are in good condition. Other notable features include the legendary hazard room painted as an art piece a few years back, high security seclusion cells, and an intact dentist’s chair tucked away deep inside the bowels of the service tunnels. Decay is naturally present in the old tiled corridors and stone spiral steps, but Deva also has an untouched quality.
2. St John’s Asylum
An abandoned asylum with an imposing water tower, St John’s in Lincolnshire also features a freshly restored facade – though the interior is another story. Opened in 1852 based on designs by John R. Hamilton, the hospital was originally built to house 250 inmates, but was enlarged at later dates.
The darkness within: Corridor and skeletal staircase in St John’s Asylum
The early inmates were sometimes referred to as ‘visitors’, but as well as cultivating the grounds to provide vegetables and disposing of sewage, they were doubtless also subjected to bodily restraints that belied such a name.
St John’s was shut down in 1989 and bought by developers who have converted half of the site into houses, but the main asylum buildings are Grade II listed and so cannot be demolished. The interior, however, is little more than a shell. Practically every room is stripped bare, although the Y-shaped stairwell remains of interest; so too the extremely cramped cells lining the long, barren corridors. The grounds of St John’s formerly had their own cemetery together with chapel and mortuary, now no more.
1. Cane Hill Asylum
With the exception of its huge chapel and water tower, Cane Hill Asylum in Croydon, Greater London now lies totally flattened. However, there was a time when its boiler houses, mortuary and tunnels – all set in acres of lush woodland – were legendary to those fascinated by abandoned places in the UK.
Gnawing disrepair: On the wards and visiting the dentist in Cane Hill Asylum
Arson attacks coupled with structural damage from the elements took a heavy toll, and demolition commenced in July 2001 – a sorry decline for a hospital opened in 1883 which at its peak housed up to 2,000 patients.
The main buildings of Cane Hill were designed by Charles Henry Howell and the hospital given a Latin motto that translates: ‘I bring relief to troubled minds’. Whether it did or not, in its day Cane Hill was held as an example for the treatment of the mentally ill. This imposing Victorian asylum remained largely untouched until the ’60s when Health Minister Enoch Powell called for the closure of the asylums. By 1991, it had closed all but its secure units and was heavily underused by the time it was shut down in 2008.
With special thanks to all the photographers who kindly granted permission for their amazing shots to be included