Abandoned mental asylums are treasure-troves for adventurous photographers, curious historians, and well-traveled urban explorers. They’ve got everything: amazing architecture, infamous history, gorgeous grounds. Some are more decayed than others, and a few are barely standing.
Built throughout the 19th century, these structures housed everyone from epileptics to mothers suffering from post-natal depression, to people with severe and often violent mental illness. It was easy to get in: insane asylums took anyone who was committed, but rarely released them in their lifetime. The 1940s and ’50s were dark times for mental health, with many inhumane treatments such as lobotomies taking place, but the ’70s saw a social push for asylum reform.
In response, the government of Margaret Thatcher created the “Care in the Community” policy in the ’80s which altered the approach for caring for the mentally ill from sending people to institutions to helping them live a healthy life in their own homes. Patients started to be transferred out of the asylums, and today there are only a handful still in operation – the rest of the asylums have suffered various fates. Some have been demolished completely, others have been re-purposed, but many have just been abandoned, seemingly forgotten about and left to brave the elements.
Although the asylums on this list are abandoned, that does not mean they are public property. Trespassing is illegal, and they have various levels of security. There are also dangerous, non-legal risks involved. Many of these building have exposed asbestos and are not structurally sound.
1. Denbigh Asylum – Denbigh, North Wales
Image: Andre Govia/Flickr
Denbigh Asylum was constructed in 1844 in response to the terrible neglect Welsh patients were facing in English prisons in the 1800s. Since Wales didn’t have the funds to build their own asylums, their sickest patients had to be sent to asylums in the greater UK. Although they received similar treatment to the other English patients, most Welsh patients didn’t speak a word of English, and their doctors in turn spoke no Welsh. Completely isolated, mentally ill, and powerless to communicate, the situation got so bad one English asylum superintendent was quoted saying,
When the poor Welshman is sent to an English Asylum he is submitted to the most refined modern cruelties, being doomed to an imprisonment amongst strange people, and an association with his fellow men, whom he is prohibited from holding communications, harassed by wants which he cannot make known and appealed to by sounds which he cannot comprehend, he become irritable and irritated; and it is proverbial in our English Asylum that the Welshmen is the most turbulent patient wherever he happens to become an inmate
Clearly, something had to be done and money was set aside to build Wales its own asylum where patients could receive proper care. After Denbigh was completed it housed 1,500 patients and 1,000 staff.
Image: Andre Govia/Flickr
Although it was in use for years, the arrival of mental health reform in the ’60s meant the end for Denbigh, and it was closed in sections from 1991 to 2002. Since 2002 the buildings have stood empty, but the asylum still had one important visitor in the last few years; the Prince of Wales visited in 2004, granting the buildings historic status and saved them from destruction. Although some asbestos removal has started, not much has changed since 2004.
Plans to turn Denbigh into a housing development have been approved, and construction could begin any day.
2. Hellingly Asylum – East Sussex
The Hellingly Asylum in East Sussex wasn’t just a home for mentally ill, it was like a little city. Located deep in the country, the asylum was designed by famed asylum architect George Thomas Hine to be so remote that the stresses of the outside world couldn’t harm the hospital’s delicate patients. Hellingly had its own railway station and tracks that brought coal – and later people – into the compound. It also had its own farmland, water tower, morgue, dentist office, hair salon, and clothing store to supply both the patients and staff with basic necessities. It also had a special wing for “mentally defective” children as well as “advanced treatment” wings where electroshock therapy was practiced.
Given its massive size and primitive treatment methods, Hellingly was shut down in 1994. Having stood abandoned for so long, the damage to Hellingly is incredibly severe. The victim of countless arson attacks, much of the hospital was torched and charred by the time it was set for demolition in 2010. Reportedly, there isn’t much left to Hemminly as of February 2011.
Images: James C Farmer/Flickr
3. Cane Hill Asylum – Croydon district of London
The demolition and subsequent arson at Cane Hill in November 2010 was the final destruction for one of the most beloved urban exploration sites on this list. A massive complex built in 1882, Cane Hill was situated in the lush forest of London’s greenbelt overlooking open park land. It was built to hold the overflow of patients coming out of other London asylums, and was named Third Surrey Lunatic Asylum at the time of its opening. During its 100 plus years of operation, Cane Hill held some famous family members, including Charlie Chaplin’s mother and the brothers of both David Bowie and Michael Caine – Bowie even shot the cover of his album “The Man Who Sold the World” in the hallways of Cane Hill.
Although it held 2,000 patients during its busiest period, by the time the final patients were moved out of the asylum in 2006, it only had around 23 residents. Severely underused and then fully abandoned, Cane Hill was a magnet for urban explorers for over 10 years. Because of its unique location on London’s greenbelt, the future of Cane Hill is under close scrutiny. After plans for it to be turned into commercial housing and attempts for the hospital to be made into an English Heritage site both fell through, the buildings were slowly taken down, piece by piece, from 2008-2010. At the end of 2010, the only remaining buildings were the chapel, administrative building an water tower.
Sadlym in November of 2010 the final blow to Cane Hill arrived in the form of arson. An intentional fire was set in the basement of the administrative building that torched the lower floors and finally set fire to the building’s roof, collapsing the building’s iconic clock tower. The remaining buildings are now incredibly unsafe to enter.
4. St. Lawrence Asylum – Bodmin, Cornwall
Built in 1815, the original buildings of St. Lawrence Asylum are some of the oldest on this list. What started as a small hospital evolved into a large complex, with eight blocks of buildings being constructed at St. Lawrence over the next 30 years. By the time the hospital was abandoned in 2002, interior renovations in the 50s and 60s left the inside cold and clinical. Even though much of the interior isn’t very impressive, the stunning main hall “Foster Hall” makes up for the drab renovations.
Given how recently the buildings were abandoned, the heavy red brick hospital is in wonderful condition.
5. Whittingham Asylum – Lancashire
Image: The Boatman/Flickr
Constructed in 1869, Whittingham was the largest asylum in Britain. At one point, this massive complex held over 3,500 patients. A hospital this size, and this remote, needed two farms, a post office, a railway, a church, private butchers, and even its own brewery to survive and maintain self sufficiency. It was taken over both in WWI and WWII but continued operating as a hospital until it was abandoned in 1995.
Image: Critical Mass./Flickr
Image: Critical Mass./Flickr
Rumors of patient abuse swirled around Whittingham, but the asylum did leave its mark for the better on the medical community. Electroencephalography (EEGs) , or the process of recording a brain’s waves through sensors placed on the skull, was pioneered on the patients at Whittingham in an attempt to better understand mental illness.
6. Deva Asylum – Chester, Cheshire
Image: World of Tim 2/Flickr
Built in 1829, the Deva Asylum actually sits on the still-in-use Countess of Chester Hospital. It was originally constructed to hold 500 patients, but after multiple expansions (and name changes) the asylum eventually housed around 1,500. Although Deva closed in 2005, its proximity to a working hospital has allowed it to stay in pretty good shape. Reportedly, some rooms still have electricity and water supply.
Image: Black X List/Flickr
If you go, keep your eyes out for the “Hazard Room” and the “Ashley” mural. The hazard room was painted as an art piece but the Ashley mural is left over from the hospital days. Both have been reported to be incredibly eerie in their own ways.
7. St Mary’s Asylum – Northumberland
Built in 1910 and given the name “Gateshead Borough Lunatic Asylum”, this hospital wasn’t open for its intended use for long. Although it was also constructed by the architect George Thomas Hine, St Mary’s was taken over by the state and became a World War I military hospital. Once the war ended the building was given back, and served as a peaceful and secure location for mentally ill patients until 1995.
Image: scrappy nw/Flickr
Image: scrappy nw/Flickr
Today the buildings of St Mary’s are in some of the best condition of any on this list, but there are a few reasons why. First, this hospital is in such a remote location, it gets very little foot traffic: you have to know where you’re going if you want to get here. Second, the old warden and nurse’s cottages are currently rented out, and security is incredibly tight.
The one feature that didn’t survive the past 100 years is the boiler house chimney which collapsed due to structural damages.
Image: scrappy nw/Flickr
8. High Royds Asylum – Menston, West Yorkshire
Image: Ash Zombola/Flickr
When it was built in 1888, the High Royds Asylum was known as the “West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum” since it was designed to take poor, mentally ill patients in and attempt to make them working members of society once again. Constructed in a grand Victoria style, High Royds was intended to be an “example” asylum and incredible care was taken in its construction. Local stones were quarried for its exterior, Italian mosaic floors were decorated with black daisies, and Yorkshire roses covered the interior. The crowning architectural jewel? An imposing clock tower that loomed above the hospital.
Set on over 300 acres, High Royds initially focused on helping its most functional patients learn skills like farming and gardening they could use once they left to asylum. But during the ’50s, “innovative” therapies like electroshock and lobotomies became in-vogue at High Royds, and many patients were subject to incredibly inhumane treatments that were outlawed by the ’70s.
As treatments of mental illness became more advanced and patients were slowly moved from institutional settings to smaller homes, High Royds slowly emptied, until it was finally closed in 2003. Since its abandonment, many of the living quarters have been demolished or turned into a housing development. Luckily, the administrative buildings, the hospital’s most beautiful structures, still stand as they were.
9. Severalls Hospital – Colchester, Essex
Image: Glyn Baker/Wikipedia Commons
Severalls started out similar to other asylums in the area when it was built in 1913, but by the ’50s reports of free experimentation on patients was rampant. Functioning as both an asylum and a traditional hospital, Severalls was definitely not exempt from its own fair share of horrible mistreatment allegations.
Unlike the history of many abandoned asylums that are slowly being forgotten, Severalls history has been maintained in a book called Madness in its Place: Narratives of Severalls Hospital 1913-1997 which delves into the asylum’s history and contains interviews with the patients and doctors who lived there. Published in 1998, the book is currently out of print but copies go for almost $200 on Amazon.
Today, many of the buildings like the grand hall and the entrance hall have been reduced to rubble, if not worse. Some of the buildings are so decrepit there are no floors and are clearly unsafe for entry.
10. St John’s Lunatic Asylum – Bracebridge Heath
St Johns opened in 1852 with the particularly lengthy name “Lindsey and Holland Counties and Lincoln and Grimsby District Lunatic Asylum”. Initially intended to hold only 250 patients, it was enlarged multiple times and renamed every time. In 1989 the last patients were moved out of St John’s and the entire estate was sold to a housing development company. Although they turned half of the asylum into housing, they weren’t able to touch many of the gorgeous old administrative buildings, which are protected as historic landmarks.
Image: L-plate big cheese/Flickr
Although the exterior of these buildings is in pretty amazing shape, the interiors are another story. Almost everything has been stripped from the inside . The three things not to miss? The hospital’s massive water tower that still stands next to the asylum, grand double staircase, and the amazingly-still-intact intricate wallpaper covering many rooms.
11. West Park Asylum – Epsom, Surrey
Image: tuna baron/Wikipedia Commons
West Park was the last of eleven asylums built to serve the greater London area. Construction began on West Park in the early 1900s, but was completed in 1923 after WWI stalled the construction. During its peak, West Park held 2,500 patients, but by 2003 the hospital was almost completely empty, with a handful of small offices occupying a few rooms of this massive asylum.
Today it is fully abandoned, but is one of the richest urban exploration sites on this list. Although the patients are gone, many of their personal items like clothes, journals, photographs and patient notes remain. There are also plenty of supplies lying around, including a fully equipped dentist’s chair, as well as a massive oven and kitchen complex. Reportedly, a few padded cells remain as well. Unfortunately, in 2003 the main hall was subject to an arson attack that destroyed all of the contents of the formerly grand room.
Although it’s difficult to locate, if you visit, don’t miss out on the projection room where two 1920s projectors can still be seen.
Been to an amazing abandoned asylum in the UK that we left off the list?
Article by Rachel Greenberg, originally written for NileGuide