01. Severalls Lunatic Asylum

Severalls Lunatic Asylum

Severalls Hospital in Colchester, Essex, UK was a psychiatric hospital built in 1910 which first opened in May 1913. The 300-acre (1.2 km2) site housed some 2000 patients and was based on the "Echelon plan" - a specific arrangement of wards, offices and services within easy reach of each other by a network of interconnecting corridors.

This layout meant that staff were able to operate around the site without the need to go outside in bad weather. Unlike modern British hospitals, patients in Severalls were separated according to their gender. The architect of the asylum was Frank Whitmore.

Villas were constructed around the main hospital building as accommodation blocks between 1910 and 1935. Most of the buildings are in the Queen Anne style, with few architectural embellishments, typical to the Edwardian Period. The most ornate buildings are the Administration Building, Larch House & Severalls House (originally the Medical Superintendent's residence).

Administration Building:
he Admin building was for a long, long time completely inaccessible to explorers. It took me three visits, logical thinking, and some risky climbing manoeuvres to finally get inside. It’s pitch black as it’s completely boarded up.

Each time I have visited more lead features have been stolen from the roof.

Superintendants House:

Psychiatric Experiments:
Psychiatrists were free to experiment with new treatments on patients seemingly at will using practices now considered unsuitable such as electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and the use of frontal lobotomy. These practices reached their climax during the 1950s.

In her book Madness in Its Place: Narratives of Severalls Hospital, 1913-1997, Diana Gittens notes that often women were admitted by their own family, sometimes as the result of bearing illegitimate children or as they had been subjected to rape.

As they would not always (or were unable to) carry out daily tasks, they were considered to be insane and some were even subjected to ECT and lobotomy.

A change in management during the 1960s (and likely a change in social acceptances) saw reforms introduced including the creation of art and music therapy programs and the widespread use of drugs and medication.

Hospital Closure:
The hospital closed as a psychiatric hospital in the early 1990s following the closure of other psychiatric institutions. However, a small section of it did remain open until 20 March 1997 for the treatment of elderly patients suffering from the effects of serious stroke, etc., as a temporary building for nearby Colchester General Hospital (which was in the process of building an entire new building for these patients).

Since 1997 the remaining structures have changed little. Architecturally, the site remains an excellent example of a specific asylum plan. However, the buildings have suffered much vandalism and fire damage which has since led to the demolition of the main hall. In 2005, the main hall was subject to an arson attack, and in 2007 the charred building was demolished for safety reasons.

Remains of the Main Hall:

The five boilers were removed from the Central Boiler House in 2007. In 2008, the sale of the Hospital Site, including its' extensive Grounds, collapsed, due to the slow-down in the Building Industry.

Parts of the site remain live and in use, mainly in the satellite villas. The NHS still prefer to concentrate on this aspect over the fact that when the hospital closed, up to 1,800 psychiatric patients were simply released into the community.

When documenting these asylums, I feel a very real obligation to their former inhabitants – a responsibility to capture and communicate something of the hospital’s importance. If nothing else, they were a home for thousands of people for several years, and in a great many cases, an entire lifetime – and so for that, at least, they deserve enormous attention and respect. Many staff, too, devoted their entire lives to care of the mentally ill – while even those for whom it was a mere stopover (80% of entrants to psychiatric nursing left before completing training)

“You know the corridors? There were lots of little ladies scrubbing the corridors. They would be scrubbing the corridors with sack aprons on their knees. Have they got windows in the corridors there now? Well, there never used to be any windows. There were the holes, but no glass in them. Open to the elements! And we’d come off duty and all you’d hear was a screaming – the bats would be coming up and down the corridors! Yes! They’d be flying up and down the corridors. When we’d come off duty we’d put our capes over our heads and we’d be screaming!” - Former Nurse

In some ways, the corridors can even be seen as a metaphor of the evolution of care itself. At first constructed with holes instead of windows, the corridors proved austere and windswept, mirroring the rather brutal views on patient welfare and recovery.

The introduction of windows in 1950s, however, accompanied a more respectful, palliative approach to patients, with far greater attention now paid to quality of life rather than internment. And then in its final few years, as the barriers between staff and patients collapsed and friendships were permitted to form, a final humanising touch is apparent in the form of murals and decoration.

There is one corridor in Severalls which has always blown me away. When you first turn the corner into it, it takes your breath away. It is both beautiful and haunting. The way the light shines in through the windows onto the opposite wall has always intrigued me.

One winter I turned the corner to find the corridor had flooded. The effect was mesmerising.

Some people believe the end photo has been done with special effects or mirrors, so I have included a couple of the failed shots to show how it was eventually composed.

Final Shot:

Same corridor in the summer (taken from the other end)

My wounds cry for the grave:


With paperwork at a minimum, the more personal traces were actually to be found on the walls of the hospital itself. While most corridors were merely whitewashed, I was amazed to discover that those branching off the kitchens were covered in collages and murals (each contribution signed, and sometimes dated, by a patient).

...Birds in flight, windmills, sailboats – in all but a handful of cases, the murals were loaded with symbols of freedom and renewal. Indeed, each painting was gloriously free of cynicism – a childlike sense of wonder informing everything from the mist of a water fountain to the softness of a young bird’s plumage.

As at most other hospitals, there appears to have been little reasoning behind the items left on site. Many are too personal to justify neglect, while others certainly had the potential for reuse elsewhere. Inevitably, this leads to a rather confused atmosphere in some sections of the hospital. Occasionally, it has the rather eerie feeling of a ghost town - of scared inhabitants, grabbing what they could before fleeing.

The feeling in most wards, however, is rather closer to the reality – staff and workmen too lazy and underfunded to clear the hospital properly.

Seclusion Cells:
“Most of the patients here were up and dressed all day. We kept them fairly quiet with paraldehyde, which was a most foul smelling medicine, but most patients came to love it and became addicted to it. Quite a few had to be cared for in the side-rooms and padded rooms. I will never forget the first time I saw the patient in one of the pads. She just had a sheet over her shoulders – no other clothes, and when she was wet or soiled we just changed the sheet. She never moved and was fixed in a crouched position.” - Former Nurse

The seclusion cells are so claustrophobic, even though they are now devoid of any furniture. Whilst I was exploring them I heard security patrolling outside. Struck by absolute fear, hearing the footsteps I retreated to the back of the cell and curled up into a ball.

There was an irony in me sitting here, as a patient would have done so only 10 years ago. I sat in silence, except for the sound on my own breath, and my beating heat, for twenty minutes until the patrol had moved on.

”In the days of Severalls in the 1930s, they were just patients. They weren’t part of the human race somehow. I cannot remember a nurse making a fuss or putting her arm around a patient”. - Former Consultant

”When we used to hand-feed them I can’t remember saying, “Come on, love, this is nice. Try it. Have a mouthful,” or anything like that. It was, “Eat it!” I suppose we treated them almost as if they were inferior”. - Former Consultant

”We used to get the old people up and just sit them in chairs where they’d be all day, except when you carted them off to have a meal. It never occurred to me to think, “Oh, you poor love, sitting there doing nothing all day.” We just took it for granted – or at least, I did. But I think it was a general thing” - Former Consultant


It is often people without exposure to their inner workings who feel the most affection for these asylums. Certainly anyone who has endured the blistering immediacy of acute wards, or the desolation of a geriatric unit…

...Screaming, the unbearable stench, patients who look like they’ve been hit by the first wave of a nuclear blast, wouldn’t be in the least bit sentimental about such institutions.

Flies on the window are normally the first sign that there is a corpse inside.

“The first ward I worked on was horrific: an epileptic ward with at least a hundred patients milling around. The noise was unbelievable – women shouting, fighting and cursing each other.” - Former Nurse

”There was some wandering around with draw sheets tied round their neck because they dribbled so much – their mouths wide open – not a pretty sight. The dormitory was huge with four rows of beds and side-rooms along three sides of the room”. - Former Nurse

”The beds were only about a foot high for safety reasons, as all these people were prone to have fits at any time. The most difficult patients slept in the side-rooms – what a fight it was to push some of them in and get out quickly enough to get the door locked on them!” - Former Nurse

Severalls Lunatic Asylum Part 2 portfolio Click here for Part 2!