I’ve been shooting images of abandoned Victorian and Edwardian lunatic asylums and mental hospitals for just over ten years now, ever since I was first asked to shoot one single image of the outside of one as an illustration for a book, back in 2008.
The building in question opened in 1852 and had already been abandoned since 1989. While the weather, nature, vandals, and plunderers of various types had already taken their toll on the building, it still stood imposing, defiant and forbidding. Somehow it had managed to avoid the fires, both accidental and deliberate, which had typically put an end to dozens of others as they stood awaiting the final judgment of a society which had once celebrated them as a solution to a whole range of perceived medical, moral and social problems, but was now falling over itself to sweep them away for housing, car parks, and shopping malls.
My knowledge of these historic institutions at that time was much the same as most, I suppose; it came from films and TV and meant they were places of incarceration and misery, places to be feared in their day and just as much, perhaps even more so, in their gloomy, derelict abandonment. Even the word “asylum”, so caring and maternal when first introduced as an alternative to the pejorative “madhouse” of the 18th and early 19th Centuries, had come to symbolize fear, persecution, horror and the grim concept of long-term, possibly permanent detainment against a human will.
A Monastic Design Is Used In This Italian Asylum
The Victorians Were Always More Partial To Ivy
As I explored these places on foot, finding out which were still in use, which were long gone, and which were empty, I learned more about the practicalities and layout of the places from the inside, while soaking up knowledge about their remarkable histories and the ideas which led to their creation when back on the outside.
Bay Window In A Day-Room
Tatters, Or Ribbons
While even the smallest public asylums in Britain were the size of a generous town hall or other big civic building, the largest spanned over a third of a mile end-to-end (around three times the length of Battersea Power Station or wider than the Empire State Building is tall), composed in some cases of more than 27,000,000 bricks and home to well over 3,500 patients and hundreds of staff. These self-contained buildings were designed to provide everything that could possibly be needed (physically, at least) within a single location which could take half a day or more to walk around, without even leaving the same set of buildings, interconnected as they were with walkways, tunnels, and seemingly endless corridors. Some of the later, more spread-out designs were three-quarters of a mile between the furthest wards, leaving staff often resorting to bicycles just to make their daily rounds.
Nature Ignoring The Boundaries Set
The history of these buildings from their creation in the Georgian era of the early 19th Century through to their mass construction in Victorian times and their eventual demise and destruction from the 1980s onwards would obviously involve more than any post could ever contain, as would my thousands of images taken from over 70 different locations. So for this post, I’m limiting myself to one aspect which always seemed the most poignant to me: the views seen from the windows. The grand entrances, endless corridors, imposing towers and lavish ballrooms tend to dominate the imagery that we see from asylums after their closure, and understandably so. But while I have admit my role as something of an inevitable tourist, a passing voyeur in what was, for better or worse (and while it’s completely untrue to say these places were always negative for all of those who lived in them, it’s safe to say it was more often for the worse) not a happy place to be for most, I have always had a respect for those who called these places home, willingly or otherwise, and thought of my reason to be there more as documentation than exploitation.
Glazed Corridors Navigate The Ground Between Wards, Allowing Easy Movement, But Also Constant Containment
So to that end, I wanted to present one of the lesser considered aspects; a collection of views of and from windows in some asylums and mental hospitals in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Italy, built between 1713 and 1937. These were often the moments where I would pause a little longer, forget the photography for a moment or two to just look and listen, and feel, or believe I could feel, just a little more able to stand in someone else’s shoes for a second. And even if in reality of course I had no idea how any of the patients themselves felt, the frame and aperture that a window provides meant I knew I was definitely standing in the exact spot and seeing a scene that in some cases was almost entirely unchanged from what they had looked out on, sometimes more than two and a half centuries ago.
Through The Round Window
These photos span from 2008 to 2019, and the variation in quality reflects that personal journey for me too; many are shots I wouldn’t normally publish as in many cases they were taken without any particular future use in mind (or represent a time when still learning my craft), and being as I say, perhaps less photogenic or striking than many of the other images we expect to see from such locations.
I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I enjoyed taking them, and that getting to see as close as can now be offered to what the people who called these places home would have seen can give you just a little insight into the lives of those hundreds of thousands who almost never got a chance to make their own thoughts and feelings known, being buried so deeply in these initially well-meaning, but ultimately all-consuming institutions.