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Learning Disability

Page 4

In the NHS

The NHS took over the colonies operated by the local authorities and charities into the NHS. The Stoke Park Colonies were unique, virtually in the country, as the trustees who owned the property the NIPRCC argued successfully that the NHS takeover was of only the company that operated the colonies and not of the trustees that owned the land.  As a result the Ministry of Health had to pay the NIPRCC trustees rent and eventually buy the property from them in the 1960's.  This money is the origin of the Burden Trust.

The Stoke Park Colonies, became run by the Stoke Park Hospital Management Committee (1930 beds).  The Somerset Institutions outside of Bath, including Farleigh, were operated by the Sandhill Park Management Committee (784 beds).

Hortham and Brentry were merged with with several small institutions to be operated by the Hortham-Brentry Hospital Management Committee (1352 beds).  All the Bath Institutions were included - the Magdalen Hospital School, but also two house operated by the Bath Preventative mission, namely the House of Help (renamed Ladymead House) and the Rectory (renamed Myles House after a local chairwoman).  In Bristol they took on the Chasefield Laundry Home and Royal Fort, both operated by the Bristol Preventative Mission. In Gloucestershire they took on St Mary's (Laundry) Home in Painswick, and two agricultural 'hostels' or boarding camps operated by the precursor of MIND to house 'mental defective' workers who could work the farms in war time - Shurdlington and Newent Agricultural Hostels. These hostels closed in the 1950's as the labour shortage on farms diminished.

So three committees operated about 3500 beds for mental defectives in the Bristol and Bath area, confirming it as one of the areas with the highest number of beds for mental defectives in the country. But Farleigh took patients from Somerset and Devon; Stoke Park had historically as a private charity taken from Gloucestershire and many areas around the country, particularly London and Birmingham.  Brentry, previously operated by a consortium of councils, had in 1941, the following major users - Monmouthshire (63), Middlesex (55), Gloucestershire (54) and Swansea (32).  Bristol may have had a large number of institutions but only a minority of the inmates or patients came from the Bristol area.

Though the system became the NHS little changed except that money started to be diverted to prop up the acute sector. Little maintenance was done on the buildings and virtually no new buildings were built between 1948 and 1970. 

Bristol 'mental defectives' featured little in the national news at this time, except for the trials of John Straffen, a Hortham resident, for the murder of two girls in Bath in 1951.  He was found unfit to plead and sent to Broadmoor from where he escaped a few months later and another girl was killed.  This time unfitness to plead was not on the agenda and he was found guilty of murder by the Jury after 29 minutes of deliberation.  He was sentenced to hang but this was commuted to life imprisonment in Broadmoor. He remains the longest serving prisoner in England, despite many legal misgivings at the time.  Like Peter Sutcliffe later, his crimes were judged too terrible for him to 'escape justice' via the route of pleading mental disorder.  His killings produced a major backlash and people labelled 'mentally defective' found their previous use of holiday camps and involvement in outside scouting groups withdrawn 'to protect the public'.

Despite this recreation did grow with scout groups, hospital bands and football and rugby teams who gained a reasonable local reputation.  however work opportunities shrunk - in part as the new hospital managers saw hospitals as for the treatment of residents rather than long term care. The NHS stopped 'mental deficiency' from being a social services problem and made it a health issue and a mental health disorder, reinforcing the confusion between mental illness and mental handicap. The managers felt that 'patients should not work', so industrial therapy and occupational therapy was born.  However in addition may of the more able residents were starting to leave and the government was asking the hospitals to sell off land in order to obtain money.

The 1959 Mental Health Act

The new Mental Health Act was revolutionary.  It declared that it should be assumed that people entered hospital voluntarily, and could leave voluntarily.  Legal detention was only needed if voluntary admission was refused but admission was needed for the person's health or safety or for the safety of others. Everyone detained had to be under the care of a responsible psychiatrist and the term 'mental defective' was replaced by 'subnormality', 'severe subnormality' and 'psychopathic disorder'.

As most of the psychiatrists in the Subnormality Hospitals now had caseloads of many hundreds, it took several years for them to review all their patients, but the result was in the early 1960's many of the more able patients were discharged from detention and chose to leave hospital.  Most of these are no longer known to the Learning Disability services.  However there was no other system of care in England - social services provided very little accommodation, since their colonies had been taken away from them. The urgent waiting list to the hospitals remained higher than the total inpatient population.  Wards remained overcrowded and understaffed.

A Time of Scandal

Scandals started to attract the attention of the media. The first was that of ill-treatment at Ely Hospitalin Cardiff.  On the 20 August 1967 the News of the World published a statement by a nursing assistant at Ely, alleging that patients were beaten, their food stolen and that the senior staff ignored the abuses.  The Welsh Hospital Board set up a committee of inquiry to examine the allegations.  It had limited powers but met from December 1967 to February 1968.  The report published in March 1969 agreed that there was much ill-treatment but said that 'Most (but not all) were due to the persistence of nursing methods which were old-fashioned, untutored, rough and, on some occasions, lacking in sympathy.'  The inquiry recommended increased resources, improved recruitment and 'a complete reconstruction of the hospital'.

In December 1968 the police visited FarleighHospital to investigate claims of ill-treatment.  As a result Farleighand mental handicap hospitals were thrust into the faces of the public for almost two years. National newspapers reported the exhumation of bodies in July 1969, the week-long coronerís inquiry in August 1969, the magistrates trial in December, the three week trial at the Crown Courts in Spring 1970 and the conviction of three staff.  In addition the Minister of Health Richard Crossmanthen set up a Committee of Inquiry into the events and the management of Farleigh.  The newspapers reported its proceedings over three weeks of August 1970 as well as the final report published in April 1971.  This was massive and shocking publicity with headlines such as:  "Patients were beaten up" and "Nude patient tied up".  The report showed with startling openness the under-resourcing and poor state of the Mental Handicap Hospitals of the land.  The inquiry criticised the long shift system and reinforced the need for the new Salmon senior nursing structure and for the mental handicap service to receive more funding. 

The effects of all this publicity was devastating on the staff in other mental handicap hospitals.  In the middle of all of this Richard Crossman visited Bristol and Stoke Park in 1969. The staff showed him the poor conditions and the crowded wards.  He told them they should not admit so many people. He ignored the urgent waiting list.

The government published their white paper on Subnormality "Better Services for the Mentally Handicapped" in 1971, arguing that social services should provide more accommodation and 'the large hospitals' close and disperse into smaller community units. As a result new spending on the old large hospitals over 500 beds in Bristol was prevented.

The Hospital Advisory Service visited the Mental Handicap Hospitals in Bristol in 1971 and wrote a very damning report on the slum like conditions in Stoke Park.  Student nurses leaked the report to the press, who approached Dr Alan Heaton-Ward, the senior consultant there. They were surprised and the Ministry incensed, when he publicly condemned the 'slum' of Stoke Park. The management then allowed a film crew to film the worst [well the ward sister recalls they closed half the ward to emphasise the overcrowding], and it appeared on a 19 minute slot on "24 Hours" on the BBC in 1972.  This film still shocks people who see it and sent shock waves though the newspapers and authorities who had spent so much time reassuring people that their children were happy and well looked after in the hospitals.

In January 1973 the Sunday People had an article about the so-called horror of Hortham, after a journalist, Mr Thomas, worked there under cover and kept a diary. This was a poor choice as of all the hospitals in Bristol Hortham had the most modern wards (only 40 years old) as well as a good teaching reputation (equal to Stoke Park). The hospital management inquiry that resulted concluded that the article had not been particularly critical but the result was that all nurses in the area regarded new staff with high suspicion.  

The result of all of this was a large investment into the mental handicap hospitals of Bristol.

Farleigh was removed from the management of Sandhill Park and moved to that of the Bristol and Weston District Health Authority. New wards were built in the 1980's.

Brentry had a series of temporary prefab wards built in the 1970's and the size of the wards reduced.  The oldest, Kipling, was demolished.

Stoke Park had a series of wards built from 1971 to 1984, enabling them to move everyone from out of the old wards built before 1914.

Farleigh 1995   Weston Air photography's image of Brentry 1975   

 Stoke Park 1991  Stoke Park 1995

  Purdwon 1976 (does not include Heath House which is off picture)    Hanham Hall 1990's





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Last updated: 01/31/12.