Part one of a two part history of Stoke Park Hospital, near Bristol, which was home for people with learning difficulties and mental illnesses.
This workshop was organised by ACTA (www.acta-bristol.com) and led by Eileen Haste, working with people with learning difficulties and the Misfits Theatre Company.
My name is Penny. I am a member of the Misfits Theatre Company. We are doing a play about people who lived in long-term institutions, and Stoke Park is one of them.
I want to tell you the story of Stoke Park Hospital. Stoke Park Hospital was one of many institutions in Bristol and the surrounding area which was home to people wiith learnign disabilities.
The Stoke Park Dower House is the big yellow building on the hill you see as you drive up the M32. It was built over 450 years ago by Sir Richard Berkeley. It became a famous house and garden.
It was owned by different people unti, in 1908, reverend Harold Nelson Burden acquired it from the Duke of Beaufort.
Burden and his wife had worked with children with learning disabilities, and were concerned about the lack of services for them. They developed the Stoke Park Dower House and other buildings in Bristol into the Stoke Park Colonies. It was the first institution of its kind to be certified under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act. It became licensed in 1919, and had over 1700 beds, when there were only 7000 similar beds licensed in the country.
By 1930 it reached over 2000 beds, 130 beds in one ward being the largest. Katherine Burden established the Burden Neurological Institute. IIt became internationally known for pioneering work on the electro-physiology of the central nervous system.
A report said, “The whole establishment promises to be one of the most carefully arranged and equipped of the kind in the country.” A 1910 report says, “All part of the institution were inspected and found to be in good hygienic state, comfortably warm and clean. The staff is a large one, specially trained for its work. Stoke Park provides facilities for permanent care and control under most humane conditions. For the benefit of all, the teaching in kitchen, laundry, sewing room and matters connected with ordinary housework is all that can be desired.”
Purdown, Leigh Court, Hortham, Hanham and Brentry and Glenside were all other substanital institutions which provided provision for people with learning disabilities. Purdown, Hanham and Leigh Court opened in 1916 and 1917. Brentry became a Mental Defficiency Colony for Men and admitted its first residents in 1917.
The Board of Control advised the council consortium running Brentry that, to make Brentry economical, they should reduce the number of staff needed by enlarging the wards. Two pairs of sem-detatched houses were joined to create a 110 bed single ward. This ethos would later be the downfall of these institutions.
In 1933, Hortham opened near Almondsbury. It was claimed to be the first purpose-built colony in the country, built on the villa system, it looked like many other colonies and psychiatric hospitals that would be built around the country in the next 20 years.
Until the late 20th century, people with learning disabilities were referred to as “retarded” or “mentally handicapped”. Until the 1950s and 60s, the language used was even further away from what is accepted today. “Mental deficiency” was the accepted term for “learning disabiity”. The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act outlined four categories of people who were to fall under its care: idiots, imbeciles, the feeble minded and more defectives. A great many assumptions were made about what individuals were able to do and what they needed. Individual aspirations were not acknowledged. For example, in a brochure for Stoke Park it says, “Mentally defective children living in very bad homes, owing to their mental defect, are particularly susceptable to bad influence and can only, by early removal from their homes, be prevented from acquiring viscious habits.” Another brochure refers to residents as “inmates”.
Indeed, just like prison inmates, residents were not allowed to leave the hospital. It states, “Mentally defective persons never require self-control or become fit to cope on equal terms with normal people. They can, however, be improved by training, taught to do many useful things, and under careful supervision, even succeed in partially earning their own livelihood.” However, the 1913 Mental Deficieny Act was seen as revolutionary. Until the 1900s, people with learning disabilities had been sent to lunatic asylums where their basic needs were barely cared for. Conditions were inhumane. These new institutions were seen as very progressive; here, a programme of activities was provided. People had opportunities to learn, and to earn a small amount of money and to spend a little money. Open air treatment included walks, games and rest outside.
Classes and play recreation included music, dance, sport, handicrafts. Film showings were put on, and fete days and seasonal festivities, outings and camping were part of life at Stoke Park. Scout and Guide divisions, cricket and rugby teams that gained a local reputation, were all part of Stoke Park’s story. Indeed, brochures presented a very positive image to the public, and special visitors also experienced the best of the hospital. It seemed all was well at Stoke Park.