Hidden away from the teeming humanity of 19th-century Britain, wrested from families and consigned to a lonely and often long life behind bars. For them, even though this was no jail, and they had committed no crime, these wretched individuals were placed within the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (later Menston Mental Hospital and finally High Royds Psychiatric Hospital) and abandoned for their perceived insanity. A tiny plaque placed along a wall close to the hospital reads: “This site is the last resting place of 2,858 patients from High Royds Hospital who died between 1905-1969. May they rest in peace”. The two acres of grassland adjoining the wall was not a field but a graveyard. Thousands of corpses lay beneath it – anonymous, unwanted, unclaimed abandoned. Poverty prevented some families from claiming their relatives. Stigma stopped others. The patch of grass is now one of the only parts left undeveloped on the original site, as new families now begin to live their lives in homes surrounding this infamous building. The weather-beaten sign the only physical indicator to the people who had lived and died in obscurity.
Although the British asylum institutions were once part of every day life, they were in effect a non-solution to a wide array of mental health issues that the modern services could not tackle. Despite the many myths and stories, the people who fell off life’s pathway and experienced inexplicable hardships were not just the criminally insane, but those that demanded more than any formally trained doctor could tackle. Without today’s infrastructure the asylum was often the only solution for many. The elite classes felt they were providing a real solution by incarcerating anyone who strayed from an ideal that their social class bestowed upon them. It wasn’t until Margaret Thatcher came along in the late 1980’s that the entire country’s asylums were finally either closed down or as with the case of High Royds, converted into an NHS establishment, and its mentally or psychologically ill civilians were permitted to live and be treated in the outside world as part of the public health act.
Decades of immoral treatment and experimental therapy occurred across West Riding, and High Royds was often at the forefront of it. For the severely ill patients here, electric convulsive treatment was often resorted to. Originally used as a method amongst European butchers in slaughter houses, the treatment was thought to put the brain into a seizure that might cure it of insanity, creating one of the most brutal techniques of psychiatry to come from the Victorian era. In the absence of any curative treatment public and professional attitudes had veered to the opinion that mental illness was somehow the fault of the individual, a spiritual weakness; sometimes the manifestations of the disease were supposed to be the expression of evil demons which had possessed the soul. The asylum was infamous for many of these unsavoury reasons over the years, even past the time when it was no longer exclusively a psychiatric hospital. The last of which was the case of Jimmy Saville during a series of visits in 1988, the accounts of which have only now been fully realised. The report said that the assault was during a fancy dress fun run at the hospital, and it was also alleged that Saville groped not only patients but also staff from the hospital and a porter was asked if there was a room that Saville could go to if 'he pulled one of the nurses’. Unfortunately, Saville died before he could be held accountable.
The hospital was designed on the broad arrow plan by architect J. Vickers Edwards. The 300-acre estate on which the asylum was built was purchased by the West Riding Justices for £18,000 in 1885 and the large gothic complex of stone buildings was formally opened on 8 October 1888. It was the third of a total four institutes that comprised West Pauper Lunatic Asylum, under the West Riding General Asylums Committee, alongside Stanley Royd Hospital, South Yorkshire Asylum, and Storthes Hall. Between them they actively treated and incarcerated thousands of mentally ill paupers across Yorkshire between 1818 – 1995. In its final years of operation, High Royds had become outdated and unsuited to modern psychiatric practice. This was acknowledged by the chief executive of Leeds Mental Health in 1999 after complaints from consultants about violence and cramped conditions on the wards. The hospital closed for good in 2003.
Visitors to High Royds Asylum, now disguised as an extensive residential development aptly named ‘High Royds’, are at first impressed by the striking roofline complete with fairy-tale towers. The hospital grounds were like many across the country that I have already documented, including Talgarth and Denbigh, in that they effectively ran as an isolated village away from the outside world. Dozens of outbuildings all built to be self-sufficient and contained behind the main building, were connected by hallways and basements that allowed its staff to easily navigate the wards. Despite its history now being hidden, for more than a century, dominating all was the great clock tower, it’s solid bulk sparsely decorated with low battlements and heavy gothic arches. The clock was manufactured by the great clock making dynasty Potts & Sons, who at the latter part of the Victorian era saw many large clock towers being built under their name. This was a pioneering age of order and discipline and the clock at High Royds was inescapable for inmates and staff alike. It served as both a landmark and practical feature. Try as they might, patients and workers could not escape the clock. Time had to be kept: this was an ordered institution. Despite standing alone as a single reminder of the infamous institutions across Yorkshire, much of the old registration building is still largely intact, including original mosaic tiling and majestic carvings. The gigantic clock tower has since been restored to full working order, providing a sense of splendour from its stance over the other buildings. It remains locked away amidst the derelict, crumbling interior to present visitors with a truly unique statement of architectural authority as they enter the grounds of the residential estate. Within time, and for better or worse, most people who live here will have forgotten what it once stood for.