History, Haunts and Hospitals Part Three: Powick Hospital

Powick Hospital in the distance. By P Halling.Apologies for the long gap between posts. I’ve been busy promoting the paperback version of Watching Charlotte Brontë Die: and other surreal stories as well as revising the next novel (more on the latter shortly). In the meantime here’s part three of the history, haunts and hospitals series, focusing on Powick (a former mental hospital).

Asylums have existed in Britain since the 13th century. The asylum movement of the nineteenth century meant one was established in every county to provide care and treatment for the poor. Powick Hospital, then the Worcester County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum, was founded in 1847and opened in 1852, to accommodate pauper lunatics from the county. What was life like inside Powick?

Conditions at PowickThe former Powick Hospital, now part of a housing estate. By P Whatley.

According to one source, the asylum got off to a bad start when its first superintendent committed suicide after less than two years in the job. It was also designed to house 200 patients but numbers increased and by 1858 it had 365 patients. By the 1950s there were around 1,000 patients, 400 of whom lived in the four large wards of an annexe built in the 1890s.

‘I discovered that the heating system was defunct, many of the internal telephones did not work, and the hospital was deeply impoverished in every department.’ Ronald Sandison, of his early years at Powick in the 1950s.

He goes on to comment that this situation had been allowed to develop by the previous medical superintendent, Dr Fenton, who had spent 43 years there, and by practising considerable economy enabled Powick to be the cheapest hospital in the country.

Indeed, at one time the diet at Powick was bread, water, meat and veg, and was generally better than in other institutions but in the 1940s, Dr Fenton’s economy measures meant patients were often fed on just bread and water.

Work at the Asylum

While at Powick, patients worked, partly as a form of therapy but also as an economy measure and patients undertook much of the day to day work and maintenance. Workshops for various trades included a farm, bakehouse, brewhouse and gas works. Some skilled craftspeople were also employed to provide training in various craft occupations.

Orchestral Concerts

On the plus side, in the 1870s, a series of orchestral concerts was arranged as well as Friday night dances. Edward Elgar, as a young violinist, played in the concerts from 1877, and in 1879 took on the role of Band Instructor. This involved conducting the Asylum Band (comprising staff of the asylum) and composing music for the dances. He was paid less than his predecessor, probably because he was less experienced.

The Patients at Powick

In the 19th century, patients were commonly diagnosed with conditions such as melancholia (depression), mania (extreme anxiety), dementia, epilepsy or a combination of these. Terms such as madness, lunacy and insanity were considered acceptable until the early 1900s.

Via the George Marshall Medical Museum website (Medical Archive) it is possible to learn about actual Powick patients. Here are some examples:

Gender and age: Female, aged 43
Occupation: farmer’s daughter
Suffering from: acute melancholia and mania
Notes: ‘Somewhat sinister [and in] need of constant attention.’

Gender and age: Male, aged 50
Occupation: carpet weaver
Suffering from: mania
Notes: ‘Does not recognise his position as a patient…imagines he can do everything better than anyone else.’

Gender and age: Male, aged 18
Occupation: writing clerk
Suffering from: acute mania
Notes: ‘Swears and curses, and he talks nonsense about… prostitutes and other subjects in an incoherent manner.’

Photography was developed in the 19th century and used to record and classify types of illness. By the end of the century it was also used as a tool to record patients and a photo might be attached to their case notes. This was sometimes the case at Powick.

Powick Chimney, Ellie Stevenson images
Powick Chimney: part of the first combined steam/hydro-electric power station, built in 1894.

Children at Powick

Kate Gingell’s report on the forgotten children of Powick identifies 195 children aged 16 or under as being admitted to the asylum between 1854 and 1900. This was out of a total of 6573 admissions over that time. Two children aged 4 were the youngest and 34 were aged 10 or younger. 49 out of the 195 admitted died (25.1%).

Gingell comments that ‘Despite the high death-rate in the community, the death-rate for children entering the asylum seems abnormally high.’ A child had a one in five chance of dying before the age of five, generally, but if admitted the odds became one in three.

She notes that the high death rate is particularly striking as regards 11-16 year olds who would not normally have been at great risk.

She suggests that because 14% of the children were from the workhouse they may have already been weakened by poor conditions and also, they may have ended up in an asylum inappropriately, due to other causes for their behaviour. She also comments that asylums were not a sympathetic environment for children and the possibility of abuse was present.


In the 1950s, LSD was used  at Powick as treatment for illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia, and in 1958 an LSD treatment unit was established. The programme continued into the next decade, and by the time it ended, 683 patients had been treated in 13,785 separate sessions. In 2002, the NHS agreed to pay £195,000 in an out of court settlement to 43 former patients treated with LSD between 1950 and 1970.

World in Action

In 1968, the hospital featured in an episode of the television programme, World in Action, highlighting poor conditions at Powick such as neglect and poor hygiene as well as a lack of consideration for the dignity and privacy of patients. The shocking revelations contributed to Powick being among the first mental hospitals scheduled for closure. Acute admissions ceased in 1978 and the last patients were discharged in 1989.

Article written by Ellie Stevenson, author.
This article is copyrighted material. Brief extracts including a link to this site can be quoted but the article must not be reproduced in full anywhere without the author’s written permission.


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