Runwell Hospital

Isobel Johnson Collection

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The Admin building Runwell Hospital
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  • You might like to see what I have written on the early history of Runwell Hospital at http://runwellhospital.co.uk/#/people-strom-olsen/4543073358

    By John Strom-Olsen (22/05/2016)
  • Although I had known of Runwell Mental Hospital, as it was then named, for many years, my first sight of its buildings was not until the Easter of 1954. I had just undergone a minor op. at St Andrew’s Hospital, Billericay, in order to drain some toxin from my poisoned right hand. The staff at St Andrew’s, knowing I had travelled to Billericay by ‘bus and had been anaesthetized for the op, had insisted I return to Laindon by ambulance. As I and my companion were not to be the ambulance crew’s sole passengers, Control had diverted them to Wickford to pick up another patient who, also, was being discharged to the Laindon area.

    My foreknowledge of Runwell, and the type of inmates it dealt with, was based upon the hearsay of childhood, where the name “Runwell” was often bandied around as an insult synonymous with that being expressed, perhaps, elsewhere as “Colney Hatch” or, even more hurtfully, as “the funny farm” or “looney bin”. The idea that extreme or unconventional behaviour should be met by such taunts in the playground is well recognised and the practice may not yet have died out. So, by such thoughtless expressions, preconceptions are obviously often created, although I had been somewhat disabused of these myself  when, in the late 1940s, I had courted for a period, a female trainee nurse living at Crays Hill who worked at the mental hospital.

    In 1954 which was the year before “Mental” was dropped from its title, the Runwell Hospital was still being regarded as a secure institution. On our arrival in the ambulance, we had to wait while the gate keeper opened the gates, booked us in and, as we left after a very short time, booked us out again. More than a decade was to pass before I was able to expand on the knowledge gained from this one brief visit.

    The occasion of my later visits to Runwell Hospital resulted from my having decided to offer my services whenever it was opportune to the Essex branch of the Red Cross Society which sought the help of volunteer drivers with vehicles to convey mobile patients to and from local hospitals. The system was known as the Hospital Car Service and, for the purpose of administration, journeys were organised by an officer of the (then) Essex Ambulance Service.  Taking part in this scheme was an interesting experience and I got to call at a considerable number of the hospitals in both the South East of England and the London areas. As, at one stage, I was driving a twelve-seater mini-bus, on quite a number occasions I was requested to pick up a small party of patients from around the Basildon, Stanford and Wickford district and take them to Runwell  Hospital. On the first of such trips, I was surprised to discover that, since my initial call of 1954, there was no longer any hint of the hospital being a “closed” institution. There were no longer any gates, no gate keeper and no more booking in and out.

    What had happened in the interval between my first visit and later visits was a considerable change in the manner in which patients needing the services of the hospital were being treated.  The patients who I was regularly collecting were all “outpatients” attending the hospital for varying periods and most enjoying the services of the various “rehabilitation” services that were being provided. As I was also often asked to take patients home again at the end of their “session”, I discovered that collecting them frequently involved my calling at the ballroom where some social occasion with music and dance or similar entertainment had been organised.

    Not all patients that I dealt with at Runwell were outpatients. I remember one lady from the Basildon area who was attending for treatment who expressed to me her concern at what would happen when she attended for her appointment. She was clearly apprehensive as she had heard that ECT might be involved.   Recent to that time I had read something on this particular subject and the controversy that surrounded its use as a treatment and was forced into the position of having to guard my tongue when conversing with my passenger. I was somewhat relieved a month or so later when I had to call at the same Basildon address to pick up the same lady again for another hospital appointment. During conversation on the journey, this second time she seemed, to my layman’s mind, to be far less tense than before so I thought it wise not to make any reference to the earlier trip.

    Among the many hospitals which I conveyed patients both to and from during my stints with the hospital car service were other such institutions that had also in the past had “Mental” as part of their original titles. These included the hospital on Warley Hill, Brentwood and Severalls at Colchester. The comparison of these two hospitals with Runwell was particularly distinctive and represented the changes in attitude to the mentally ill that had taken place over the years. Warley Hospital went back to the 1850s at a time when it was considered to be a “lunatic asylum” before it became a Mental Hospital. Severalls dated from the beginning of the twentieth century and although it was built in a far more relaxed style than Warley both these hospitals compared with Runwell were, to my mind, foreboding places, appearing to be “closed” establishments from which the patients need never expect to be released. Warley, especially, I found particularly depressing, probably because my maternal grandfather had died there as an inmate having been incarcerated with what was most likely Alzheimer’s disease despite it being recorded as senility.

    Although the design of Severalls was slightly less oppressive than that at Warley it was impossible, I thought, to escape from the understanding of both places as being long stay institutions.

    I was aware, however, that Runwell was a hospital that did have long stay patients.  Furthermore, for some particular reason now forgotten, since I was once required to collect somebody from a ward that was constantly locked, I was also aware that there were patients who did not want to be there. Yet, to counterbalance this fact, was the knowledge that the hospital ran a regular bus service of its own between the Hospital and Wickford Town Centre as much for the benefit of patients as that of their visitor fit. This meant it seems that there were many patients who were thus able to leave the premises and return at will if they felt so fit. Sadly, I was also aware, because I was frequently wearing a different hat from that of a hospital car service driver, that there was a strong possibility that the “freedom” that was afforded many patients might also account for the inordinate number of people who chose to end their lives on a part of the railway that ran close to the hospital. Unhappily, since such events tend to receive little press coverage, this now has to remain purely a conjectural matter.

    The contrast between Runwell Hospital and the other Essex hospitals dealing with similar types of patient was quite dramatic because of Runwell’s generally pleasant environment. Clearly, a lot of the rehabilitation work that was done there by the patients contributed to that fact. Keeping the flower beds, shrubs, lawns and fields neat and tidy and well-groomed was an obvious example. This appeared to be much the same when an opportunity came to see the inside of one of the free-standing far more open wards that were a feature of Warley compared with the other hospitals. This opportunity came when I was requested to collect a patient who was being discharged and required to be taken home. This involved a wait inside a ward since the discharge time I had been given did not match that the ward nurse had been supplied. Judging by the high standard of both the tidiness and cleanliness of the ward (I was almost afraid to walk on the highly polished floor) it was clear that the rehabilitation efforts that applied outside were plied with equal vigour on the insides of the hospital.

    On that particular occasion the patient (a lady) being discharged was required to be taken to an address in Upton Park so the journey was further afield than I had experienced before at previous visits. This gave me an opportunity to chat with the patient as we went along. What I discovered from what I was being told was that the patient was, in fact, very apprehensive, indeed agitated, about leaving an environment that had obviously been most helpful in restoring her to a state of mental equilibrium. It seemed to me, when I dropped her off, that she was, in fact, being returned to the very circumstances that had created her initial unhappiness. I have no idea if I was overstepping the mark or not but I remember calling at the local police station and reported my concerns about her future welfare and requested that they keep an eye out for her as I was going to be too far away to be any further help.

    The fact that I had taken the lady to Upton Park and also that whenever I had visited Runwell I had been struck by the fact that there was something rather familiar about some of the ward’s names made me look up the history of the hospital.  What I established was that, initially, before the instigation of the NHS, the building of Runwell had been instigated as a joint effort by the Boroughs of East Ham (now part of Newham) and Southend-on-Sea. This explained why the names of the wards like Plashett and Boleyn were so familiar to me; East Ham was my mother’s family background.

    The very last time I had cause to visit Runwell was as it was being run down as big changes had taken place in accordance with the widespread adoption of the policy of dealing with mental illness in the community. An air of desolation seemed to have already set in as though a sense of purpose had disappeared. I was calling at the rear of the main block to collect my wife who had been present at a session of representatives from several of the general hospitals of the district. My wife was Head Cook at Basildon District Hospital at the time and the Trusts were seeking to find a way of centralizing the production arrangements for producing all the meals at all their establishments; a cost saving exercise. Thus, even the motivation for my last visit to Runwell seemed to heighten the sense of the abandonment of something that was once very worthwhile and which was passing into history.

    By John Bathurst (05/07/2015)

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