During the last quarter of 1929 a group of people known as the Committee of Visitors recommended the building of a new mental hospital due to the overcrowding of existing hospitals at Brentwood and Severalls, near Colchester. Patient numbers were 1,777 and 1,833, respectively, giving a total of 3,610. This exceeded the ideal accommodation number by 118 in total. It was suggested a new hospital be built with estimated costs just short of £1 million. However, the problem of overcrowding was largely identified as being due to a number of patients being accommodated from Southend (229) and East Ham (196). Each place had achieved county borough status during the previous decade, in 1914 and 1915, respectively. Opinions were voiced that Southend and East Ham, while now enjoying the privileges of their independence as county boroughs, should also accept their responsibilities and not expect their mental patients to be provided for by the Essex ratepayers. Apparently this was part of the agreement when Southend and East Ham were each granted their independent status. The removal of the Southend and East Ham patients would, of course, give Brentwood and Severalls spare capacity of 307 – although the Essex population was on the increase so extended accommodation at the Brentwood and Severalls site was likely to be required at a later date. In short, Southend and East Ham were encouraged to build their own accommodation for their patients with mental issues. The two county boroughs joined forces to search for a suitable site. Twenty eight places were visited over a period of eighteen months with an area just north of Wickford considered the most appropriate. The site chosen was the Runwell Hall Farm Estate, twenty four miles from East Ham and twelve miles from Southend. The Estate was once the property of the Kemble family of Runwell Hall.
On the death of the owner (Lieutenant–Colonel Henry Kemble J.P.) in 1924, the Runwell Hall Farm Estate (excluding Runwell Hall) was put to auction. The auctioneers were James Styles & Whitlock. The auction was held at The Castle Hotel, Wickford on 11 August. The Runwell Hall Farm Estate at the time comprised: Church End Farm (233 acres), Poplars and Giffords (180 acres), Mill Hill Farm (102 acres), Lynfords Farm (130 acres), Runwell Hall Farm (243 acres), Lands in Hoe Lane (222 acres) and land adjoining Rettendon Road (43 acres). There were also a number of small holdings and cottages etc, giving a total land area of around 1,250 acres. The estate was divided into 29 lots of which 17 were sold on the day. The larger farms (Church End Farm, Poplars and Giffords, and Runwell Hall Farm), however, did not reach their reserve. Lynfords and Mill Hill Farm were sold to their respective tenants before the auction. Runwell Hall Farm was withdrawn at £3,200. The farm was advertised a few days later, on 15 August, with a sales tag of £4.600, including timber. Interestingly, a list of freehold and lease sales for 1924 published in the Rugby Advertiser on 26 December 1924 and attributed to James Styles & Whitlock, shows Runwell Hall Farm Estate of 1,250 acres, with Runwell Hall Farm of 243 acres further down the list. The list is not alphabetical so may be chronological. However, as the 243 acres of Runwell Hall Farm is included in the 1,250 acres of the Runwell Farm Hall Estate, the separate entry for Runwell Hall Farm would appear to be in error, or the farm was sold twice during the same year. However, an alternative explanation is that the farm may initially have been on a short term lease (perhaps to give time to raise capital) and then purchased. The other farms which did not meet their reserve are not mentioned on this list. They were sold after the auction, but during the same year as the auction and are therefore correctly included in the Runwell Hall Farm Estate of 1,250 acres.
The buyer of Runwell Hall Farm in 1924 is likely to have been the Jones brothers. Certainly, they were there in 1926, for in April that year the Essex Union Hunt held five point-to-point horse races on a three and a half mile course across land owned by Jones (Runwell Hall Farm), Percy Merryfield Meeson (Rettendon) and James Stewart Mallinson (Flemings Farm at South Hanningfield). Meeson, incidentally, succeeded his father, William Merryfield Meeson, who died in 1925; Mallinson had held Flemings since 1914.
William Vincent Jones and Richard Watson Jones, the Jones brothers, had farming experience before buying Runwell Hall Farm, for they were born into a farming family. Their father, Richard Jones, farmed at Little Whitmans, Purleigh and then at Purleigh Barnes where he died on 26 January 1934, four and a half years after the boy’s mother. Richard senior’s father was also a farmer.
In 1932 William and his brother were asked to sell their Runwell Hall Farm for the building of the new hospital. At the time the farm was around 509 acres, so the Jones brothers would appear to have purchased additional land from the Runwell Hall Farm Estate in addition to the 243 acres of the Runwell Farm Hall itself. This is likely to have been the land at Hoe Lane (222 acres) and the land adjoining Rettendon Road (43 acres). All three would amount to 508 acres. They refused to sell. The brothers argued they had looked for another farm in the county but were unable to find anything equally suitable for their business and saw no reason to spend more money continuing the search. A compulsory purchase order was being considered for the now extended Runwell Hall Farm, but in 1933 the brothers agreed the sale for £9,000 with the proviso their costs concerning the move would be fully reimbursed. Their father suffered from acute asthma and it may have been his health which was a deciding factor in the sale and their moving back to Purleigh. The brothers later farmed at Great Whitmans. There was no further opposition to the hospital being built, except for a petition of 54 parishioners. The council, however, approved the project. The main reason behind the decision was a financial one – that hospital staff would have a desire to move near their place of work and this would require some housing development and the raising of existing property prices, thus bringing more prosperity to the area.
The architects appointed to the hospital project were Elcock and Sutcliffe of 60 Strand, WC2. The Belfast born Charles Ernest Elcock was in partnership with Frederick Sutcliffe who was one of his former students. Elcock and Sutcliffe specialized in hospital design, but they also worked on other projects and designed 150 Oxford Street, London, the building currently occupied by Sports Direct. It was previously occupied by HMV. Elcock also designed what was the Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street.
With the building plans nearly completed in 1933, invitations to build the new hospital was put out to tender with 45 respondents for the main contract, 28 for the heating contract and 9 for the electrical work. The main contract was awarded to John Mowlen & Co of London. The heating contract was awarded to H W Dutton & Co Ltd of Westminster. Bell Brothers & Co (London) Ltd obtained the contract for the electrics.
Work on the new hospital officially began on Wednesday 20 June 1934, when Laurence George Brock CB (1919), chairman of the Board of Control for Lunacy and Mental Deficiency (1928-1945), laid the foundation stone. He was knighted in 1935. The stone was blessed by Henry Wilson, the Bishop of Chelmsford. The ceremony was also attended by the Mayor of Southend and the Deputy-Mayor of East Ham. Others there included Sir George Wyatt Truscott, Sir Charles Batho, Sir Hubert Bond and the band of the 2nd Battalion the King’s Own Regiment.
In February 1935 at a Southend Town Council Meeting, however, the Visiting Committee anticipated an additional 130 beds would be required in the near future and that it would be more cost effective to build accommodation for those beds now rather than at a later date. The proposal was accepted and it was agreed a recommendation be put to the Minister for the loan of £50,000.
Also in the autumn of 1935 advertisements appeared in newspapers seeking agricultural labourers to lay out the hospital grounds. They were offered 40 shillings for a 48 hour week. The following year newspaper advertisements appeared nationwide requesting all types of staff from probationer nurses to kitchen staff. In February 1937 the Reverend H R Heathwood, a curate at St John the Evangelist, Holborn, London was appointed chaplain. He remained there until 1941 when he became chaplain to the forces. The chapel at the hospital was dedicated to St Luke (July 1937).
On completion of the project in 1937, the Hospital for Mental and Nervous Diseases, which at that time had cost £667,324, could accommodate 1,010 patients. Ongoing annual costs were shared between East Ham and Southend on a 10/17ths and 7/17ths split, respectively. This was determined by the number of beds allocated to each of the county boroughs.
The official opening ceremony was on Monday 14 June. The ceremony was performed by Sir Howard Kingsley Wood MP. He was the Minister of Health (1935-1938) under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who had just succeeded Stanley Baldwin. Also in attendance were Alderman J W Barton JP., the Mayor of East Ham and Alderman William Miles OBE. JP., the Mayor of Southend. The Bishop of Chelmsford was there, as was Sir Laurence George Brock. Music was supplied by the band of the 2nd Essex Regiment. Unfortunately, not all Southend and East Ham patients had been transferred to Runwell in time for the opening day. This was due to a shortage of nursing staff. The number of male staff was apparently adequate, but female nursing staff was in short supply.
Runwell Hospital closed its doors for the last time in 2010. There were plans to build a prison on the site but the idea was strongly opposed. It is now a place of residential housing.