Does the missing Roman fort of Varis lie somewhere beneath the empty, derelict hospital wards of HM Stanley Hospital? It seems likely that Varis is somewhere in the St Asaph area, possibly beneath the Cathedral, but there is a persistent tradition of the fort, mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary, as being in the Bryn Pollen vicinity. Aerial photographs of the Hospital site have shown the presence of scorch marks in a field behind the hospital, which have been interpreted as an ancient trackway, a Roman road leading north - south, to Ruthin and Corwen where growing evidence exists of further forts. It is possible that it relates to a fort beneath the site, although it could also be a Roman road linking the site of Varis beneath the Cathedral with those forts to the south along the Vale of Clwyd.
Excavations on the site might well clear the matter up, although for obvious reasons, opportunities have been sparse. Moving patients for the sake of attempting to discover a near two thousand year old Roman fort is unlikely to be forgiven. However, the hospital closed in 2012 and redevelopment of the area does suggest there is an opportunity there to throw in a few exploratory trenches. In fact, in 1964-65 a new theatre was built at the Hospital, and during the works the ancient foundations of a building were apparently discovered. It was thought at the time these foundations were those of a legendary hospice run by monks, which would give the site an ancient legacy of care. It does not seem to have been considered that those findings might have related to Varis, and records of the discoveries do not seem to be available. There was talk of further finds during the early 70s, but again, no record remains.
The Hospital itself began life as a workhouse on land purchased in 1838. Its original name was Ysgubor-y-Coed, which translates as, ‘barn in the woods’. The tithe map of 1845 does not show the workhouse, although it had been built by that time. It is likely that the map was drawn up from information some few years old. Workhouses were an attempt to deal with the poor in society. Much as today, and just as unjustifiably, the poor were demonised as lazy and lacking motivation to better themselves. The workhouse was an attempt to provide for those who were in genuine need, and, by creating a harsh environment dissuade people from avoiding work by entering its halls. Not all workhouses were terrible places, but none were particularly pleasant either.
The St Asaph Union Workhouse was opened in 1839 for upwards of 300 people, catering to the needs of a wide area, from the Prestatyn, Rhyl and Denbigh areas. Predictably it was built in a cruciform shape, the accommodation extremely basic, the amenities less than salubrious (fires were lit only on the very coldest of days, for example). The Workhouse catered to all, men and women, of all ages, and children, who were educated while on site. The Workhouse also provided food to the poor outside of the walls. A nursery was built in around 1841, specifically for the use of the children of unmarried mothers, while a dormitory was created for the mothers themselves.
An infirmary was built in 1906, connected to the Workhouse, and essentially became its dominant function. The 1920s saw a maternity unit built for the community of St Asaph, and it continued to provide this service until it closed in 2012. In 1948, with the creation of the National Health Service, the Workhouse officially became a hospital, continuing as such until its closure. The Hospital treated a variety of illness, as you might expect, but keeping with a tradition in North East Wales, which saw some of the most difficult conditions treated, HM Stanley Hospital dealt with some extremely infectious illnesses, such as diphtheria and scarlet fever.
Perhaps its most famous claim to fame, and the explanation for the Hospital’s name, is its association with Henry Morton Stanley, adventurer, journalist, possibly the only man to fight for the Confederative Army, the Union Army and the Union Navy during the American Civil War. He remains a controversial character, largely for his attitude to Africans during his explorations on the Continent. The illegitimate son of John Rowlands and Elizabeth Parry, Henry Morton Stanley was actually born at a cottage near to Denbigh Castle in 1841 and took his father’s name on his christening at nearby St Hillary’s. The younger John Rowlands was looked after by his mother’s aged father, Moses Parry, but on his grandfather’s death, the five year old John was packed off to a Mr and Mrs Price, paid a small sum by his uncle to raise him. This did not work out, and the Price’s took the young John to the St Asaph Workhouse.
By his own account, the young Rowlands was treated harshly. At this point, we must state that care is required in reading Stanley’s own account of his life, since it has often been said that he could be somewhat creative with the truth, that he was superb at the art of self-aggrandisement. Rowlands claims that he was flogged, though he was an excellent student, particularly strong at the study and drawing of maps, and there have been dark rumours of worse treatment. In one particularly upsetting incident, the boy’s mother and half siblings also stayed at the Workhouse for a time, but he did not recognise her as his mother until told so by the headmaster. John Rowlands fled the workhouse at the age of fifteen, attempting to find shelter with a variety of relatives throughout the Denbigh area, before eventually ending up in Liverpool. As many others found before and after him, it was not long before the promise of a fresh start in the United States drew him to the docks, and taking employment on board a ship bound for New Orleans he began a new life. It was in that city that he took the name of his benefactor and became, Henry Morton Stanley.
Today the site is being renovated as a housing development, and it is perhaps to be hoped that during the works, evidence emerges that answers several of the questions as to what, if anything lies beneath the remains of HM Stanley Hospital.