In September 1842, a Dr Samuel Hitch, the Medical Superintendent of Gloucester Lunatic Asylum wrote a letter to the London Times fulminating at the lack of quality treatment for ‘Welsh pauper lunatics’ in English hospitals. Whether or not this was the spur required to bring a better standard of mental health care to North Wales is not readily apparent, but soon after interested parties met at Denbigh Infirmary with a view to creating a purpose built facility for the care of the mentally ill.
Building started in September 1844, under the guidance of Thomas Fulljames, a man whose quite astonishing designs for a crossing over the River Severn at Aust can be seen in a painting at Newport Museum. By 1847, the first staff were employed while the building itself was completed by October 1848. Built to care for 200 people, the hospital soon began a series of huge expansions, eventually taking in over 1000 patients. Its history runs parallel with developments in the understanding and treatment of mental illness. For example, out-patient clinics were opened in Wrexham, Bangor and Dolgellau in 1935, which seems a wholly positive development. But, while electro-convulsive treatment was begun in 1941, and pre-frontal leucotomy operations began the year after, it was not until 1944 that the first psychologist was appointed. Holistic treatments began in 1946. In 1948, the hospital was transferred to the National Health Service. In 1959, the Mental Health Act gave improved rights to patients, and perhaps as a response, in the same year many of the ward doors were left unlocked for the first time.
In 1960, Enoch Powell visited the Hospital and declared his intention to close it. In this he was being consistent with his stated aim of bringing mental health care under the auspices of general hospitals and community care. In 1961, he made an impassioned speech with regards to the neglect of these mental care institutions throughout Britain.
‘There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside—the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault.’
And resistance there seems to have been, since very little changed, apart from a new kitchen being built in 1967. Yet, the die had been cast, and the hospital was finally closed in 1995, Gwynfryn in 2002.
The years since have witnessed a shambolic and wholly dispiriting neglect of this part of the town’s heritage, although to its credit, Denbighshire County Council is attempting to make good. The derelict site was bought in 2003 by Freemont (Denbigh) Ltd, a British Virgin Islands registered company (are you thinking what I am thinking?), the mooted plan to build luxury homes. However, no work was undertaken and in 2015, Denbighshire County Council was required to spend nearly £1million on preventing catastrophic collapse of the listed building. Still, Freemont did nothing until fighting a compulsory purchase order made on the property in 2015, calling the plans, ‘flawed and unsustainable’. In any event, the order was accepted, quite rightly, and there are plans afoot to demolish those buildings beyond repair, restore as much of the Grade II listed property as possible and build 200 homes and 34 apartments under the stewardship of the Prince’s Regeneration Trust.
Work cannot begin soon enough, since the site is becoming increasingly fragile. Without wishing to put ideas into the heads of Steven Speilberg et al, since doubtless he reads these pages, it is beginning to take on the appearance of a World War 2 film set, or perhaps some Victorian ghost story. In truth, it seems to be turning into a cliché of a haunted house, a brooding, gloomy edifice of dark stone and darker memories. Today, it exists as a kind of challenge to the stupid, whose apparent lack of mental activity lures them to the site with matches in hand, and whose swivel-eyed, slack jawed, tic twitching, drooling inability to control their baser instincts leads them to set fire to pieces of the property, possibly with the intention of dancing naked around the flames. Indeed, at the time of writing, the Hospital has been further damaged by imbeciles with nothing better to do, and is to be partially demolished as a consequence. As of April 2018, after a further series of fires lit by knuckle dragging inbreds, the site is mooted as a residential development in the care of Ruthin-based Jones Bros, in partnership with the North Wales Building Preservation Trust (NWBPT), but could take years to complete. It is to be hoped that work will be undertaken to preserve this quite incredible site to prevent further damage and bring about a new lease of life which reflects its important past.