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Second City of Bristol Mental Hospital
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What: Mental Hospital
Where: Barrow Gurney, Somerset
Architect: Sir George Herbert Oatley of Bristol
Last Known Condition: Demolished in 2014
Page Updated: September 2015
I first approached Barrow Hospital across the fields, taking the 'stealth' approach, having heard stories of regular security patrols and police dogs. My first visit was spent anxiously watching for signs of guards and staying well clear of the main gate. Every step on broken glass or plaster seemed deafening in the stillness of the abandoned rooms and more than once I froze when I heard a sound from down the corridor or walked around the corner into a motion sensor.
Looking back, the shattered rooms, stripped cables and smashed windows should have given me an idea that security weren't on the ball around here: my second visit showed the security lodge to be just as empty as the rest of the hospital and the sensors to be the remnant of a redundant burglar alarm.
By the mid 1920s, the City of Bristol Mental Hospital at Fishponds was becoming seriously overcrowded. So bad was the problem that it was said to be almost impossible for doctors to effectively treat their patients. Furthermore, the hospital buildings, which opened in 1861 had been built 'like large barracks' connected by corridors which allowed easy access for staff but provided 'little relief to those [patients] sensitive to their environment'
. Although the existing hospital had been extended a number of times, it was clear that a second hospital would soon be needed to deal with increasing patient numbers. Initially it was hoped that the new hospital could be built at nearby Oldbury Court, but after negotiations with the owners broke down the Bristol Corporation instead purchased 260 acres of woodland in the Wild Country near Barrow Gurney for £20,000.
The new hospital was built to the designs of Sir George Oatley (best known for the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol). The original 'colony' plan called for 25 villas to house 1,200 patients, many of them voluntary admissions, as well as treatment centres for local authority and private patients, a chapel, recreation hall and central kitchens and laundry. The buildings were to be utilitarian in nature, reflecting the austere economic climate of the day but were to be situated so as to take advantage of the beautiful landscaped woodland setting and to give a sense of community and privacy. Construction began in 1934 and although not officially opened until 3rd May 1939, Barrow Hospital received its first patients in May 1938 with the complex still only half-built. It was intended that the rest of the hospital buildings would be gradually added over the following years but the outbreak of war in September 1939 saw construction halted, never to be resumed: The hospital was commandeered to serve as a Royal Naval Auxiliary Hospital and treated casualties of war until the Autumn of 1946 when control was returned to the Bristol Corporation.
Oatley's 1934 vision for the hospital.
Map from 1980 showing the hospital as built [HMSO]
In July 1948 the hospital was transferred to the newly formed National Health Service under the governance of the Bristol Hospital Management Committee. Although the hospital lacked an administration block, chapel, recreation hall and laundry, facilities were quicly improvised from existing buildings and Barrow became known as a progressive hospital, hosting clinical conferences for doctors from across the United Kingdom.
By the 1960s, by some accounts at least, standards had deteriorated, with one patient recalling: 'I found the main hospital a grim place. Common rooms consisted of urine- stained chairs set round the walls and a distinct lack of comfort overall. Washing and toilet facilities were frankly pretty disgusting.' Nonetheless, the hospital's pioneering work continued, including managing a day Hospital near the centre of Bristol and helping to keep former patients in the community by providing home visits
In contrast to other local hospitals, such as Glenside, patients were not kept in locked wards and only a small number of acute admission wards were segregated. Further, although the hospital suffered from relative isolation due to its rural setting and a lack of amenities, it benefitted from a regular bus service to Bristol and Glenside Hospital. In 1960 the hospital's population reached a peak of 453, although it was predicted that new community based care initiatives would lead to a decline in patient numbers to 200 by 1975. This target was not met, but patient numbers did decline and some residential wards were replaced with out-patient and community support services.
In 2008 permission was granted to build 18 luxury homes and 405,000 sq. ft. of office space on the southern part of the site: the fate of the northern part remained undecided. Demolition began in 2009 and continued in a piecemeal fashion until 2011 when work abruptly stopped, possibly due to the discovery of bats in the site's underground service tunnels or to an ongoing planning debate concerning road access and traffic issues. In 2010, plans for the site were amended to include a 220 bed care home 'village', more housing and fewer offices.
The hospital continued to evoke mixed feelings amongst patients, visitors and staff into the 1990s, with some accounts describing it as dirty and depressing and others speaking of happy memories and caring staff. In 2003 Avon & Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust announced their intention to close Barrow Hospital and transfer its services to the existing general hospital at Southmead and a new purpose-built hospital at Brislington. By 2004 only three residential wards remained open with the rest set to close by 2008. A report published at the time by mental health charity Mind found that: |
'Patients seemed to feel passionately
both in favour, and against the closure plans.'.
However, a national survey of hospital cleanliness conducted in 2005 which named Barrow as the dirtiest in Britain and the collapse of part of the ceiling on top of a patient in the Leigh Unit the saw the closure plan brought forward and the last ward closed in 2006.
A plan of the remaining buildings in 2012
This page is respectfully dedicated to the patients who lived, were treated or died at Barrow Hospital.
May they find peace.
 Barton-White, E., (1939) 'Barrow Hospital (Souvenir of Opening Ceremony)' Bristol: Corporation of Bristol
 Watson, J., (N.D.) 'Contrasting hospital admissions at Barrow Hospital, Barrow Gurney, near Bristol (1965) and Glenside Hospital, Bristol (1969)' Retreived 10/03/2012 from http://studymore.org.uk/4_13_ta.htm#BarrowHospital
 Donskoy, A.L., (2002) 'User Focused Survey of Inpatient Services in Three Hospitals - Barrow - Blackberry Hill - Southmead' Bristol: Mind
The Derelict Miscellany: website and all content © D. A. Gregory unless stated to be otherwise.