Reg Little on a new book telling the story of the Fair Mile Victorian mental hospital

Having written a book about a Victorian pauper lunatic asylum, Ian Wheeler recognises that most people will be anticipating a pretty grim read.

For the four words immediately conjure up feelings of dark foreboding, with images of Bethlem Hospital, or Bedlam as it is better known, springing to mind.

But chilling his readers’ blood with tales of cruelty, neglect and violence is the last thing Mr Wheeler had in mind when he decided to tell the story of the Victorian asylum, which became an institution at the centre of village life in Cholsey, which he calls home.

The story of the Fair Mile Hospital began with the passing of the Lunacy Act of 1845 and it would only close its doors on 132 years and seven months of service in April 2003. More than just a psychiatric hospital, it stood as an example of a national network of pauper lunatic asylums, which over decades become the village’s biggest employer, an integral part of Cholsey, touching almost every household in the area.

It certainly touched the life of Mr Wheeler, a local historian, who edits medical and scientific research papers.

“I represent the fourth and last generation of my family to have worked there. In fact, nine members of my family worked there over a period of 100 years,” he says.

“In 1950 the hospital became my first home. My grandparents lived there in a staff lodge. My grandmother Lilian Talbot was an occupational therapist and my grandfather was employed at Fair Mile as a hall porter. I only worked there briefly, entering data.”

But not just his family, the whole of Cholsey, he maintains, celebrated its close links with the asylum.

“Its impact on patients, staff and the unassuming village of Cholsey was profound,” says Mr Wheeler, whose varied career path has taken in banking, sales, scientific research, business computing and health and safety.

“Although it closed in 2003, it has left a huge legacy in terms of skills, community relations and fond memories. By the mid-20th century scarcely a family in Cholsey was without some sort of connection with Fair Mile.

“It served as a social hub, notably in the dark days of the Second World War, entered floats in local carnivals and welcomed visitors to its regular garden fetes. Although standing apart, Fair Mile was embraced by its host village. I think villagers got used to having it here and just got on with it. “ If this all comes as a surprise, in part Mr Wheeler reckons that it is because we misjudge the Victorians, whom we continue to associate with poverty, deprivation, rigid social demarcation and, of course, the workhouse.

In his book Fair Mile Hospital: A Victorian Asylum (The History Press, £14.99) he argues: “By the time Queen Victoria was on the throne, there was a fashion for social responsibility and philanthropy, and those in authority were quite capable of recognising that mental illness was a condition that deserved sympathetic attention.

“Society still preferred not to let insanity walk the streets and, in the absence of what we nowadays recognise as psychiatric therapy, it was though better to confine the sufferers for the greater good.

“Although care of the mentally unwell represented a drain on the public purse, there was clearly a strong desire to protect the vulnerable, and to find the means of returning them to a normal life. The very word ‘asylum’, for so long associated with confinement and inner torment, still means ‘a place of safety’.”

The site chosen could hardly be more pleasant. The 67-acre site between the River Thames and the Reading turnpike (now the A329) was bought from the prominent Hedges family, at the time the owners of Wallingford Castle. Like other asylums of the day, it was conceived as a self-sufficient community, which could initially house 285 men and women, with plans for growth to 500.

Construction work began in March 1868 with a group of outlying cottages. A farm, orchard and kitchen gardens were created to help feed the asylum’s occupants and provide gainful activity for patients. Patients were typically diagnosed as suffering from either mania, melancholia or dementia.

Criminal lunatics were not usually accepted, being normally confined to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum at Crowthorne, which opened in 1887. However, around that time, in an early exception, five Pentonville inmates were received at the Moulsford Asylum, as it was initially named. Much later, a ‘secure unit’ was set up to house an overflow of Broadmoor patients.

“It is not pleasant to contemplate steel bars in a mental hospital but a number of iron gates were fitted in the corridors in 1923,” observes Mr Wheeler. But even this is justified. “The reason was based on the occupants’ comfort, since the gates permitted otherwise locked doors to remain open, affording much better circulation of air in the hot weather.

“It is no secret that padded rooms were a feature of asylum life and there were occasions when patients had to be confined for their own safety, or that of others.”

Mr Wheeler says that he can himself recall hearing sirens going off when patients escaped.

“I cannot recall any dangerous patients on the loose. I think the main concerns when patients escaped was that they would harm themselves.”

The hospital’s proximity to the river remained a major worry.

The first suicide was a male patient who drowned himself in April 1872.

“Anyone who knew Fair Mile Hospital up to its latest days could be forgiven for associating the grim subject with the Thames,” reflects Mr Wheeler. “It flowed along the asylum’s border.”

In addition, barely half a mile away, there was also a bridge , locally named Silly Bridge, which crossed the London-Bristol main line.

The idea of the book came after Mr Wheeler, a keen folk musician and Morris dancer who has lived in Cholsey for 40 years, put together an exhibition five years ago.

It featured a remarkable collection of 400 photographs rescued from the skip by Tony Spackman, a mental health service manager.

As well as charting the changes in practices and personnel at a facility that treated thousands of patients, the exhibition also highlighted its proud sporting tradition.

By the 1880s there was a cricket pitch in elegant parkland, to be replaced after the Second World War on the former kitchen gardens at the rear of the hospitals, with a pavilion erected in 1957.

The cricket ground and main Grade II-listed Victorian buildings survived when closure came, with energy-efficient apartments created and “a vibrant new community in historic parkland”.

The grounds feature some new housing and demolition was largely confined to the unprepossessing 20th-century wings.

The hospital would even briefly enjoy celebrity status, being a location in an episode of Midsomer Murders.

But Mr Wheeler maintains that the village felt a sense of loss. and a vacuum after 133 years of interaction.

“There was a real affection for the place,” he still maintains. “Not so much for its echoing corridors, peeling paint and red-brick walls as for its sense of community and its mission of care.”

An example of patients’ graffiti is included among the book’s black and white photographs, an image which he reckons “says it all”.

Scribbled on a plain white wall are the words: “Some were here, some were queer but some just wanted a pint of beer.”