Leavesden Asylum – A Victorian Hospital with a modern twist!

I’ve written once or twice before in passing on Leavesden Hospital and a possible extremely infamous former patient there.  Recently I went on a walk with a friend of mine ostensibly to create a book promo video for a novel which I’m in the process of writing. Leavesden Asylum was a vast site that was built in 1870.

Leavesden Asylum

Original plan of Leavesden Asylum

It was built by Victorians who recognised that there were some poor in the London workhouses that could not be safely housed and cared for and though some of their practices might seem cruel to us today, it was a genuine attempt by the healthcare of the time to treat patients with mental difficulties as best as they could in the most humane conditions possible.

Aerial Shot of Leavesden Asylum

Aerial Shot of Leavesden Asylum taken in 1950’s.

Though Leavesden is now almost on the edge of London, 150 years ago it was a remote location, useful for housing sometimes criminally dangerous patients over a days travel from the busy capital city. The 78 acre site housed “quiet and harmless” imbeciles from north London in a totally self-sufficient estate which cost the vast sum of £145,000 in the currency of the day. 860 women were housed in 6 separate and identical looking blocks whilst 700 men were housed in five separate blocks.

Leavesden Asylum Gym

Leavesden Asylum Gym, now private residences.

There was also a medical area, exercise gym, administration office, church, farm and various ancillary buildings such as boiler-rooms and laundry rooms. Patients at Leavesden suffered from various mental impairments and conditions and a small number who were capable of working were taken under strict supervision to various working areas. Women tended to work with the laundry, needleroom, and female staff quarters.

Leavesden Asylum Ward

Leavesden Asylum Ward circa 1910. Looking incredibly clean and smart.

Men performed more physical tasks such as gardening, on the farm, in the shoemaker’s, tailor’s, upholsterer’s and paint shops, and in the laundry kitchen and bakehouse. Patients who were unsuitable for these jobs were employed on the wards, scrubbing and corridors and stairs.

Leavesden Ward Staff

Leavesden Ward Staff circa 1910.

Discipline in the asylum was extremely strict both for patients and staff. The sexes were strictly segregated and apart from the weekly dance and chapel service there was no mixing and  at the chapel men sat at one side, and women at the other. Staff were not allowed to mix in the grounds or even talk over a fence during off-duty periods under threat of dismissal.

Leavesden Doctors Houses

Leavesden Doctors Houses from the 19th century. One of them has a plaque on the wall for a brave fallen soldier of WW1.

The staff day-duty ran from 6am until 8pm with 1½ hours off for meal breaks. Sub-officers were allowed one day’s leave every four weeks. Male attendants were expected to salute Medical Officers as a sign of respect. Even senior officers were not exempt from the rules. The Medical Superintendent and Matron were reprimanded for visiting each other’s quarters. Even the Chaplain was reported for breaking the rules by jumping over the fence to his house rather than going out by the front gate as was required.

Leavesden Asylum from the air

Photo showing Leavesden Asylum above and the Canadian Hospital below (now parkland). The new 1950’s housing in Leavesden is visible on the right with Abbots Langley village in the top left. Look to the far right near the top to see the wooded cemetery and the Incinerator which I have photographed further down.

Across what was then Asylum Road but is now College Road was originally St. Pancras Workhouse which housed mostly the poorest of the poor from the Camden area of London including many orphans or abandoned children.  Later on the site became home for a Canadian Military hospital for the Infirm during the war before all the buildings eventually came under the renamed Leavesden Mental hospital which at times housed many thousands of people.

Leavesden Hospital today

Estimated extent of Leavesden Hospital today… precise farm land is only estimated.

Some of the records are online though some are hard to find.  It seems sad to modern sensibilities that various patients death certificates have them labelled as idiots, dumb, imbecile and lunatic As our understanding and treatment of those with such problems has grown and concepts such as “Care in the Community” became seen as preferential to incarceration the requirement for such a large hospital ended and in the 1990’s the majority of the hospital was closed down.

A small Leavesden NHS facility remains to care for low security patients but the vast majority of the site was levelled.  Much of it was sold off to make way for much needed housing whilst a 57 acre country park was established in the remaining area.

East Lane Cemetery

Resting place of Jack The Ripper?

One of the fun aspects of history is exploring locations and gaining glimpses into what links us to the past and there are some tantalising links in modern day Leavesden with the 19th Century hospital.   Of course there is the East Lane Cemetery which now open to the public, at least to members of the public with a certain disposition.  A second cemetery is entirely overrun with woodland and last year it was rumoured that a third cemetery has been located.

Asylum Road

Asylum Road (now College Road) Leavesden in 1910.

The gate-house or porters house still remains at the entrance alongside the impressive Victorian railings.  It was at this building where relatives of the patients could briefly meet their ill family members.

College Road Leavesden

College Road Leavesden, once Asylum Road. The house is now hidden behind the trees on the right but the road and trees are clearly the same.

Though it was thought best to demolish the actual hospital wards, the beautiful, large and imposing Administration block remains as a series of luxury flats and private dwellings as does the exercise block.  It is hard to believe that these huge buildings comprise of about just a sixteenth of what was once here, not counting the large hospital across Asylum Road.  Some sort of boiler house remains a good ten or fifteen minute walk away from the Admin block and the roads, footpaths, trees and hedgerows remain recognisable in places and I have stumbled across more than the odd concrete and brick building foundations around and about the site.

Leavesden Asylum Incinerator

Leavesden Asylum Incinerator or boiler room. You can see the chimney on some of the old photos. Sadly this and a nearby house have fallen into severe disrepair in the last 2 or 3 years and seem to be owned by someone who spends all his time chopping and burning wood.

As I was showing my friend around the remaining old hospital buildings we were peering inside the doors of the old chapel when to our surprise they opened and we were invited inside.  Not sure what to expect and not wanting to impose, we were at first reluctant to enter but we were glad we did.  It turns out that the NHS and local council sold the chapel to a charity named Demand We were shown upstairs into the offices, all the original features of the beautiful Victorian Chapel remained but were combined with a modern 21st century office.

Demand Offices

The Demand Offices upstairs in a new Mezanine floor in the original Leavesden Asylum Chapel.

We were made to feel very welcome by the Chief Executive Gary Evans who took 15 minutes out of his time to talk us through the history of the site as he knew it as well as showing us some old plans and photos, some of which he has kindly allowed me to post here.

It turns out that Demand is a charity that designs and manufactures specific equipment for disabled people in all areas of life and the downstairs of the old chapel is in fact a large and modern workshop.

Demand Workshop

Part of the Demand Workshop which makes custom made equipment to improve the lives of disabled people.

In a way this corner of old Leavesden Asylum is playing the same role as the original creators of the hospital back in 1870 as Demand is helping disabled people live independent, happy and productive lives.  The methods may have changed but the goals remain the same. In the probable thousand times or more I have walked through the old hospital grounds I had no idea that the chapel was occupied so fruitfully in this way and it is another link to the past origins of the site.  Demand is reliant on donations and does very good work so do have a click on their website above.

Demand in Leavesden Chapel

Demand in Leavesden Chapel

Leavesden Admin Block

Leavesden Admin Block around 1910. That big tree on the right is now huge!

Leavesden Asylum Admin block

Leavesden Asylum Admin block now converted into luxury flats

If you like history then don’t forget my new book 101 Most Horrible Tortures in History.

101 Most Horrible Tortures in History

101 Most Horrible Tortures in History

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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25 Responses to Leavesden Asylum – A Victorian Hospital with a modern twist!

  1. A very interesting read

    Like

  2. Very interesting because my grandfather was in Leavesden Asylum from 1923 until his death in 1948. I am using his story as the central plot for my latest novel – although not of course using his name or identifying the asylum. I have two issues which I need to resolve
    1. How were long term patients treated? What sort of life did they have? As far as I know my grandfather had a mental breakdown – possibly as a result of war related post traumatic stress disorder.
    2. Would patients have been allowed visitors? If so who and how often?
    Many thanks
    Jill Morrison

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    • Gilbert Tsang says:

      Hi, I worked (was trained) at Leavesden I would be intrested in reading your novel. Please send the title so I can buy/read it.
      Regards Bo Tsang

      Like

  3. Emlyn says:

    I was born in Tanners Hill in 1961. My father worked on Kiwi Ward, my mother and sister on the Abbots side. I have many memories of growing up here, going to school and all my old friends and their parents, all of whom worked in Leavesdan.

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  4. Joe Duffy says:

    We use to play in there as kids running up and down the corridors and when it was closed we got to explore all the places we wasn’t aloud to go too when it was open great time of my life

    Like

  5. Janet says:

    An interesting article – an ancestor was there in the 1880s and died there 1887. An avenue of research to follow up!

    Like

  6. Olga Missirliadou says:

    I worked in Leavesden Hospital as a Psychology Assistant from September 1989 – September 1990. The hospital was at a closing down process at the time and most of our work had to do with prepairing the patients to move into smaller community units (hostels).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment Olga. How lovely to hear from someone who worked there. I wonder if anyone has ever organised a get-together for the former staff, residents or even patients who spent so much time there.

      Like

  7. Emlyn Parry says:

    Thousands of people worked at Leavesden and Abbots Langley Hospitals over the years. I remember having family days out to Walton on a Naze, Christmas Parties at the Staff Sicial Club, Annual Fetes etc etc.
    There must be thousands of photographs out there, can we get them in and publicise them ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, someone should create a website or book about the hospitals. Martin Brooks who is a councillor for that part of Leavesden has become an expert in recent years and I know he is behind the new information boards that are in the parks.

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  8. Irene Taylor says:

    Thank you for all the photos and information – very interesting.
    My Great Grandfather’s brother, Robert Henry Bolding, from Bethnal Green, died at Leavesden in 1872, aged just 19 years of age.. I assume he is buried in the cemetery there somewhere, probably in the overgrown area. Pity there are no records available to search but they have probably all been destroyed long ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Irene, thanks for leaving a message. Since I wrote my original piece around 2-3 years ago, the cemetery has been greatly tidied up and is now a pleasant place to visit if you are able to. There are still 20-30 grave stones visible but it is obvious 99% of them are no longer standing. I once did find online records for the hospital but it was only for the residents and I don’t remember seeing any burial information.

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  9. Heather Doggett says:

    Very interesting read. I too have an ancestor who died there in 1915. The death certificate says TB – do you know how accurately they recorded causes of death? You mention above seeing online records – are these still available Stephen?

    Like

    • Heather Doggett says:

      I wonder why my questions didn’t get answering when everybody else seems to have had a reply? Thanks Stephen.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jill Morrison says:

        I tried to get my grandfather’s records but they are not available for 100 years. You may be able to now. I wrote to the leavesden got confirmation of the years he was there and then a death certificate but no information about why.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Heather, it wasn’t at all intentional. In fact when I wrote the blog post several years ago, I easily found the patient records online and I had gone away to find the links for you. Over the years though, the records now need you to register for accounts to gain access. Anything ‘recent’ isn’t available at all and I haven’t been able to find any open access records at all. Generally the patient records that i see are very basic and generic and have very simple and generic terms that are now insulting on the paperwork with patients labelled “Idiot” or “Lunatic”. It is very sad. Having said that, around 2 years ago, the old Leavesden Hospital cemetery was cleared of undergrowth and many of the pathways restored and several more graves visible. It is beautiful but melancholic place that you might like to visit.

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        • Jill Morrison says:

          I answered you Heather in that I tried to get my grandfather’s records when I was researching for my novel. I spoke directly to somebody in charge of the records relating to the Leavesden and I was told that the records were still protected until he had been dead 100 years i.e. 2048, by which time I will be long dead too!

          Liked by 1 person

  10. susan page says:

    I have just been reading your account of Leavesden Hospital. It was so good to read, how morbid. I worked there from 1972 to 1984, as an ancillary worker in the clothing department where the patients cloths were made. Not very attractive in some cases but serviceable considering the laundry treatment they received. I progressed to the supplies department where I spent the rest of my working days there. I have so many fond memories or both staff and patients alike. My daughter also worked there for a short time in the supplies department. I had lived within the vicinity of the hospital since I was nine years old, and can remember going to dances in the recreation hall during the early sixties, Thursday nights. The staff social club played a huge part of my early days there. The booze was cheap and we had lots of fun when there was a dance held there. I am now going to try and purchase the book entitled The Other Side of Silence. Your site is a great piece of history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your wonderful comments Susan. It sounds that despite the circumstances, you enjoyed your time there. I never saw it as a working hospital but I do love exploring the buildings and parks around there and discovering new places. I’m so glad that you enjoy my post and blog.

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  11. EmGee says:

    I recently moved into Leavesden Court about three months ago with my husband & two children. Our rented apartment is the main three windows right at the front of the old admin building where the balcony is (that’s our living/dining room) and we have a lovely view of the lawn & trees (and often wildlife!) outside. It’s always felt so peaceful to be here despite other peoples reactions when we tell them where we live! Not long ago we has an engineer call round to service our boiler and one of the first things he said to me upon entering the flat was: “what’s it like living in a nut house then?” Apparently his sister worked here briefly in the early 90’s. We occasionally get comments from delivery drivers too…..some of whom seem quite hesitant to come up here and very quick to leave in the evenings!

    Having had some previous experiences of unexplained ‘goings-on’ in other properties we’ve lived in before I can safely say that we haven’t had anything of that nature happen here. Only last week we went out to locate the East Lane Cemetery site (with the children in tow) taking a walk through the north side of the country park and walking past the old boiler room/incinerator and the very sad looking and feeling derelict house adjacent to it 😦 Our daughters thought it was such a shame it was like that and wondered who owned it. It was actually very similar to the Victorian house we had previously lived in although it wasn’t in such a remote feeling location as this example!

    We found the wooded cemetery with the pillbox at the edge of the field looking towards the M25 and managed to see a few of the old stones that you’re still able to read or find. We could just about see the outlines of where the old paths were under all the leaves but you did get the feeling that, although not derelict as such, it seems abandoned or lost somehow. At any rate, I reminded our daughters (they’re going on 11 & 9) that even if people like us – who never knew any of those buried there – come along and visit with respect and even to show curiosity about the lives that had been led long before we even existed – then all is not lost really. Even talking about those people and even perhaps, again with respect, speculating about how they came to live or work at Leavesden shows our gratitude for and admiration for the history of the place and it’s people.

    And, if you believe in such things (and as a family we certainly do!), maybe they’d be pleased that we felt that way and that we took the trouble of wanting to know a bit more about them all.

    We walked back down the lane as the sun was starting to go down heading towards Woodside (I pointed out to the girls the absence of any street lighting and how ‘pitch black’ the area would be at night – that creeped them out a fair bit – yikes!), passing the cottages on the left and the newer NHS site on the right (Warren Court). We were surprised to see the new housing development tucked away down there as well – High Elms – which is apparently all sold out despite being a mixed bag of some of the houses still being built or finished and others fully moved in to already!

    And so we arrived back out at the junction of Horseshoe Lane/College Road and wended our way back past the railings up the hill to home again. There is actually a little access gate to Leavesden Court halfway up with a guard rail right in front of it on the pavement outside, presumably located as such to stop anyone from accidentally lurching out onto the main road? Unfortunately, we’ve never been able to use this gate it as its completely overgrown and locked up! Considering that the first sales of the flats in the newly renovated admin block was only in 2003 it seems a shame that this gate isn’t in regular use as it would be very handy. Perhaps I should raise this with the property management company? Maybe there was a good reason why it was locked up. I shall let you know if I ever find out!

    Thank-you so much for all the wonderful information you’ve provided us. It’s continuing to be a fascinating journey of discovery for my family and I to learn more about where we currently live 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emlyn Parry says:

      The gate was never originally there. Quite often the Staff would climb the fence as a short cut home or a quick visit to the Staff Social Club on the other side of the road.
      The gate was added to allow staff access and the barrier later.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your great comments. How fascinating to actually live there 🙂 There is so much to discover in the area and the surrounding parks and fields. I absolutely love exploring. That old derlict house is so sad, I often thought of buying it and renovating it. It is in such a great location but the owners or the council just seem to want all the buildings there to fall apart. Maybe I will see out on an Autumnal walk soon 🙂

      Like

  12. Andy Johnson says:

    What an amazing web page and such and interesting and informative read. I also found the comments from other fascinating, such history and connection to the old place, I love that EmGee took her children on an explore to find the other buildings.

    I have been a resident here since 2016, when I viewed my current flat it was a tip, but it didn’t matter to me that was just cosmetics my landlord could put straight. It was the grounds and the old buildings that instantly captured me and made me want to live here. I often run in the country park and have passed the old boiler building but I never knew it was connected, I suppose I’ve not considered it but saw it as just a run down old building. I do think you are right, the owner doesn’t seem that bothered with it and its historical content, more interested in the yard for storing their woods chopping’s. I shall definitely look on it in a different way now and inspired by EmGee’s exploration I’m going to seek out the old graveyard too.

    I was aware that this place was an asylum and a pretty huge one but wasn’t truly aware of its size until reading this page so thank you very much for that truly enlightening. It’s great to be part of history and I know Victorian treatment of people with mental disorders was extremely harsh, that never truly changed until after the Second World War, got better granted but still stigmatised massively. We should feel fortunate we lice today where more is known and done.

    Whenever I tell people where I live I’m always asked if I’ve seen or heard a ghost, I can safely say that the only thing I’ve heard is noisy neighbours walking on slung floors with no insulating or fillers that and the echoy stairs. You’d hear a ghost coming a mile away lol.

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  13. Gilbert Tsang says:

    Hi,
    When I trained there was usually a patient or two who would make you a cup of tea when you got on duty, they would bring you up to speed on any local news as we chatted. Of course they knew everything and helped out a lot. I lived on site, my girl friend often stayed over; she became a psychiatrist and worked in France. I had watched a film about Freud but it wasn’t really relevant. I enjoyed my time there. Bo

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