This is a poetry project which explores the concept of mental health, those enormous and dour mental institutions which used to dot the countryside until the turn of the last century, and leaves one wondering anew what happens to the people who used to be committed there, who are now cared for in the community.
The hospital in question is Carlton Hayes, which operated between 1908 and 1994. They buried their dead in an unmarked mass grave in the nearby cemetery of Narborough. To be mentally ill (or, sometimes, not even that – see below) was to be effaced from society.
I remember another of these institutions: St Lawrence’s Hospital just outside Bodmin, in Cornwall. It was purpose built as an asylum in 1818. It had patients until 2002. Some of them (and it was, quite rightly, a scandal when this came out) were young girls when they went in to have their illegitimate babies – and eventually died in there as old women. There were rumours of ill treatment of vulnerable and elderly inpatients.
Foster Hall, inside St Lawrence’s, had a generously equipped theatre and well sprung dance floor, just like Carlton Hayes. We staff of Wadebridge & Padstow R D C performed Mother Goose and Aladdin in Foster Hall in the Seventies, one night for the patients, the other nights for colleagues, friends and blow-ins. The patients were strange to play to: they tended to cry at the funny bits and become hysterical at the sad bits. St Lawrence’s was, I always felt, a sad and forbidding place. Many years later when visiting a creative writing student of mine in Aylesbury Prison, I was often reminded of St Lawrence’s. There was the same vigilance, the same obsession with signing in and out, with keys and locks. Unsurprising in a prison: more alarming in a hospital.
Marilyn Ricci is a poet, playwright and editor living in Narborough, Leicestershire. For many years she worked for the Open University. Her poetry has been widely published, including a pamphlet Rebuilding a Number 39 from HappenStance Press, and Night Rider, a full-length collection published by Soundswrite Press.
Ricci’s new pamphlet is illustrated by her daughter, Amanda Ricci. On the back cover the artist has drawn the old asylum. It is very like the one I knew, although more grey stone than red brick.
The poet imagined two ‘typical’ inpatients and has created a fictitious Admittance Report for each of them. From there she imagines their lives in the institution, high points and lows, interests and woes, culminating in the hospital’s Christmas Ball of 1966 where they become, as we say now ‘an item’. Their evening is a delightful one. We are left to wonder what happened to them after that.
This pamphlet is available from Amazon UK or from the publisher: website here https://www.quirkypress.co.uk/
All profits from the sale of this book will be donated to MIND, the mental health charity.