Tag Archives: Holloway Sanatorium

The Living and The Dead

I have plunged into the eighteenth century and can see I may get involved with many other contemporary enthusiasts. But I am using (or trying to) this century as a means of living more fully in the twentieth century. This is what I want to remember: don’t run away from your problems here and now, however well you write and see the past.

Jean Lucey Pratt (in 1949), A Notable Woman, ed. Simon Garfield (2015)

Last month I described my visit to the old Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water in Surrey – the institution where my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton, spent his final terrible 18 months (see Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall). But what I did not mention was that, on that icy February day, I was not the only visitor taking advantage of the ex-asylum’s relatively infrequent open days.

While I was upstairs mooching around the gloomy Great Hall, with its hammerbeam roof, searching for the light switch, an unexpected group of visitors entered the room. With gasps of Oh, it’s just as I remembered! and I’d clean forgotten about that!, the three women were obviously familiar with their surroundings (including the whereabouts of the old fashioned light switches). Thrillingly, I realised that I was possibly about to come face to face with some of the people who had actually worked in the building while it still played an active role in mental health care, rather than simply housing the wealthy.

1355 (3)The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Anyone who is particularly interested in the recent history of Holloway Sanatorium will soon discover that there is one relatively famous ex-employee who wrote about his time there in a very funny and irreverent way. In his book Notes From a Small Island, the British-American humourist Bill Bryson briefly mentions the period in 1973 when he worked as a janitor at the asylum, a job he obtained through knowing some of the student nurses (and where he eventually met his future wife).

He describes the institution as such: The hospital, I came to discover, was its own little universe, virtually complete unto itself. It had its own joinery shop and electricians, plumbers and painters, its own coach and coach driver. It had a snooker room, a badminton court and swimming-pool, a tuck shop and a chapel, a cricket pitch and social club, a podiatrist and hairdresser, kitchens, sewing room and laundry. Once a week they showed movies in a kind of ballroom. It even had its own mortuary. The patients did all the gardening that didn’t involve sharp tools and kept the grounds immaculate. It was a bit like a country club for crazy people. I liked it very much.

Over the years, Bryson, whose parents-in-law lived in the area, sadly watched the decline of the old sanatorium after it closed its doors in 1981. From being initially used as a set to film crime drama or rock videos (including the spooky Charlotte Sometimes, by The Cure), the buildings eventually fell into total disrepair and were repeatedly vandalised, as well as being looted for remaining ‘artefacts’, including some of the old casebooks.

In the late 1990s when Bryson returned to Virginia Water from America, fully expecting to see the old sanatorium further degraded, he was unprepared for the scene which awaited him and described it thus: So imagine my surprise when I crested a gentle slope and found a spanking new entrance knocked into the perimeter wall, a big sign welcoming me to Virginia Park and, flanking a previously unknown vista of the sanatorium building, a generous clutch of smart new executive homes behind. With mouth agape, I stumbled up a freshly asphalted road lined with houses so new that there were still stickers on the windows and the yards were seas of mud. One of the houses had been done up as a show home and, as it was a Sunday, it was busy with people having a look. Inside, I found a glossy brochure full of architects’ drawings of happy, slender people strolling around among handsome houses, listening to a chamber orchestra in the room where I formerly watched movies in the company of twitching lunatics, or swimming in an indoor pool sunk into the floor of the great Gothic hall (this was originally the dining hall, similar to the Great Hall, upstairs) where I had once played badminton and falteringly asked the young nurse from Florence Nightingale (a ward name) for a date, with a distant view, if she could possibly spare the time, of marrying me.

SWIMMING POOLThe (New) Swimming Pool at Virginia Park

According to the rather sumptuous accompanying prose, residents of Virginia Park could choose between several dozen detached executive homes, a scattering of townhouses and flats, or one of twenty-three grand apartments carved out of the restored san, now mysteriously renamed Crossland House (this was after Thomas Crossland, the architect). The map of the site was dotted with strange names – Connolly Mews, Chapel Square, The Piazza – that owed little to its previous existence. How much more appropriate, I thought, if they had given them names like Lobotomy Square and Electroconvulsive Court. Prices started a £350,000 (twenty years ago).

For the locally-based ex-nurses I met that day (none of whom had known Bryson or his wife), the external changes to the estate had been gradual. However, they were still unprepared for both the grandness of the interior and the coldness the place exuded, now that it was devoid of the staff and patients. And as is the nature of such encounters, we rapidly fell into conversation; while I showed them my photographs of Herbert and told them his story, they furnished me with their memories of the place – all of which seemed very positive. This was curiously very reassuring, even though they had worked there half a century after Herbert’s death. He would have been well cared for they said. It was very much a happy place.

I wanted to believe them, but had a feeling that Herbert’s condition wouldn’t have been an easy one to deal with. One of the ex-nurses later explained that during her medical training she’d once had the opportunity to discreetly observe an old lady suffering from advanced tertiary syphilis (very few of these cases existed by then due to the widespread use of penicillin from the 1940s), and she described the rather shocking limb tremors she witnessed in the patient.

I was touched at my new friends’ interest in my research, and felt quite emotional when I brought out some of the old Rotary postcards of Herbert, and they mentioned how he looked slightly like me (there is indeed a Skelton resemblance – my cousin’s oldest son could almost double for Herbert).

HERBERT SLEATH (2)Herbert Sleath-Skelton c1906

Of course I pumped Nina, Beth and Helen (by now we were one first name terms) for any relevant information about their time at the hospital, and was impressed at how little they gave away about their individual patients. When we were later joined briefly by a retired male nurse from the subcontinent, the three women were rather disconcerted when he inadvertently blurted out the name of a famous actor-comedien who had once been treated at the asylum.  We would never give names they said. Even now.

Afterwards, when I re-read Bill Bryson’s account of the months he spent at Holloway San, it tallied with the stories the nurses had told me of upper-crust patients (there was still a proportion of fee-paying patients up until 1974 to offset costs, some even from the pre-NHS days) wandering the estate and neighbouring town of Virginia Water in plus fours and dinner jackets, their cut glass accents allowing them to get away with a lot of mischief both in and out of the asylum. Bryson describes this scenario more generally in his book as follows:

Virginia Water is an interesting place. It was built mostly in the twenties and thirties, with two small parades of shops and, surrounding them, a dense network of private roads winding through and around the famous Wentworth Golf Course. Scattered among the trees are rambling houses, often occupied by celebrities and built in a style that might be called Ostentatious English Vernacular or perhaps Game Stab at Lutyens, with busy rooflines crowded with gables and fussy chimneypots, spacious and multiple verandas, odd-sized windows, at least one emphatic chimney breast and acres of trailing roses over a trim little porch. It felt, when I first saw it, rather like walking into the pages of a 1937 House and Garden. But what lent Virginia Water a particular charm back then, and I mean this quite seriously, was that it was full of wandering lunatics. Because most of the patients had been resident at the sanatorium for years, and often decades, no matter how addled their thoughts or hesitant their gait, no matter how much they mumbled and muttered, adopted sudden postures of submission or demonstrated any of a hundred other indications of someone comfortably out to lunch, most of them could be trusted to wander down to the village and find their way back again.

Each day you could count on finding a refreshing sprinkling of lunatics buying fags or sweets, having a cup of tea or just quietly remonstrating with thin air. The result was one of the most extraordinary communities in England, one in which wealthy people and lunatics mingled on equal terms. The shopkeepers and locals were quite wonderful about it, and didn’t act as if anything was odd because a man with wild hair wearing a pyjama jacket was standing in a corner of the baker’s declaiming to a spot on the wall or sitting at a corner table of the Tudor Rose with swivelling eyes and the makings of a smile, dropping sugar cubes into his minestrone. It was, and I’m still serious, a thoroughly heartwarming sight.

While this doesn’t detract from the gravity of some of the inmates’ conditions, it does seem to demonstrate that the ethos of the place – likened by many to a prolonged stay in a country hotel – had remained throughout the years. Patients appear to have been treated with kindness and respect, and the fact that the asylum had been built in what was originally open countryside meant that there had always been little restrictions on the patients’ movements (at least those not deemed to be a danger to themselves and others, such as Herbert).

With our new-found solidarity, the ex-nurses and I approached the administrator’s office on the ground floor to enquire about access to other parts of the building – and were rather perfunctorily told that most of the old sanatorium was out of bounds, including the chapel (a badminton match was taking place there). What we had seen that day seemed like a tease, and just as I have often found with genealogical research, it felt as if the curtain was being slowly lifted on an interesting and unknown aspect of my ancestor’s life, only for it to fall abruptly back down before the entire scene could be fully absorbed. Again, it felt like moving closer to – yet simultaneously further from – the truth.

Over lunch at a local overpriced bistro full of the American wives of bankers (many who lived at Virginia Park), I got to know the three women better. They had kindly invited me to join them for their reunion meal, and after parting we agreed to keep in touch. And so it was that a year later I returned to Virginia Water with my mother in tow. This time the nurses had arranged for us all to have a guided tour with Joy Whitfield – an expert in the history of the sanatorium – from the nearby Egham museum. By then (2013), the open days had shrunk to once a year, and on the 15th of September a small group of us gathered in front of the lodge gates to meet Joy. This time we were able to visit the chapel (where Joy had incidentally been married) and learn more of the historic details of the building – such as the elaborately painted TH, JH, and TC initials on the ceiling of the grand entrance hall, standing respectively for Thomas Holloway (the Victorian benefactor), his wife Jane, and Thomas Crossland (the architect).

1387 (2)Ceiling in the entrance hall (initials of Jane and Thomas Holloway)

1413 (2)The Chapel, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Joy had also thoughtfully brought along some of the photographs and brochures of the original fee-paying asylum from the turn of the century for us to browse through after our tour. A video (below) shows the contents of an Edwardian advertising booklet for Holloway Sanatorium. It certainly does look like it is emulating the style of a country house hotel. And in fact a contemporary account of the sanatorium states that: Dominated by the idea that a cultivated person whose mind is affected will never be cured if surrounded by vulgar idiots or grim accessories, Mr George Martin (Thomas Holloway’s brother-in-law, who later became Martin-Holloway) has endeavoured to introduce as many objects as possible to awake and stimulate the trained intelligence for the moment over-strained. In the smaller but still ample parlours and living rooms the same idea of cheerfulness and suggestiveness is carried out. It is endeavoured above all things to avoid leaving a dimmed intelligence opposite to a blank wall.

As I mentioned last month, one of the things that puzzled me about Herbert’s time as a patient at the sanatorium was the absence of his wife, Ellis Jeffreys, in his life. She is not even mentioned in the contested will of 1915, in which Herbert leaves almost everything to his wealthy sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, who would go on to be the beneficiary of three more wills before her own death in 1953 (see The Fortunate Widow). This fact has led me to surmise that the relationship had become strained several years previous to Herbert’s final illness. In addition, it would appear that neither she nor any other family member organised a funeral or an obituary for Herbert, who only twenty years earlier had been described by The Penny Illustrated Paper so: Mr Sleath is popular wherever he goes, for he has a very artistic and yet a genial and buoyant personality; he is a thorough Englishman, a splendid horseman, and a good all-round sportsman.

There is, however, plenty of evidence as to how Ellis lived out her remaining decades as a widow. After writing (or rewriting) her own will a month after Herbert died (in which she left everything to her daughter, Evelyn), she continued to live at both Dormy Cottage with Evelyn and at an address in town (30, Hill Street, S.W.7), acting on the London stage. By the 1930s, Ellis had even entered the exciting new world of cinema. So it is now possible to view Ellis as a celluloid creation, something which was denied us in the case of Herbert. And stills and promotion material from these films clearly show her aging well – a good-looking, fashionably dressed older woman, often playing the part of a mother or grandmother figure to the younger, rising stars of the period.

s-l1600Ellis Jeffreys in 1936 (at age 67)

But was it galling for Ellis to be re-imagined in these roles, having once been the attractive ingénue herself, or was she just grateful to still be able to work at a job she clearly loved, and continue to be active in society at a time when most older women became invisible? Somehow I think it was most likely the latter. Ellis always comes across to me as a survivor – a strong woman who did not allow herself to be the puppet of any one man. And yet I also have this feeling that she was perhaps manipulative in her own way, using her looks and connections to create the aristocratic lifestyle she wanted for herself.

In 1933, Ellis and Evelyn finally moved out of Dormy Cottage and into a large Jacobean farmhouse in the village of Chobham in Surrey. It seems a strange move for two women who were often up in London, as the house and grounds were even bigger and the village more remote (it did not even have a train station) than their previous residence. But perhaps the property was seen as an investment opportunity for ‘little’ Evelyn: she inherited the house* on her mother’s death in 1943 (from pneumonia and heart disease), and continued to live there alone for over half a century, until her own death in 1987.

*Ellis states in her 1921 will: My two children are aware that my love for them is equal and in making this my Will I desire to leave on record that I am solely influenced by the fact that my son is now old enough and able to earn his own living. I accordingly GIVE all my property to my daughter Ellis Evelyn Isabella Curzon and APPOINT her my Executor.

Shipping records also show that throughout the 1930s Ellis and Evelyn took several trips and cruises to exotic destinations together, so perhaps Ellis was making good money through her frequent film appearances. Between 1930 and 1938 (when she retired) she appeared in no less than a dozen British films, none of which appear to have stood the test of time. And while I have enjoyed watching full-length performances of her son, the actor George Curzon (who was famous for playing the role of Sexton Blake, as well as appearing in numerous Hitchcock films, including The Man Who Knew Too Much), I have not yet had the opportunity to see his mother spring to life before me. But like many of the actors and actresses of the period, who made the transition from the stage to film later in their career, I somehow imagine that she might come across as rather shrill and hammy. Even George does not exactly seem very natural and authentic today (usually playing the same cool, aristocratic part), although this may be more due to changing fashions in acting style.

George Curzon in The Scotland Yard Mystery, 1934 (man on right)

And so the dead rise up before us again through the magic of new technology, and we can only wonder at what those who first saw these moving pictures thought of such a spectacle!

Over coffee in the now busy local bistro, I explained to the ex-nurses that my next plan was to go out to the village of Chobham and try to see Chobham Farm (where Ellis and Evelyn lived). I had printed out a map of the area from the internet and had rather naively worked out that I could walk over there (and back) before darkness set in. But my new friends sensibly thought otherwise, and Nina eventually persuaded me to let her husband drive me to Chobham – she had a service appointment with her own car at the local garage that afternoon, but knew her husband would be free, and more importantly would be on board with the plan. Nina assured me that, as a newly-retired lecturer, he was interested in a plethora of different subjects, and local and social history was one of the things he wanted to delve into further, now he had more time on his hands.

We found ‘Geoff’ (I cannot recall if this really was his name, but in my mind he is a Geoff!) at Nina’s cottage-style, book-filled home, seated by a roaring fire, reading the Guardian. Outside the large back window which overlooked the secluded garden, birds screeched and flew from bush to tree to well-stocked feeders and back again. I was fascinated at the number of feral parakeets visiting their small but wild space, and it reminded me of my experience in the ‘rewilded’ area of Nunhead Cemetry in search of the family grave (see Present at the Death). I then remembered the sad sight of Herbert’s name on the Skelton tombstone, carved into a small area  on the granite (almost like an afterthought), and immediately I felt a brief connection between one area of my research and another.

When I later explained this feeling to Nina and her husband, they considered it a very apt description of the way social history can create unexpected links between people, places and events. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us opportunities to connect with living people with whom we might not otherwise come into contact. I thought about the new friends I’d made at East Coker, five years previously, when I’d started out on my quest (see In my Beginning is my End). And how all those encounters – including the ones that day in Virginia Water – had enriched me in some way, and had also (hopefully) touched the lives of others, too.

This was why I included the introductory quote from the biographer and diarist, Jean Lucey Pratt (in relation to the research for her biography into the 18th century actress, Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington). Pratt, whose edited journals were published recently as A Notable Woman, was the one of the Mass Observation diarists to be featured in all three of Simon Garfield’s edited collections featuring the cream of the archive material (namely: Our Hidden Lives, We are at War, Private Battles). It was through reading these books to discover more about wartime Britain that I fell in love with the writing of this remarkable woman, which naturally led me on to read her own diaries once they were published (see a Guardian book review here). Such is the nature of social history research!

Rather disappointingly, the trip to Chobham did not let me see much of Chobham Farm. Like many of the old country lanes around the village (which were now busy with cars), Sandpit Hall Road had no footpath or stopping place, which made it hell for pedestrians. And as most of the ex-farms* were set back from the road and hidden behind hedges, it was difficult to see much.

*Chobham Farm’s adjoining farmland was sold for 1920s housing before Ellis bought the property, although it still retained a huge garden.

geograph-4255333-by-Shazz (1)Junction of Sandpit Hall Road, Chobham

We drove by the dark wooden house a couple of times, slowing down to attempt a closer look. But I soon realised I did not have to see the place: I was getting tired of ogling all the ‘porn’ properties that my wealthier ancestors had inhabited. It felt like a replacement for real world activities – for chatting with Nina, Beth and Helen about their time at Holloway Sanatorium and their views on current mental health provisions, or discussing the south-east’s parakeet invasion with ‘Geoff’. I felt as if I had a psychological thermostat (for want of a better expression) which whenever I was in danger of going too far into the land of the dead would bring me partway back to the present. I realised more than ever that I wanted to be with the living, talking about the things that matter to us now. And perhaps it was at that point when I had the intimations that I should not get too carried away with this project, but try to combine it with the things that currently interested me.

I decided then and there that I would go the following winter to Australia. I would seek out the details of the life of Ann  Haydon (née Skelton), Herbert’s paternal aunt, who died of TB on the goldfields of Victoria before Herbert or his siblings were even born. This adventurous young sister of Herbert’s father (James William Skelton) is linked to the fate of her nephew by dint of sharing a ‘space’ with him on the family tombstone at Nunhead. They were the only two members of the family not be buried in the grave, yet their names were also engraved in the ugly pink granite. And in the canopy above the absurd block of stone which carried the memory of them and their immediate family, I knew that there would still be the raucous squawks  of the green feral parakeets. A sound like Australia in London. Like Nunhead in Virginia Water.

P1030838 (2)

P1030847 (2)The gravestone enscriptions of Ann (above) and Herbert (below)

To be continued soon in Three Sisters: Ann

The Incidental Genealogist, March 2018

Advertisements

Herbert Sleath – His Decline and Fall

Call no man happy till you know his end.

Herodotus, The Histories, (440 BC)

The final chapter of this three-part trajectory of the life of my ancestor, the Edwardian actor-manager Herbert Sleath-Skelton is, like most traditional stories, written to be read in a linear, chronological fashion. In the first part (see Herbert Sleath Struts his Hour) we saw how Herbert conquered the London stage and found his cod-aristocratic bride. In the second (see The Lady and the Cowboy), we learned more about this relationship – which was possibly not all it seemed – and about Herbert’s twin loves, namely those of America and racehorses. And now we arrive at the last act, where we will be able to judge Herbert’s life (if we so desire) in its entirety.

But the piecing together of this life story was anything but linear. If plotted out mathematically it would be a series of loops circling in on themselves, then out again, some wide, some tight. What I started with was the surprise find of a Rotary photograph of a young and handsome Herbert Sleath, then I moved straight on to applying for Herbert’s death certificate. After all, when someone dies at age 50 (even in 1921), there is always the questions of Why? and From what? This is not just to satisfy morbid curiosity: as I have discovered previously through my research, death often casts a backward shadow over life. To wit, the number of my London ancestors who died in late middle-age of bronchitis-related infections. (It is not necessary to be a medical practitioner to realise that this would have been to a large part due to the polluted air in the industrial working class suburbs of South London).

Herbert2 (2)Herbert Sleath-Skelton c1908

But to continue the story of Herbert Sleath-Skelton we must return to where we left off: when Herbert was a sprightly man-about-town, and the classic Edwardian gent. Throughout the 1910s, Herbert and his successful actress wife Ellis Jeffreys were to continue living in their rural idyll at Dormy Cottage, in Woking, and acting (often together) on the London stage. However, the outbreak of war in 1914 changed everything. Several months later, when Herbert no doubt felt uncomfortable continuing in his present career while young men all around him left to do their duty (including his step-son, George Curzon), Herbert obtained a temporary commission as a lieutenant in the armoured car division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (conscription did not start until 1916, and then only to age 40). A grainy photograph from The Sketch in August 1915 shows Herbert in his uniform beside his armoured car, still looking relatively young and gallant at age 44.

HERBERT_NAVYHerbert Sleath-Skelton in August 1915

Herbert was to leave the Royal Navy Air Service shortly after this photograph was taken. This was due to the fact that the armoured car units were about to be handed over from the air force (then part of the navy) to the army, and it would seem that Herbert had to apply for a new commission. However, to complicate things further, Herbert had suffered a nervous collapse while under heavy shell fire at Loos in September 1915, and thus was also in need of a period of rest and recuperation.

Herbert eventually took up his new post in March 2016, but records show that his three month initial probationary period in the army did not go as intended. By June of that year, his behaviour was described by the Brigadier General as unsatisfactory: He (Herbert) seems to be careless and inefficient, and has shown no signs of improvement, although this was pointed out on several occasions. There has been great difficulty in getting him to understand the simplest orders, or obtaining any information from him about his section. His returns were often inaccurate and he had no idea how to select his N.C.O.s or organise his section. This certainly does not fit in with the portrait of Herbert that other records have helped to build up, and very much points to the fact that he was probably already suffering from the illness which was to kill him five years later.

Tellingly, it is also around this time that Herbert and Ellis’s lives seem to begin to diverge. Even though they were to keep the same official address at Dormy Cottage in Woking up until Herbert’s death (although typically Herbert also lists other addresses during the years from 1915 until his death), Ellis does not appear to be as involved in his life as much as previously (she is still acting on the stage throughout the war), and it is up to Herbert’s younger sister, Maude Beatrice, to intervene on her brother’s behalf when the War Office clamps down on Herbert’s further requests for sick leave and a pension at the time when his worsening illness makes him unfit for service. In addition, Herbert’s will (which was contested), written in July 1916, makes no mention of Ellis, but leaves all of his relatively meagre estate to his sister, Maude Beatrice Floersheim, making this the first out of four inheritances  she would go on to receive in her lifetime (see The Fortunate Widow).

Finding the folder full of correspondence between Herbert, Maude and the War Office in the National Archives at Kew was somewhat of a breakthrough for me. I had first become aware of Herbert’s unusual death in 2012, and it wasn’t until slightly later that detailed records from the First World War began to be accessible to the general public. Every year, as the 100 year limited is reached, more and more of these documents became available for consultation, illuminating past mysteries with a few scraps of yellowing paper. And from the correspondence to which I was privy, I was finally able to create the link between Herbert’s old life on the stage to his last debilitating years.

From Herbert (and later Maude’s) letters to the War Office, Herbert’s physical and mental decline from 1915 onwards becomes more and more evident. Although he was put on sick leave again in the summer of 1916, he had to suffer the ignominy of ongoing medical tests and doctor’s reports (every three months) in order to continue being eligible for his army pay. At the end of 1916, he was described by a medical doctor as: Suffering from the effect of shell shock. He is an extremely nervous condition. Knee jerks are absent but there is a marked tremor of the tongue and fingers. He suffers from insomnia and has marked tachycardia (rapid heartbeat).

The following month, Herbert wrote to the War Office to ask if he could be officially invalided out of the army so that he would be able to take up civilian work (in order to have an income to live on). This letter is heart-breaking to read as Herbert’s writing had become more and more ‘jaggy’ and uneven, obviously the result of tremors in his hand. In addition, Herbert’s mental capacities also appear to be diminished as the letter rambles on rather illogically and is not consistent intellectually with his past endeavours as a successful actor-manager and astute businessman. Something was obviously very, very wrong.

And this is where two strands of my research start to meet and curl around each other in a most satisfying, although macabre, way. In 2012 I had been rather shocked to discover that Herbert had died in 1921 (at the age of 50) in an institution with the grim-sounding name of Holloway Sanatorium. Not only that, but the cause of death was given as General Paralysis of the Insane. In other words: late stage syphilis which had affected the brain. This was a disease that was not an uncommon cause of death in the pre-penicillin days, and actually merits its own Wikipedia page, here.

Another quick online search connected this disease to the institution: Holloway San was not quite the Swiss-type sanatorium I had imagined, but was a private ‘hospital for the insane’. Located in upmarket Virginia Water, Surrey, it had first opened its medieval-looking doors (albeit to the middle-classes) in 1885, offering a wide range of up-market facilities. Surprisingly, it survived for almost a full century as a lunatic asylum, later mental hospital (take your pick from either of these terribly un-PC names!), being taken over by the newly-formed NHS in 1948, although still continuing to care for some of the old, pre-war patients.

HollowaySan1884front (4)

1411 (2)Holloway Sanatorium then (1884) and now (as Virginia Park)

This magnificent Victorian gothic building, was the brainchild – along with nearby Holloway College – of the wealthy philanthropist, Thomas Holloway, who had made his fortune selling dubious cures for all-ills. In the Victorian entrepreneurial spirit of its benefactor, Holloway San was designed as an institution to cure those who wanted to help themselves. In other words, for fee-paying middle-class professionals who needed to ‘get better’ in order to take up the reins of their profession again. These patients were originally not expected to stay for longer than 12 months, and only curable cases were deemed to be accepted into the asylum. But these rules appear to have become more flexible over time, and thus by 1920, patients like Herbert, while less common, were not rejected.

I was lucky in that my initial research into Holloway Sanatorium led me to the case notes (currently being digitalised) of the asylum’s patients, most of which are held in the Surrey History Centre in Woking (others being kept at the Wellcome Library in London). And it was at the history centre, on a sunny day in early September 2012 that I was finally able to read the doctors’ reports on Herbert, detailing the eighteen months he had spent in the hospital up until his death. It had taken me three months to organise my visit, mainly due to the fact that that the period (1920-21) was not covered by the 100 year access rights, and thus I had to obtain special permission to view the records. My enquiries were handled by the extremely helpful head archivist, Julian Pooley, who is a passionate believer in the importance of local and social history, with a particular interest in Surrey’s mental hospitals and how such documents can help current mental health professionals. See a description of this research here.

Once I was able to ascertain by documentation that there were no living relatives of Herbert – I did fleetingly think of his step-grandson, Earl Howe, sitting in the House of Lords, but banished that thought as quickly as it had appeared – then I was able to either view the records in situ or pay to have a copy of Herbert’s case notes sent to me. I chose the former, which Julian Pooley agreed would give me the most ‘authentic’ experience. And by looking at the particular case notes’ book as a whole, I was able to compare Herbert’s situation with those of the other patients. It was not a pretty picture.

Holloway_Sanatorium_Hospital_for_Insane,_Cas_Wellcome_L0032179 (2)Example of a female patient’s case notes (c) Wellcome  Museum

Although Holloway Sanatorium was one of the first asylums to take photographs of the inmates, and as such has been the interest of researchers in this field, there were disappointingly no images of Herbert. However, after reading the doctors’ notes, this did not surprise me. Herbert was obviously one of the more ‘difficult’ patients at the institution described on entry to the asylum (on 22nd April 1920) as: violent and abusive, struggles, kicks and bites when touched. A fortnight later he was: Still raving and abusive. Almost impossible to examine. Speech very inarticulate. Stammering and slurring of consonants very marked. Says that he is colonel of the First Rifle Guards and that he is very rich, that he is going to have various people arrested and shot etc. etc. Cannot concentrate his attention on any one subject. And the following week the examining doctor writes: At times the patient is quiet and agreeable but more often is garrulous and self-centred. Cannot carry on a rational conversation.

As I sat in the comfortable and light Surry History Centre, and transcribed Herbert’s case notes on that beautiful late summer’s afternoon, I felt all sorts of conflicting emotions. Not only was there terrible sadness at the way this successful man had fallen so low, but there was unexpected anger at the seemingly off-hand way the doctors had described Herbert. Example: Nothing to note except that he is inactive, has gained several pounds in weight, and seems to be settling down to the demented stage. There was also frustration at the fact that anything he said had not been taken seriously, such as the idea that he was (or had been) rich. Example: considers he is a very wealthy man, which is a delusion. And of course the horrified embarrassment at reading: History of incontinence of the faeces on 2 or 3 occasions.

Half-way through the day’s research, I went out for a much needed break, and walked out from the centre of the town to the exclusive suburb of St John’s, where Dormy Cottage was located. The stroll along Jackman’s Lane emphasised the still semi-rural location of the house which – although surrounded by mature hedges and trees, and thus difficult to see in its entirety – looked like the kind of place I had spent my childhood dreaming about owning one day. (With a recent million pound selling price, this is alas, to stay a fantasy).

cottageDormy Cottage, Jackson’s Lane, St John’s, Woking

Sorting through my scribbled notes on the crowded train back to London that evening, I reflected on Ellis’s role in all of these proceedings. Why were there no details of visits or letters from her as there had been in other patients’ case histories? (This was the sort of thing that the different case notes had brought to my attention, illustrating the importance of viewing records in situ). Why, when admitted to the asylum was there this official statement: Has been in private care in Brighton. Mrs Mary Kate Bang, nurse, Brighton Pier Hotel, states patient has been ill for 3 years following shell shock: has had fits of epileptic character? It was becoming clear that Ellis had rejected her husband in his illness, as had presumably all the others who had been close to this once popular man. And when Herbert died in September 1921 (his last days at the asylum make harrowing reading), there were no death notices or obituaries in any contemporary newspapers, as there would be for Ellis twenty years later.

Although it is a well-known fact that many soldiers contracted syphilis during the First World War*, it would appear from his symptoms (of third degree syphilis) that Herbert had had the disease prior to this period. Had Ellis been aware of this while they were living their supposedly dream life at Dormy Cottage (see The Lady and the Cowboy)? Or did Herbert’s illness only begin to be evident during his military service, and thus exacerbated by the shell shock he received at Loos? And what (astute readers may cry) of Ellis’s confession in her divorce that her ex-husband, the Hon. Frederick Graham Curzon, had syphilis. Had he in fact passed the disease onto her, and she in turn had unwittingly given it to Herbert? Would she even be aware of this possibility – and if so, did she blame herself?

*An estimated 5% of troops were infected, although the disease was often concealed by servicemen as it was punished as a military crime. In addition, any illness not caused by military service resulted in docked payments (hence Herbert’s focus on the shell shock theory). However, some historians point to the fact that a number of men actually tried to catch venereal disease so that they could leave the horror of the trenches.

Curzon had died the year before Herbert, at the age of 53, from Syncope (fainting) and Myocarditis, alongside Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema. The former diagnosis may in fact be an indicator of tertiary syphilis, a disease which has always confused medical practitioners due to its reputation as ‘the great imitator’ i.e. many of its characteristics are shared with other illnesses.

The informer of the death was his son, George Penn Curzon, who was by then a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and resident at Dormy Cottage. As already mentioned, Herbert’s wife, Ellis Jeffreys, was not listed as a beneficiary in his 1916 will (which was unsuccessfully contested in the high court), but Herbert did leave £100 to both his step-children, indicating that he had most likely been close to them. As a stepmother myself, I know that although often a fraught relationship, it can be a very enriching experience, and without children of his own Herbert may have enjoyed having the company of young people to create a more traditional family atmosphere at Dormy Cottage.

Whatever I may think of Herbert, it is still extremely sad to think that his family life unravelled so quickly over five years. However, with so much more stigma surrounding both sexually transmitted diseases and mental illness in those days, it is perhaps unsurprising that Herbert’s friends and relations washed their hands off him in his final years, leaving him to rot in Holloway San. Without family visits (interference?), it would have been easier for the medical staff just to dismiss him as another ‘madman’ who had to be ‘drugged up’ and kept away from the ‘normal’ life of the asylum. But perhaps this is unfair of me to judge these doctors so harshly as Herbert was certainly not an easy patient. And if those looking after him had never known him as the healthy, successful man he had once been, then it may have been harder to show compassion, particularly if he had been violent towards them.

For several months after viewing Herbert’s case notes, I tried to arrange a date to visit the old Holloway Sanatorium. Although it is now a private housing complex (described by the estate agents as: Spooky Sanatorium to Luxury Living), it was initially still open to the public several days a year through an arrangement with English Heritage in return for grant aid given for conservation work. Previous to that, in the intervening years since the NHS had packed up and left, the place had become neglected and vandalised – although before it became too dilapidated it had been used by film companies whenever the abandoned Gothic country house look was needed. Not only did this include TV series, such as Inspector Morse, but more excitingly, rock videos of the period, the best of which (in terms of showcasing the asylum) is Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure, and Bonnie Tyler’s magnificant Total Eclipse of the Heart. (Among several of the other videos that were made was the very un-PC Ozzie Osborne song Bark at the Moon, which, given Herbert’s Case notes, had me in tears of outrage).

Bonnie Tyler, Total Eclipse of the Heart (filmed at Holloway San)

But in 1994, just when it looked as if the old sanatorium would need to be demolished, the property developers Octagon made a successful bid to restore the Grade 1 listed building to its former glory, eventually bringing in a team of specialists to complete the work to standards acceptable by English Heritage. Although most of it was transformed into private apartments, and what Octagon described as ‘extensive on-site leisure activities’, on set days every month visitors had always been able to view the parts of the building that English Heritage had subsidised (although it was clear this was grudgingly accepted by the residents, and public visits are sadly no longer allowed). Access included the entrance hall and stairway, staircase to (and including) the grand hall, as well as the chapel in the grounds (if open).

As luck would have it, I ended up arriving by train from Waterloo on one of the coldest February days I have ever experienced. From the small station at the upmarket commuting enclave of Virginia Water – the UK’s most expensive area! – it took me less than five minutes to reach the security gates of what was now named Virginia Park.

Holloway San EntranceGated entrance to Virginia Park (with Stop sign and porter’s lodge)

Once I was vetted by the porter and allowed into the grounds, a strange feeling began to creep over me. On the surface everything seemed very quiet and peaceful, but that there was also something slightly menacing about the place. A Stepford-Wives feel seem to cling to the posh housing estate that had bloomed up in the grounds around the main building since it had been redeveloped, but still it was not hard to imagine how the old asylum would have originally appeared without all the twee stone houses dotted around like uprooted ersatz lodge houses.

As I approached the entrance to the main building (in all its Victorian Gothic splendour) and the wonderful spectacle of the frozen fountain, a couple of expensive cars glided past, making me feel as if I had somehow strayed on private property – although in a sense that is probably what most visitors felt when they came for one of Virginia Park’s infrequent open days. But ‘open day’ was a bit of a misnomer as it was very much a do-it-yourself affair, which on that February day suited me fine. I simply wanted to be left alone to try to imagine what life might have been like for the inmates of the asylum.

1406 (2)Frozen Fountain at Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Before I took the steps to the entrance, I paused at the fountain and glanced up at the main building, trying to take in the whole scope of the red-brick façade. I soon had the queer sensation that the Puginesque central tower was moving slightly towards me. It was an oppressive feeling and I wondered how the patients had felt when they had arrived at the entrance and had seen the (then ivy-covered) building hovering over them like an overly watchful nurse. I walked slowly up the wide flight of steps, trying to imagine how a recalcitrant patient might have been led stumbling towards the entrance door by a doctor or a distressed relative.

1407 (2)Entrance to Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Once inside the building, I realised that no amount of reading about the place – or watching the slightly surreal early 80s rock videos that were filmed there – is preparation enough for the gothic splendour of the interior, replete with medieval bestiary paintings and Gothic arches and the rich dark colours of the paintwork. It struck me that this was not quite the calming environment that certain patients might have wished for, or even needed. Every section of the wall was covered with mythical beasts sprouting tongues or tails, or bat-like wings, or fins and weird bulging eyes, and all of them looked more malevolent than the last. But there was also another accompanying feeling: that of having strayed into a monastery or a pre-reformation church, which in itself was balm to the modern soul, weary of life in the 21st century. And perhaps it might have had a similar effect on those who had also been forced to retreat from the demands of their own lives.

Holloway San CeilingDetail from wall painting, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

After the bright entrance hall, the Great Hall upstairs was a dark and gloomy place – even once I had managed to locate the light switches! It reminded me of the Victorian village church I had attended as a child, with its hammerbeam roof and stained glass windows. And it was in this huge room that I began to feel something of both the oppressiveness and opulence of the place – like a long stay at a country hotel from which it was impossible to escape. There was a sadness in the dark and dusty corners that did not go away, even when a shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom. I stayed there for a while, absorbing the atmosphere, thinking about Herbert and all the others who had passed through the space where I stood: some to return to their families, others to live out the rest of their days there, perhaps still believing they were simply the long-term guests of the benevolent local aristocracy.

1405 (2)Staircase to the Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

1355 (3)The Great Hall, Holloway Sanatorium (now Virginia Park)

Before I reluctantly left the building I noticed that there were one or two quotations painted on the walls in the Great Hall, set in between the portraits of various kings and queens, and Victorian statesmen. And there, in Gothic lettering, was the quote from the Greek historian, Herodotus, which made me think about Herbert and his tragic demise. 

1354 (2)

Call no man happy till you know his end.

To be continued next month in The Living and The Dead.

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2018