In 1894, 750 acres of land adjacent to Dartford Heath was bought by The London County Council for the sum of £34,000, and soon after work commenced on building London’s 7th Asylum, the countries 54th Asylum.

The "Heath Asylum" was built by GT Hine (b.1842-d.1916). Hine specialized in asylum architecture, and designed and saw completed four major London County Council asylums (Claybury, Bexley, Horton and Long Grove), and his prolific output included new county asylums for Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Surrey, East Sussex and Worcestershire, as well as extensive additions to many others. His concentration on this one building type reflected his own perception of asylum architecture as an "almost distinct profession in itself".

The building of asylums was at this time seen by many as a fitting answer to the needs of the mentally ill, incarceration being viewed favourable to exploitation by society. The ‘Heath Asylum’ as it was originally named, was eventually built to house over 2000 patients. It opened its doors to the first of these on the 19th September 1898. By 1905/6 the hospital was nearly full, and in 1915 occupancy peaked at 2,544 patients. The first patients moved in before the hospital was completed, initially there being only 4 male and 3 female ward blocks. All were committed ‘lunatics’, none were there on a voluntary basis.
A typical ward would have 60 patients. By 1939, the main hospital had 18 wards with a further 3 external villas, and by the 1970’s there were 32 medium and long stay wards in the main hospital and 6 acute admission wards.
The Heath Asylum, like others throughout the country, was sited a distance away from the community, and like other Asylums, was designed to be as self sufficient as possible, a self contained community. Up until 1961 the hospital had within its grounds a fully functional farm, complete with livestock including cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and ducks, and a generous market garden supplying fresh vegetables. A large Chapel, designed to seat 850 people, was commissioned soon after the hospital opened.
Within the main building was a spacious recreation hall which amongst other things, hosted weekly dances for the patients and was used for various theatrical performances. It was also used as a cinema. All dietary requirements were provided by the hospital kitchen which also supplied the large staff canteen, much of the foodstuffs coming from the farm. Patients clothing and staff uniforms were cleaned by the hospital laundry. The hospital even had its own operating theatre up until 1939.
In the early days, patients would be engaged in manual labour within the asylum. The main function of this work would be the maintenance and upkeep of the institution. Typical work would be domestic duties i.e. scrubbing and cleaning the wards and corridors, making beds etc. The idea of therapy, treatment and possible cure for people with mental illness only developed and gathered momentum during the 20th century. Patients would be engaged in an increasing range of activities, i.e. working on the farm, gardens and grounds, in the laundry and the tin smiths. Recreation and sport was also viewed as important. Medications and physical treatments began to be developed.
Occupancy at Bexley hospital started its gradual decline from the late 1970’s onwards. In 1977 in-patient numbers fell to below 1000 for the first time since 1899. Government Legislation lead the way to more and more patients being treated in the community, and plans were drawn for the eventual closure of the old Victorian hospitals.

Increasingly it was seen as beneficial to treat patients in their local community rather than to hospitalise them, often miles from home. Thus, community facilities began to spring up i.e. acute psychiatric wards within general hospitals (such as the local Greenwich District Hospital), day hospitals (including Castlewood on Shooters Hill), community mental health units, group homes, community psychiatric nursing teams etc. As patient occupancy began to decline at Bexley Hospital, wards began to close.

As a nurse at Bexley Hospital in the mid 1980’s, I remember well the signs of decay in the main hospital building which was becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. Painting seemed a continuous exercise to keep the hospital looking presentable and there were occasional leaks in heavy rain.

As services continued to be developed, usually closer to the communities where the patients lived, Bexley Hospital became increasingly redundant. During the 1990’s, the entire west side of the hospital was demolished. The hospital continued to be in use until its eventual closure in 2001. On the 27th November 2002 there was a ceremonial blowing up of the water tower before the site was finally cleared for residential development.

Today, little remains of the giant hospital which was often locally referred to as ‘the village on the heath’. The grounds now contain a large housing development. Pinewood Nurses Home (now Oxleas NHS Trust HQ) which used to face the main hospital reception, now looks on to a row of houses.

Adjacent to it still stands the hospital chapel (now a sports Gym). Baldwin’s, a listed building which predates the hospital and was once the home of Sir Hiram Maxim, later the hospital Superintendents house before latterly housing the Occupational Therapy Department, is now private dwellings. The Hospital Social Club is still in use and the Bracton Clinic which was a late addition to the hospital in the 1980’s is also still in use.

Flying Machine
Flying Machine poster
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