The Three Counties Asylum

While I am no expert on the old hospital I did work there on the maintenance dept. I also with the help of others offered to help collate the archive of documents and artefacts that had been collected over the years and had been placed in the old cells in the basement. The basement area under the whole of the hospital was all dead space but at one time it had been a hive of the hospital stores with the hospital narrow gauge goods train terminating in the basement area. Below is what had started to be collected. Mostly from a book written by the then pay clerk who's name escapes me (Sorry)

One fact that some are not aware is the name three counties hospital could have been the four counties asylum / hospital. How did this come about? Three Counties Aslylum circa 1860The 1808 Lunacy Act empowered all counties to build asylums out of the rates, and Samuel Whitbread II, one of the leading lights behind the construction of the Infirmary, was determined that Bedfordshire should have one equipped to the best standards of the day. The Original building known as the Bedford Asylum Ampthill Road was designed by John Wing and opened in April 1812 and is recorded as the second of its kind in the country, Northampton opened an Asylum in 1811 being the first purpose built asylum building. These Asylums had been built due to an act of Parliament of 1808 which was not compulsory. The Bedford Asylum had cost some £13,000 to build and could only accommodate some 65 inmates.

The 1845 Act for the Regulation, Care and Treatment of Lunatics made it compulsory for each County to provide an Asylum or combine with other counties for the care of its pauper lunatics, and so in 1846 Bedford, Hertford, Huntingdon and Cambridge agreed to fund the Asylum jointly but at the last moment Cambridge pulled out  so it became known as The Three Counties Asylum incarcerating all the lunatics, delusionals, psychotics in Bedford on the Ampthill Road. The Asylum was built to hold some 40 patents to its end it was holding some 65.

A year after opening admissions to the Asylum increased to over filling, so did the calls for a larger building or extensions to the building on Ampthill Road. Then in 1853 an act was passed by Parliament that banned the use of all restraining devices for lunatics in workhouses. This lead to a sharp increase in the number of lunatics being transferred from workhouses into the Asylums. Pressure for more accommodation space mounted but it was not possible to extend for the estimated inmates, so a new asylum would be needed.

A committee was formed to search out a location for the new Asylum. The first location that was put up for inspection was Cadwell Farm in Ickleford near Hitchin. The area had great possibilities, light workable soil and an ample supply of water, One merit was it was near to the Great Northern Railway. However there was no flat area on the 170 acres sight to build a large Asylum. It was felt by the commissioners of lunacy that the land at Cadwell would not be suitable due to its un-level nature and this would create problems in supervising patients when working outside.

The next area was Arlesey Rectory Farm . In a report it was stated that Arlesey Rectory Farm was not suitable because of the heavy character of the soil which was unsuitable for a lunatic Asylum, bearing in mind the soil would have to worked and farmed. The committee then looked at a plot of land between Stotfold and Arlesey that was owned by Major Wilkinson of Stotfold had all the committee were looking for  light and good soil, gentle slopes with plenty of space to build an Asylum on the 200 acre site. In 1856 on the 10th March £11,000 was paid for the  200 acre site. A further 50 acres was purchased from Great North Railway to connect the Stotfold section to Arlesey Village

A architect named George Fowler Jones was instructed to draw up plans for the new Asylum that would be built on a plot of land located between the village of Arlesey and Stotfold that was in the County of Bedfordshire which became known as The Arlesey Three Counties Asylum. The land consisted of 253 acres of which 230 acres were cultivated, and the Asylum was an extensive and elegant yellow brick building standing upon ground 67.6Mtr above sea level. The clay used for the bricks came from the Green Lagoon just behind the plot of land of the new Asylum. This had been dugout by hand and was transported down to the brickworks passing over the land that was to become the Blue Lagoon. The bricks were then transported via narrow gauge railway backup to the site. The foundation stone for the new Asylum was laid in 1856 Then In 1860 The asylum was opened on the 8th March with the first patients of six women and six men being transferred from the old Bedford Three Counties Asylum Bedford.

In 1861 it is recorded the number had increased to 460 made up of 248 women and  212 men being held in the Asylum, during that year 44 patients had been discharged and 47 had died. The people of Arlesey, Stotfold and Letchworth took most of the places of employment. The records show on average 125 men and 131 women were regularly employed, of these 66 men were employed in the gardening department including the small farm while 33 women worked regularly in the laundry and wash house. Treatment of the inmates consisted primarily of regulated diet and daily work usually within the Asylum building consisting of working in the laundry or cleaning, and outside work on the farm or green houses where produce for the kitchen was grown.

Further extensions were made to the Asylum giving the building the longest corridor in Britain, at half a mile long on the ground floor.  In 1879 a Chapel was erected for the inmates and staff. By 1894 the Asylum could accommodate 1,000 patients who were under the care of Edward Swain the Medical Superintendent ably assisted by Miss Teresa H. Tweddle, Matron. The grounds and Farm were managed by the Asylum Bailiff Henry W. Brown. In 1920 the Chapel's East stained window was erected by the Staff and inmates in memory of those who had worked within the Asylum and had lost their lives in the Great War (1914-1918).

After 1915 the Asylum took in men and women suffering with shell shock from the great war. It is recorded some 80,000 affected people were placed in institutions such as Fairfield, a cure had to be found quickly. one form of treatment consisted of "finding out the main likes and dislikes of patients and then ordering them to abstain from the former and apply themselves diligently to the latter". Those that had been teachers or writers before the war were refused access to the library and those who feared being alone were put into isolation. Cures were many and varied and included electric shock therapy which I can confirm was still being used on patents of Fairfield hospital in the 1980s in the old chest clinic.

Social Policy led to increasing improvements in the care of Mental Health . Then about 1920 the Mental Treatment Act changed the use of the term Asylum to Hospital. Legal papers had the word Asylum with a line drawn through and replaced with the word Hospital. I have seen it written in some books that this took place in about  1930. On Legal papers the hospital is recorded as Stotfold Hospital but the locals know it as Fairfield Hospital but the name on the board stated it was The Three Counties Hospital in the 1920s.

By 1936 the grounds of the hospital had increased, records show it consisted consisted of some 410 acres, of which 385 acres were cultivated. The hospital patients had increased by a further 100, who were now under the care of Doctor N. McDiarmid, Medical Superintendent, Miss E. M. Field the Chief Female Officer and Mr. T. Hartles the Farm Bailiff.

In July of 1948 Three Counties Hospital became part of the National Health Service which brought better conditions for both staff and patents. In 1960 the hospital was officially renamed Fairfield Hospital, also in the same year Fairfield Hospital hit the national news as the Hospital Chaplain the reverend John Arthur Monk married a girl forty years his junior.

In 1981 The Government of the day published “Care in the Community” which lead to great change in the provision of care for patients with Mental Health problems. The report recommended the patients be placed back into the community which lead to less and less people being sent to Fairfield, this ultimately lead to the closure of Fairfield Hospital in 1999.

The main building with its water towers were Grade II listed so could not be knocked down. The façade was restored and the inside turned into luxury flats and re-named Fairfield Hall, but to the locals it will always be Fairfield Hospital or Three Counties. The one thing that will not be missed is the fire siren that was heard for miles around, some thought was the signal a patient had escaped when in fact a nurse had burnt the toast.

While I was there I met many characters who would  cadge the odd cup of tea or cigarette and most you could have a good discussion on the meaning of life. One chap who shall remain nameless had travelled to Germany to let them know he could workout a better time table for their train service (pre war) he was sent back to England and Fairfield Hospital where he stayed until his passing. No doubt he is still working out the utopian time table.

I will leave you with one little bit of disinformation. In the early seventies I was working on the Grange estate Letchworth and a siren was heard and the lady called her children along with other mothers, believing a inmate had escaped from the mental hospital (Fairfield) when in fact most times a member of staff had most probable burnt the toast which would bring two fire engines to the hospital.


For more information on Three Counties Asylum with photos and artefacts have a look at this web site Link maintained by Richard Knight. He has lots of original photos and artefacts that I had seen when there was talk of having a museum and I had offered to help. I had spent many spare hours sorting through the artefacts.

Last edited 07/04/2010 14:33:17

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