‘One dark, cold night in 2005 an urban explorer and his buddy who worked as electricians decided to take a visit down to the old Cane Hill Asylum and cabled up lighting to the live generator on site. They then floodlit the entire water tower and reception area from within. For the first time in over fourteen years anyone who happened to look up to the hill that bleak evening would have been startled by the spectre-filled vision of the old asylum brought back to life.’ This story, much as it appeals to my nostalgic ideals is unfortunately just one of the many urban legends that the allure and magnetism of Cane Hill Asylum has continued to fuel to this day.
Cane Hill is presently a shell hinting at the former grandeur that’s this building once commanded and sits high and foreboding on the top of a hill overlooking the small town of Coulsdon, South East London. The construction of Cane Hill was completed back in 1882 by architect Charles Henry Howell and was built in the style of a radiating ward plan in which both male and female wards were gender organised and split with the female pavilions occupying a parallel left to the male side on the right and both were adjoined by communal spaces such as the chapel, theatre and the ornate reception area.
This Victorian asylum at its peak housed over two-thousand patients and occupied land covering just over two hundred acres and whilst the hospital saw its final closure in 1991, most of the original hospital grounds have remained untouched. Of these aforementioned patients, the mental institute accommodated, interestingly enough, Charlie Chaplain’s mother and David Bowie’s brother, Terry Burns, who committed suicide on the railway track at the bottom of the hill (as did many of the patients).
Dishevelled corridors here echo and some of the claustrophobic isolation cells can only hint at some of the former treatments once administered behind hidden walls including electro-shock therapy treatment, various forms of early hydrotherapy and with more progressive treatments practiced here such as light and art therapy. Over the years the hospital has received much unwanted attention from vandals, arsonists, photographers, thrill-seekers, thieves and has even been used by the SAS as a training ground.
The asylum to date however remains disconsolately empty and dilapidating on a daily basis as nature takes hold and reclaims the empty, paint-weary wards and at certain times when the wind picks up and especially towards the sunset hour, you might hear from the broken windows an eerie, creeping whisper which seems to invite with a chant to passers by and those who still care ‘Come and play if you dare’.
Copyright © Elle Dunn 2007. All rights reserved.
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