As anonymous in death as they were in life? Part 1 of a visit to Netherne Hospital cemetery

Close-up of the cemetery gates showing NETH over the top of them. May 2007.
©Carole Tyrrell

I first visited Netherne Hospital cemetery on an overcast day in May 2007.  It’s located at the edge of a large farmer’s field and is a broad, sloping strip of land bordered on three sides by huge, majestic, spreading horse chestnut trees.  You can look across the cemetery to the local beauty spot Farthing Downs in the distance. The trees were luxuriantly leafy on my visit and the graveyard certainly looked more appealing than in the photos I’d seen of it on an urban explorer’s website.  He had visited it in January when it looked very desolate and forgotten.  But on that day in May I saw large white candles of horse chestnut flowers in abundance as I peered through the two elegant, probably Victorian, iron gates.  Once they must have had Netherne Asylum in large iron capital letters over the top of them but now only ‘NETH’ remained.   They were almost being engulfed by large branches and leaves trying to force their way through. ‘Someone will steal them for scrap.’ I thought to myself as I pushed one of the gates open and entered.

Inside Nature had taken over with a thick carpet of green brambles and undergrowth covering the entire site and it looked as if no one had been there in a very long time.  Without the gates the cemetery would have just looked like a fallow field.  It was impossible to see any monuments or memorials but I did find a raised concrete plinth in which 2 tombstones and a smaller Book of Life memorial had been inserted possibly to preserve them. The Book of Life was dedicated to a 7 year old named Betty Trotman and I wondered why a child was buried here.  Little did I know as I closed the gate behind me that it would take me nearly 10 years to find out.

Netherne was sited at Hooley in Surrey  and was originally known as the Surrey County Asylum or Netherne Asylum before being renamed Netherne Asylum.. It closed in the 1990’s along with the other large asylums and hospitals in the county.  Surrey has always been seen as an affluent region with its exclusive golf clubs, Tudorbethan stockbroker houses and the rolling hills of the green belt. But it has another, less publicised claim to fame. For over a century at least it was also home to several lunatic asylums originally intended for paupers and also homes or children with learning difficulties.  It was felt that the incurable or mentally ill might improve if taken out of the city and into what was then countryside.

The creation of the asylums also reduced the workhouse population as they were designed for paupers.  Cane Hill in Coulsdon, Netherne in Hooley, the Epsom cluster, Earlswood in Redhill and St Lawrence’s Hospital in Caterham were amongst them.  Iain Sinclair in his book, London Orbital, described them as mandalas of madness. All now gone; either demolished or converted into upmarket housing estates.

In 2007 Netherne  Hospital as it later became known was still in the throes of being transformed into an instant village; Netherne on the Hill.  The developers later stated that they were ‘leaving the cemetery well alone and allowing the wildlife to take over.’   It would be another three years before relatives of those buried there would start to come looking for their last resting place. At that time I had no idea that there were 1350 people buried there and that these included children, ex-soldiers, epileptics, the elderly as well as the mentally ill and those who had nowhere else to go.  The people buried in the cemetery seemed to be as anonymous in death as they had been in life apart from the memorials embedded on the plinth.

The cemeteries and burial grounds attached to these asylums and hospitals can be difficult to find. Often the markers on the graves have gone and so there’s no sign of their original purpose and as a result they can often become overgrown and look abandoned.  For example, in 2000 the Somerset & Bath Lunatic Asylum, or the Mendip Hospital as it later became, burial ground in Wells was put up for sale by the NHS as a freehold development opportunity. Nearly 3,000 people, patients and staff,  are buried here with the last burial having taken place in 1963. The grave markers had long since been removed.  However there was a public outcry from the local populace, some of whom may have had relatives living or working in the hospital and they formed a group to stop it.  There is a now a thriving Friends of Mendip  Hospital Cemetery group and so the burial ground looks safe.

I started researching the cemetery and discovered that asylums had a varied population.  In Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair’s book Rodinsky’s Room they go in search of a man, David Rodinsky, who vanishes suddenly from a room above a back garden synagogue in Spitalfields and discover that he ended up in Warlingham Hospital, another Surrey asylum, where he died.  They speculated that his Eastern European Jewish scholarly background and language of codes and cabbalism may have led to him ending up there as it would have been incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with it. Other patients may have suffered from what we now term learning difficulties which the Victorians classed ‘idiots’.  There were also the elderly with dementia or people with degenerative diseases such as syphilis.

The soldiers appeared in asylums after the First World War when the authorities devised a scheme to treat the almost half a million wounded and shell shocked soldiers.  This involved decanting the current patients elsewhere and then re-designating the asylums as ‘war hospitals’.  By 1920 over 250,000 soldiers had been treated with 9% of them with psychiatric problems.  It saved lives but caused upset and distress to the decanted patient population.  However, not only soldiers were admitted to the ‘war hospitals’ but also their families.

There was an asylum in every county and in 1914 there were 102 in the UK with a total population of 108,000 men, women and children living within them – some permanently.  The sexes were strictly segregated and only met at events such as dances or sports days. Men usually worked on the hospital farm and women in the laundry or kitchen.  Women could be admitted as a result of having an illegitimate baby, rape or post-natal depression.  Asylums were often overcrowded and an epidemic such as flu could kill many patients.

I’d read on the urban explorer website that Netherne that there had been a campaign by a local amateur historian to have the cemetery cleared and accusing the developers of neglect. It was time for a return visit especially as my research had enabled me to put names to some of those buried there and their poignant, often heart-breaking stories.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

 Apologies for the quality of the colour photos of the cemetery.These were scans taken from hard copy film prints.

References and further reading:

London Orbital, Iain Sinclair, Penguin 2003

Rodinsky’s Room, Rachel Weinstein & Iain Sinclair, Granta Books, 2000

http://www.yourlocalguardian.co.uk/news/10494304.Campaign_victory_after_cemetery_with_war_dead_finally_cleared/

https://billiongraves.com/cemetery/Netherne-Asylum-Cemetery/292853

http://www.simoncornwell.com/urbex/hosp/n/e140106/1.htm the urban explorer site on which I found Netherne Cemetery.

http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/indepth/nostalgia/8392020.Forgotten_graves_of_the_war_dead/

http://www.suttonguardian.co.uk/news/8437328.Diaries_of_Catholic_nun_reveal_tale_of_child_buried_at_Netherne_asylum/

http://beyondthetrenches.co.uk/the-other-war-dead-asylum-patients-during-the-first-world-war/

http://www.croydonguardian.co.uk/news/8421298.Developer_s_broken_promise_over_asylum_cemetery/

http://www.mendiphospitalcemetery.org.uk/

Part 2: Betty, Jean, Gunner William, Jessica and a German POW – a return visit to Nethene Hospital Cemetery August 2017.

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