September 19, 1851 – Opening of the Wiltshire County Asylum in Devizes, in South West England. Yet another of those large Victorian asylums that were built all over Britain. They were meant to offer the mentally ill, many of whom were hard to cure back then, a somewhat better place to live (and to get them out of harm’s way).
1849 design drawing of the asylum,
architect: Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880)
The asylum, which later would be called Roundway Hospital, grew rapidly. The building had to be expanded several times. It had 250 patients when it opened; 1000 in 1910; and over 1500 at its peak in 1943.
Since the 1930s, this mental hospital experimented with virtually all the then-known forms of therapy – including the more notorious, dangerous ones. They introduced malaria-induced “fever therapy” in 1938; began using electroshocks in 1942; performed prefrontal brain surgery (better known as lobotomy) since 1946; and they briefly tried insulin-induced “coma therapy” about 1950.
Most of such nasty therapies became superfluous when the first modern anti-depressant and tranquilizing medication (such as chlorpromazine, known in the US as Thorazine) appeared on the scene.
In this hospital, such more effective medication was introduced between 1956-1959. After that, the number of patients soon began to dwindle. In 1990 there were only 270 patients left.
The old asylum’s main building today
In 1995 the last remaining patients were moved to another location. Today, the old main building from 1851 serves as an apartment complex.
A noteworthy and perhaps unexpected patient in this Wiltshire mental hospital was Afro-Caribbean writer Eric Walrond (1898-1966), who in the 1920s had played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement in New York. He was especially known for his 1926 Tropic Death stories, full of poetic impressionist language and slang talk.
In 1930 Walrond had moved to England. He suffered from chronic depression; he described himself in a 1940 letter as a “depression casualty”.
From 1952 to 1957 he lived as a “voluntary patient” in this asylum, then known as the Roundway Hospital. During his stay here he helped start and edit a hospital magazine, Roundway Review.
When in 1966 he died, collapsing on a street in a London, he had become an impoverished and nearly forgotten figure. Recently however people are rediscovering him as an important pioneer of African-American literature. Or maybe I should say Caribbean-American literature.
A 2011 edition of his later writings, In Search of Asylum, has several stories that he wrote as a patient here in this Wiltshire mental hospital.
- The Devizes Heritage site has some more information about this asylum, plus a photo gallery with several old pictures: Wiltshire County Asylum for Insane – Roundway Hospital.
- There also is a book (from 2000, now sold out) about the asylum’s history: Down Pans Lane: The History of Roundway Hospital, Devizes: 1851-1995, by Philip Frank Steele. As I write this, Amazon-UK offers one single second-hand copy for the ridiculous collector price of £280.00 – so don’t blame me for not having read it.
- The book with Eric Walrond stories (cover picture here) is much easier to get. It was published in 2011; here is an Amazon link. In Search of Asylum: The Later Writings of Eric Walrond, edited by Louis J. Parascandola and Carl A. Wade, with a foreword by Joan Stewart.