The asylum that never was

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It was earmarked as a mental institution but never quite made it, thanks to invading Germans and the need for today's Princess Elizabeth Hospital. On the day it comes up for auction, Chris Morvan looks back at the history of Le Vauquiedor Farm

It was earmarked as a mental institution but never quite made it, thanks to invading Germans and the need for today's Princess Elizabeth Hospital. On the day it comes up for auction, Chris Morvan looks back at the history of Le Vauquiedor Farm THE president of the States Asylum Committee took one look at Le Vauquiedor Farm and was sold.

What a perfect place for a mental institution, he thought: so much better than the gloom and prison-like surrounds of the existing sites.

The 18th-century farmhouse facade may remain much the same, but in the 1930s, its neighbours were very different.

In fact, there weren't any.

Today, the green fields that once flanked the building house the Princess Elizabeth Hospital and the States Dairy - and the farmhouse that stands like a monument to the past amid its modern neighbours is up for auction.

But it never did fulfil its intended role: The Second World War got in the way of that.

The story of the asylum that never was begins in April 1934 when committee president Mr J. N. O. Roussel began searching for a replacement for the island's two mental health facilities.

At the time there were two units: One for men, in what is now St Julian's Hostel, and another for women, at the Castel Hospital.


Both, said Mr Roussel, were unsuitable for modern needs.

Apart from anything else, if a family was unfortunate enough to have a man and a woman in hospital at the same time, it made visiting difficult.

He described the Town hospital as having 'an unhappy situation and an unpleasant approach, tucked away close by a brewery on a steep sloping piece of ground, right in the midst of industrial bustle and noise.'

It was set in only one acre of land and surrounded by 'high, prison-like walls'. And the entrance hall had 'an atmosphere of darkness and odour of dampness' in which, he maintained, an excited patient might 'react like a wild creature on being transferred to a narrow, dingy cage'.


And there was more.

The property was troubled by rats from the brewery, while the screams of patients disturbed the quiet contemplation of people in neighbouring Candie Gardens.

As a final indictment, the only qualified member of staff was the matron.

As for the Country Mental Hospital (Castel), that consisted of 'rows of comfortless stall-like enclosures used as single rooms - 'a prison within a prison'.

The island, Mr Roussel said, needed a new mental hospital on a site that would allow for expansion - an up-to-date facility.

Permission was given in principle and he looked at several sites: One off Blanche Pierre Lane, St Martin's, one off Route Charles (rejected because it was too 'undulating' and overlooked the Foulon Cemetery), a third at Mont Plaisir in the Courtil Jacques/Green Lanes area (too expensive) and a fourth at Beaucamp, where the school now stands.

And then there was Le Vauquiedor Farm: 65 vergees with a farmhouse and other buildings, whose parkland and agricultural nature was 'very desirable' as a site for a mental health unit.

It was conveniently close to Town and central to the island as a whole. The deal was done.

The States bought the entire farm for £6,500 and eight quarters.

Even before the new hospital was ready a new permanent mental officer was appointed, Dr William McGlashan.

He provided much advice on the new unit in consultation with former colleagues at Derby County Mental Hospital.

Messrs Roussel and McGlashan went into every aspect of the development in detail, from the decision to use gas cookers in the kitchen and the choice of central heating to the idea of running the sewage through a new drain across somebody else's land into the main drain at Le Foulon.

The overall plan was for 'comfort without luxury, ease of control and maximum sunlight', while avoiding extravagance.

A tentative estimate of the cost came to £41,800.

At the time there were 23 male patients and 39 females to house and Le Vauquiedor was to have 110 beds.

As part of his wider brief, Dr McGlashan visited all the local schools, examining 5,000 pupils and compiling an alarming list of those with problems. He identified 422 'dull children and 61 'dull and backward' - explained as 'apathetic types, most without psychopathic delinquent tendencies'.

There were also 37 youngsters labelled as 'borderline feeble-minded and problem children', with 37 'feeble-minded', 12 classed as 'imbecile children' and two as 'very low mentality or idiot children'.

Clearly the doctor was either very diligent or hyper-critical, but either way it looked as though the new mental hospital had a lot of potential customers.

He attributed the causes of 'mental retardation and backwardness' to a list of shortcomings including overcrowding in the home leading to exhaustion due to lack of sleep, which in turn was due to a lack of proper bedrooms, conflicting parental attitudes (one criticising a child while the other was supportive) and interference by grandparents living in the same house.

Then there was calcium deficiency because the family couldn't afford milk, eye troubles and infected tonsils and adenoids leading to impaired oxygen intake.

All in all, it was a bleak picture and Dr McGlashan was determined to change it. No wonder the president of the States Asylum Committee was so emotional when outlining the need for a new hospital.The new facility opened in 1940 - and almost immediately was requisitioned by the invading Germans.

The States' new airport, debated in the chamber at the same time, met the same fate.

The new hospital was partially taken over by the occupying forces for their own military casualties. Mental health patients had to stay put in the existing units.

In 1941 part of the convent at Les Cotils was used by the health services to take the overflow from the Town Hospital. It wasn't until the end of the Occupation in 1945 that the new mental health service could finally be put into operation.

But it wasn't to be. Plans were quickly scuppered by the island's need for a new general hospital, because conditions at the Castel (or Emergency) Hospital left much to be desired.

The building at Le Vauquiedor was deemed ideal and the States steamed ahead with the project, opened by Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) on 26 July 1949.

Since then, the site's suitability for expansion has been used to the full.

Originally housing general wards with a basic pathology department and two operating theatres, it has has been the scene of almost constant development.

Islanders of a certain age will remember the main entrance being the doors at the top of the Vauquiedor slope.

Then there were the doors facing east, by the porters' lodge, before the accident and emergency department relocated some years ago to the west side.

As for the maternity unit, from 1973 expectant mothers were cared for at the PEH, rendering the Amherst Hospital redundant a few years later.

The post-Second World War generation consider themselves 'Amherst babies' because they were born in the old cottage hospital - now apartments overlooking the lower tennis courts at Beau Sejour. Their parents were more likely to have first seen the light of day at home.

The most recent change at the PEH, which saw the administrative block, John Henry House, redeveloped into a two-storey accommodation unit for staff, indicates how the health services has grown along with the population.

The island has, for many years, been unable to provide enough local nurses, let alone more specialised members of staff. Recruitment has moved further and further afield, the new arrivals all needing to be housed not just anywhere, but close to the hospital.

And as Guernsey has filled up with cars, so the hospital has been challenged to find somewhere to put all those that carry not just visitors but staff - hence the recently-surfaced area by the Oberlands entrance.

So most of us owe a debt of gratitude to Mr Roussel and Dr McGlashan back in the 1930s. Their efforts to upgrade the mental health service resulted in the hospital we have today.

Those who missed out are the successors to those patients of seven decades ago. Most have had to remain at the Castel Hospital.

* The Vauqiedor site hosts more than just the PEH: Many of our elderly have spent years at Duchess of Kent House, while just up the hill is the States Dairy, an eminently appropriate use of part of the old farm.

* The farmhouse itself, built in the early 18th century, was used as States housing until recently and was split into five residential units. Until the 1970s the Board of Health was responsible for it, but it was closed due to its deterioration and given to the States Housing Authority, which refurbished it.

In 1996 it was given back to the Board of Health and was handed to Health and Social Services in 2004. Many potential uses were discussed, but it was eventually decided that the best course of action was to auction it off.

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