Administration by Andrew Harrison 2003


"The Last patients have just left Cane Hill, the atmosphere remained positive, and staff worked very hard indeed. Cane Hill has changed over the years and even more so in the recent years and for the better each time. I hope where we may be we will continue to promote positive mental health for our patients."


"My first memory of Cane Hill dates back almost 30 years when, as a very green SHO working at St Giles Hospital in Camberwell (which itself became an upmarket housing development), I was looking after someone who could not be safely cared for in the third floor open Nightingale ward available to residents of the catchment area. This young man was transferred to the "locked ward" our service had access to in "Cane Hill". I had no idea where that was and never saw the man again: out of sight, and almost out of mind.

Scrolling forward through my formal training as a psychiatrist I was appointed Consultant Community Psychiatrist to Camberwell Health Authority in March 1987. The task that paid for my post was to be the medical lead to a multidisciplinary team working in Cane Hill to "resettle" the Camberwell residents who were not suffering from dementia as part of the programme to close the hospital: by then only "long-stay" patients from Camberwell remained in the hospital. We were one of three teams working in friendly rivalry – the others from Lewisham (led by Isobel Morris) and Bromley, the host Health Authority, (led by Fabian Davies). We achieved our task early in 1991 setting up a network of facilities for those who were resettled – a small number moved to other hospitals and were rigorously followed up by our placements service.

My memories of the hospital itself are impressionistic. An extraordinary building with endless corridors and a symmetrical design that aimed to separate the men from the women; the cricket pitch, venue for, I was told, memorable inter-hospital tournaments; lifts that had instructions in Spanish to inform an influx of staff from the Philippines; slim sets of casenotes recording decades of life; staff facing with dignity the loss of an institution that had trained them and often their parents; and a man whose only speech to me, in four years, was "can I go to bed?".

What’s changed? I could write a book. Driving down the A23 you no longer go past Cane Hill (high on a hill to your right as you travel South) because of the peculiarly useless Coulsdon Bypass. We were able to show that the people caught up in the closure process lived better lives: I no longer encounter the degree of social disability that was the norm amongst the last of the Cane Hill residents. We spent the 1990s in Camberwell developing (and researching) new models of community care. We have subsequently been implementing an ever-changing centrally defined orthodoxy about how adult mental health services should be configured that does not always follow the best evidence."

"We have learnt to listen to patients (we always tried to) and, at last, to carers. There are, however, still people in the mental health care system who are "out of sight, out of mind" whether it be in prison, lost from the system, in poor quality residential care or in Out of Area Treatments.

"I have many happy memories of Cane Hill. It felt like 'asylum' to me when, after eleven years of social work mostly in Deptford and feeling exhausted by the process, I was seconded to Cane Hill to work in the "Lewisham Resettlement Team" in 1987. Our job as may be guessed was to 're-settle' Lewisham patients back to catchment area as part of the hospital closure programme. I worked at this just four years to 1991 but they were the most enjoyable years of my career.

"We were a small team of four: s/w, nurse, OT and our team leader who was an inspiring leader in the difficult process of working both with nurse colleagues and allied staff and patients to prepare the latter for the move. I was as 'green as grass' to start believing that as a s/w with thirteen years experience I would 'automatically' know how to work with long stay patients and made a right mess of things to start but with the help particularly of the nursing staff I began to slowly find my way. I recall many nurses and other colleagues helping me in this process.

I have nothing but respect for the staff caring for the patients - even in 1987 the nursing task was not well paid and the staffing levels were often very 'challenging' but overall the patients were well cared for and there was a real sense of pride in the work. And the patients were delightful too in the main and - once one took time to get to know them - could give a lot back to people like me.

"My favourite aunt was an inpatient at Cane Hill. She was there for about 9 months before she died. I remember going to visit her with my mother and father when I was about 8 years old. We used to go on a Sunday (this was in about 1952) and if we missed the taxi at the bottom of the hill, we had to walk. One particular Sunday we were walking up the hill and the cows were being led from one field to the other and my mother made me take my red coat off because she thought they were bulls. It was raining and I got a bit wet.

I remember walking into the building and down a long corridor to the ward where my aunt was and there would be iron beds either side on the female ward and the other inpatients would talk to us. I always felt a bit scared as I was too young really to know what Cane Hill was, as far as I knew my aunt was in hospital but the staff were very good and used to talk to me and my brother and made us feel at ease."

"I started working as a ward helper at Cane Hill between 1972-1974, and have many happy memories of my time there. I came from art college intending to get some OT experience for a few months, but ended up staying much longer.

"I became fascinated by the stories of those patients who had come to regard the institution as family, having spent years, sometimes as much as forty, living and working there. It was these narratives and stories which made me change direction and take up nurse training at the Maudsley and eventually family therapy training. I have lot to thank Cane Hill for."

"Having started in 1982 at just 18, I share many sentiments with the people who have posted so far and those who I shared many memories and experiences with. Those new to mental health care may not be aware of the hold the institution had over people and why people are sad looking at the building as it is now. In the forty wards when I started everyone knew everyone, the majority not only worked together but lived together whether in the nurses home or domestic block. We shared each other's ups and downs through life and death. Everything was taken care of: food, entertainment, leisure including the club and where you lived. If you got to a certain age or got in a relationship then you moved into a hospital house which surrounded the hospital, so you did not have far to go to catch the coach up the drive or to get home after the club. If you made a break for freedom and lived in the community the coach would come and get you on a Sunday morning from Thornton Heath and Croydon. There was swimming, bonfire night parties, Christmas opening at the club, sports clubs, day trips abroad, even your suit was provided made to measure.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg of what it was like to live at Cane Hill. A far cry from how it is today where if you meet someone outside of your clinical area you are probably at a meeting, attending an emergency or facing a disciplinary."

"I have led the admin team at Cane Hill since I joined the Trust in 1999. From the moment I joined I felt privileged to work with such a caring, professional team in, what can be at times, a very difficult and challenging field of psychiatry. The atmosphere at Cane Hill has always been warm and welcoming, whilst maintaining a high level of security and patient care. I shall remember these times with great fondness."

"Reading these stories here it reminds me of the true meaning of the term 'total Institution' as used especially by the "Anti-Psychiatry" movement of the 1960's and 1970's. There it was used as a term of abuse, but when I read these memories I gain a totally different picture of a system that actually cared not just for the patients but also for the staff and their families in every aspect of their lives."

"I wonder how different the picture would have been if some ex-patients had posted on this site. It would certainly give a more complete picture I think."

"Cane Hill was a symbol of the past, of a time when society took pride in civic activity, in civic institutions and services which were better than any that had gone before. The measurement of the seriousness of the commitment of Victorian England in civic activity can be measured by the beautiful buildings that they bequeathed us, some designed by the best and most expensive architects of the day, and with the finest materials. Think of the marble floors not just in Cane Hill but at the Bethlem or the Maudsley also."

"The buildings were reflections of the aspirations that society had for the services they wished to deliver."

"Let us who remain today, never lose sight of those aspirations to deliver better services all of the time."

"I began my nurse training at the School for nursing on the Cane Hill site. I went in as a cadet nurse as we were known in those days back in 1972. I remember our only lecturer Mrs Clark who I know has now passed away. She taught all subjects from how to treat a simple cold to schizophrenia. When we were not in school we were on the ward or on a days placement in the community."

"The Social club was great where you could buy a pint for about 20p or the equivalent. The outdoor swimming pool was also great and both staff and patients used it. Cane hill had lovely grounds where we often took patients for walks and because it was high up, we had a lovely view. Then there was the long drive from the main road up to the hospital. If you missed the bus to take you up then it was a 20-30 minutes walk. I've never forgotten sitting in on my first Doctor appointment with a patient who suffered from schizophrenia and thought she was “mad” as she told the story of how she baked her husband’s slipper in the oven for his tea - I had to try very hard to stop myself from laughing. How green was I seventeen years old and had just left school."

"The other thing I will never forget is the master key that opened all the locked wards in Cane Hill. It was big enough to knock you out cold. Night duty was one of the most frightening times of my entire life. There were stories told by the other nurses about a previous matron who died on at Cane Hill but still roamed the corridors at night dangling this master key, and I swear I could here it rattling along the corridors at night when going from one ward to another."

"Putting all that aside, working at Cane Hill was one of the most memorable of my nursing career with very fond memories. I made some good friends too that I’m still in touch with. Following my training, I worked eight years there before moving on. Things had changed drastically by this time and I'm pleased to say that most of it was for the better of the patient."

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