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LOCAL HISTORY TALK at Bruce Castle Museum and Archive Saturday 14 May, 10.30am – 4.45pm

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

From Haringey Today:

Reconstructing London’s ‘lost’ hospitals: The case of Northumberland House Mental Hospital (1829-1954) 11.25am

Visual artist Donna Fitzgerald reveals poignant photographs and stories about Northumberland House in Harringay and how these will feature in a mutli-media performance later in 2022 at Bruce Castle about one of the Hospital’s most well-known patients, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot (whose husband was poet T.S Eliot). Do you have images or memories of what the old hospital site was like to be added as a record for the Museum’s own archive and/or inclusion in this Arts Council funded project’s show? Let us know!

On 12th May 2022, I presented the project Vivienne Sometimes at the annual Haringey History Fair at Bruce Castle Museum. This was a great opportunity to meet knowledgable local residents and learn more about different aspects of North London history. A big thank you to all of those who attended my talk and generously shared stories and memories about Northumberland House private mental hospital, and other 'lost' - demolished or converted - mental hospital sites across the Hackney and Haringey boroughs.

Below is the brochure inviting community members to share their stories about the hospital site. Do get in touch if you have any memories or stories that might be used in the live show or for the 2023 exhibition, as this collection of primary material is on-going.

My presentation, Reconstructing London's 'lost' hospitals: the case of Northumberland House Mental Hospital, set out to establish the centrality of local heritage to the Vivienne Sometimes project.

An edited film of the talk can be found below (followed by a full transcript).


Good morning.

I’m Donna Fitzgerald and I’m going to be approaching the question of the ‘reconstruction’ of Northumberland House Mental Hospital from the perspective of an art practitioner.

I’m a Canterbury-based artist and have recently been awarded Arts Council funding to develop a multi-media event and exhibition about the life of Vivian Haigh-Wood Eliot, the first wife of the poet T.S. Eliot, who was committed to Northumberland House mental hospital, Greens Lane, in 1938; Vivian remained there until her death in 1947.

The project, Vivienne Sometimes: A Life of Vivien Haigh-Wood Eliot, is being developed in collaboration with BCM (with MIH) and Hackney Archives (with City and Hackney Carers): the live show will be hosted by Bruce Castle Museum as part of its programme of events for World Mental Health Day, in October 2022; & an exhibition and workshop series will then follow at Hackney Archives from Jan-April 2023.

So today marks the beginning of our project Research and Development: we hope that some of the creative content for the live show and exhibition will be generated through research visits to different archive sources around London; and also through conversations with local communities and audiences about your interest in - and knowledge of - the city’s medical heritage.

I’m here with another project member, Stuart Dodd, a filmmaker and photographer who will be on the stall with me today.

Our aim today and over the next few months, is to gather oral histories - stories or memories about Northumberland House - and other ‘lost’ (closed, converted or demolished) local hospitals.

We hope to gather oral histories with a view to firstly, actively developing Bruce Castle’s permanent Local Archives and Collections; and secondly: exploring ways in which these resources can be used creatively / to engage / wider community audiences in local heritage. [seeing archival material in a different form]

What I’d like to share with you this morning some points of interest that have arisen during the course of our initial research, and some of the ways in which we propose to use and develop archival material about Northumberland House, specifically.

And at this point I’d like to acknowledge the neighbourhood website and community archive Harringay Online, which has proven (and continues) to be a hugely valuable resource in its piecing together of the story of Northumberland House (itself an on-going community collaboration); and, also, Hugh Flouch’s generosity in allowing me access to his copyrighted personal album of photographs of the hospital site (I will come back to these images in due course).

Health historian Nick Black observes in his guidebook ‘Walking London’s Medical History’ that in London - “healthcare is everywhere”, leaving its mark on the majority of central London streets. ‘Lost hospitals are planted across the city in plain sight,’ he writes, ‘under new guises or as derelict sites that have mislaid their original purpose.’

One such hospital, Northumberland House, Greens Lane, was built in 1822 as a private residence; by 1829, it had been licensed as a private asylum for the treatment of mental and nervous illnesses, offering care to ‘ladies and gentlemen of the middle and upper classes’. The building and grounds occupied an extensive site (some 6 acres) on the banks of the New River, near Finsbury Park. (The Ordinance Survey map from 1894-6 / just visible on this slide / situates Northumberland House along the Northern-most boundary of Hackney.) By 1951, it had ceased to function as a hospital, and patients were moved elsewhere. The building was demolished in 1955 to make way for the Rowley Gardens Estate.

I first became aware of Northumberland House whilst developing visual work for a book project about Vivienne Eliot, in 2018.

T. S. Eliot, reflecting on their (notoriously) disastrous marriage In a letter from 1960, tellingly observes that: another woman ‘would have killed the poet in me. Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.’ One of the purposes of that project was to challenge entrenched characterisations of Vivian within literary criticism as, alternately, ‘Muse’ or ‘Madwoman’ - either way, as merely an ‘adjunt’ to Eliot’s art and an interpretative frame through which to read it. A visual treatment of Vs story seemed an important shift of emphasis, especially in light of her later concealment and effective ‘disappearance’ within the walls of Northumberland House.

Vivian was certified in 1938 under the1890 Lunacy Act (an Act which required the legal certification of mental patients), by Eliot (from whom she had separated in 1933) and her brother, Maurice. She lived for almost a decade at the hospital yet we know very little about her life there; though Ann Pasternak Slater’s 2020 biography of Vivian, The Fall of a Sparrow, does gives us some sense of the hospital operationally and of Vivian’s first few weeks there.

She cites a letter from Maurice to Eliot dated 1938: ‘From all I hear, Northumberland House is very good. There are 3 separate houses / and patients are graded according to the severity of their case…’

And further into the letter: ‘The fee is 6 guineas a week; and £1 per month for Laundry’.

‘Northumberland House did have a good reputation’, writes Pasternak Slater: ‘Vivian was settled in the premium level of accommodation, ‘The Villas’, small individual houses at a distance from the main buildings, affording inmates the semblance of an open nursing home’.[483]

’On 15 September 1938, a month after her committal, V escaped from Northumberland House… She was only discovered the next evening […]

A month later, [she] tried to escape once more. This time, she got as far as the roof of NH, and was caught there, poised for flight … The Northumberland House staff must have got Vivian safely down from the roof. She was taken out of the Villas and relocated in a more securely controlled area of the home’.

Pasternack Slater’s biographical account more or less ends here, with what she describes as ‘The silence of her [Vivien’s] sequestration at Northumberland House.’

Vivian died, unexpectedly, of heart failure, on Jan 1947. She was only 58. Carole Seymour-Jones in her 2001 biography of Vivian observes: ‘The cause of death was given as a heart attack. It is more probable she saved up her drugs as Maurice [her brother] said was her habit, and overdosed. Her depression can only be guessed at, as her contact with the outside world was cut off’.

I’d like to share with you some of the early image-making that came out of that 2018 project, when i was trying to find a way of ‘voicing’ Vivian’s story and those ‘lost’, undocumented years at Northumberland House, by reworking literary, photographic and bibliographical sources. I drew on the available, fairly limited photographic archive of Vivian - pictured either in gardens, playing croquet or taking tea, seated or standing amongst Eliot and their shared (literary) social circle, or else within interior spaces (parlours; doorways) - and combined these with photographic images of Northumberland House [- on this slide, the image on the right - ] which have been dated around 1900. (The album of photos seems to have been used as a promotional brochure for the Hospital).

Here are some of those original photographs, together with the modified and imaginary landscapes that were part of this early work (playing with ideas of inside-outside spaces: the grand entrance hall is shown as overrun with foliage; and in the black and white image, completely opened to a memory of Eliot and Margate).

These images were exploratory visualisations of the imagined day-to-day and emotional life of Vivienne that reference, but are not limited to, known biographical facts and writings about her.

Here, the tennis court of the original photo gives us a sense of the extensive grounds and facilities provided for private patients; the abandoned swimming pool is my addition, actually a literary allusion to one of Eliot’s final poems [[[Burnt Norton]]] written after Vivien’s death; along with the recurring image of the hospital bed, it became a central metaphor suggesting the reality of Vivien’s hard-edged confinement as well as the body’s capacity for fluidity of movement and feeling.

The images were very much about the possibility of transformation and this theme continues over into the current reworking of Vivienne Sometimes: On the one hand, it aims to tell the very personal story of VEliot and her struggle with mental health. At the same time, it speaks with great relevance to a wider contemporary audience about narratives around women’s health; confinement; physical and emotional well-being, and the potential of art to transform established (personal and collective) narratives, by creatively re-writing and re-imagining ourselves into other spaces.

(The fact of Vivian’s decade-long confinement is all the more stark when set against the fact of Northumberland House’s proximity to Finsbury Park, with its early 20thC suffrage rallies)

Our exhibition at Hackney Archives will make active links done with Bruce Castle’s Women’s History Maps and other collections. Viviane’s story might be compared to that of Priscilla Wakefield who was a Tottenham Quaker, writer and philanthropist who suffered from mental health and ended up – from her Tottenham home – being hospitalised in one of Hoxton’s homes for those with mental health issues.

In our reworking of Vivienne Sometimes as a live / theatrical performance, Northumberland House and the medical heritage it represents has become central to the telling of Vivien’s story. The show and exhibition will draw on existing archival photographs and documents to explore mental health provision and practices pre-NHS; our aim, as already mentioned, is to layer these sources with residents’ own stories, images and memories about the site.

So returning to the question of ‘reconstruction’: one of the ways in which we are proposing to ‘revive’ the absent building is by embedding local voices into the live show To get a sense of what this might look like, I’ve pulled out a few posts about the hospital from the local history forum on Haringey Online; these memories give us a sense of how these or similar local stories, memories and voices might be used to enrich Vivien’s story by situating it within the broader fabric of local, everyday life: but they also, I hope, give [at least a first] sense of how this archival material might be experienced / in new ways that encourage wider community engagement with local archives and the shared histories they contain:

John Shulver: ‘We were told as kids that it was an asylum, a hospital for “mad” people which conjured up quite frightening scenarios. I can only really remember the hoardings erected along the frontage, during the demolition I now suppose, but I do have vague recollections of the grand gate. I think the pillars remained for some time. We could gain access to the site for mucking around in. The best views would be had from the upper deck of a bus passing by.'

Carla: ‘My mum said when she was young - her and her mates used to play on the site, as it was all derelict by then. She said a famous poet’s wife was one of the patient’s but can’t remember who. The parents always told their children that the site was haunted.'

And Roy: ‘When the place closed as a hospital we had a run of the building and beautiful gardens for several years. It became our playground… The house was magnificent, wood panelled walls, enormous rooms with wonderful wooden floors, it really was a grand house. But as a playground / it had everything, deep cellars, padded cells, air-raid shelters, a summer house that revolved to face the sun, vast grounds that backed onto the New River …Best of all, there were no grown-ups to tell you what to do - happy days!'

There is so much potential in this material for ‘reviving’ NH visually and aurally: trolley buses rumbling down the once-cobbled Green Lanes; footage of suffrage rallies; bomb site maps of London; sirens…. When I first read Roy’s wonderfully evocative account of the abandoned site, the detail about the air-raid shelters jumped out at me; Vivian was a patient at NH for the entirely of the war and would have lived through the sustained bombing of London in 1940-41; this is a detail that brings another dimension to Vivien’s ‘hidden’ life. As a private hospital, decisions about the evacuation of patients from NH would most likely have been made by relatives (in a letter cited by Pasternak-Slater, Eliot enquires of Maurice whether Vivian shouldn’t be evacuated to the countryside, but the letter is long-delayed due to Maurice’s deployment and the move is never made). Roy has given us permission to record his memory as part of the live show audio; this and similar soundbites will enable us to build a repository of material - local stories and VOICES, that can help us to build up a visual and aural landscape for ‘Vivienne Sometimes’.

Many of the publicly available memories about NH (that i have come across, at least) are inherited (like Carla’s); about the hospital as seen from the outside (John’s) or, like Roy, from the ‘inside’ - as a playground prior to demolition. This is also, I think, part of the power of these stories: their ability to evoke and make present what is absent: in the context of the live show, an audience’s experience of Roy’s memory is particularly poignant: the patients are long gone and Vivien Eliot arrives - a ghost - to her own story.

[The inclusion of community voices runs across all our project events: live show, exhibition and 2 workshop series' that we will be runnning in collaboration with Mind in Haringey and City and Hackney Carers Centre. About ways in which mental health can be supported by our sense of connection to place. Stuart and I would be very happy to tell more about these events at our stall.

The proposed live show in October will include projection, live music and performance; archival footage, photography, and (hopefully) some of your stories…

I’d like to end by showing you a short animatic - a kind of slide-show, of some of the material as it looked 4 years ago:

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1 commentaire

Stuart Dodd
Stuart Dodd
06 juil. 2022

Fabulous work, I'm really looking forward to seeing how this project develops

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