A Tour of the Former West Riding Asylum: 1818 – 1995

The former West Riding Asylum in Wakefield, Yorkshire, was the site of the Asylum Science conference, about which we recently blogged. As has been the case with so many other old asylums, the grand architecture of the impressive 1818 buildings encouraged the developers to move in, and the West Riding site has now been converted into flats. The Colney Hatch Asylum (and later Friern Hospital) in north London has undergone a similar fate: the website for the Princess Park Manor development proudly proclaims the building to be a “Victorian masterpiece”, while erasing any mention of the site’s former use.

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Yet the tour of the former Stanley Royd Hospital, on the West Riding site, led by Mike Finn from the University of Leeds, revealed many elements of the original asylum design. Most fascinating were the octagonal stairway towers, situated on either side of the central block (one can be seen to the right in the image above). These are reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” design, which aimed to enable total surveillance of the surrounding area with a limited number of staff. Yet, as Mike pointed out, the West Riding towers are so positioned as to offer no view of the site whatsoever! Bentham had suggested that the simplicity of the design lay in the fact that, ultimately, no one need supervise at all, for those in view of the panopticon would never know whether they were being watched or not. In Wakefield, however, the structure seems to have been purely a stylistic feature: would it still have served Bentham’s purpose?

The large window on the left hand side of the photograph looked out from the superintendent’s office, although how often he would have been in here is debatable. The huge size of county asylums by the later nineteenth century certainly made huge demands on the time of physicians and, at West Riding, so did the laboratory and opportunities for experimentation. During the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, physicians lived on the asylum site, although probably at a greater distance from the main ward blocks.

The strangest sight of the day was a rare opportunity to see inside the former padded cells, situated in the basement of the building, and now a bicycle store for residents. Divided into tiny rooms, the miserable state of these today should not lead us to assume this is what they would have been like for patients. Cells were generally padded, to prevent inmates from injuring themselves, and efforts were made to limit the amount of time spent in such an environment. The panels from a later padded room are on display in the nearby Stephen Beaumont Museum of mental health. The rooms may also have been larger – it seems probable that the floor has been raised at some point, for easy access to a window was not usual, when broken glass was a frequent source of injury (and a problem for the maintenance budget) in asylums at this time. Keep an eye on the Asylum Science website for blog posts and information about the history of the West Riding Asylum, one of the most famous psychiatric institutions of the Victorian period.

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2 Responses to “A Tour of the Former West Riding Asylum: 1818 – 1995”


  1. 1 Ed Brandon November 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Interesting – wish I could have been along for this! I’ve often wondered about the towers, so often wrongly referred to as “panopticon” or “panoptical”, both of which, as you point out, were incorrect as they neither served the “all-seeing-eye” purpose Bentham sought (but never completed a design for) nor provided any real overview at all. At West Riding, the only real functionality was allowing attendants to move between floors a bit more quickly than they would with normal staircases, but such towers also appear at the first Middlesex County Asylum at Hanwell and the Dumfries & Galloway District Asylum (Crichton Royal), but at those they enclose larger open spaces with wire mesh-covered balconies in the centre going up three floors, which at least opened up the space inside the tower, even if it was often felt to give the place the feeling of a prison gallery.


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