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Camberwell House: A Progressive Asylum?

Camberwell House, Peckham Road

Camberwell House, Peckham Road, 1867, watercolour on paper, 61 x 38 cm. London Borough of Southwark Art Collection/South London Gallery Collection

Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum opened in a row of three elegant Georgian houses on the north side of Peckham Road (close to the junction with Havil Street) in January 1846. By 1878 it was the second largest asylum in London, licensed to accommodate 362 patients; the only one larger was Grove Hall in Bow, with 443 patients.

Initially, the majority of those admitted to the asylum were paupers – 70 male and 80 female – with only 12 private patients (all male). Perhaps unsurprisingly, it faced opposition from local residents. Many felt there was not enough space to accommodate the number of patients the asylum was licensed to take. In fact, by today’s standards, the gardens which backed onto the houses were vast. Stretching to 20 acres, the grounds were mostly laid out in a park-like manner. An area for growing fruit and vegetables was tended by the patients and provided produce for those living there. Great emphasis was placed on exercise and outdoor pursuits, and facilities for the patients included tennis courts, a putting green and a badminton court. As the number of the patients continued to grow, the asylum expanded into neighbouring spaces including, by the mid-1880s, a run of terrace houses on the south side of Peckham Road. Camberwell House closed in 1955. The buildings became council offices and the grounds on the north side of Peckham Road became part of the new Sceaux Gardens estate.

In 2011, some of the former asylum buildings were converted into UAL Camberwell School of Art student accommodation. It was at this time that Sceaux Gardens resident and SLG volunteer Liz Sibthorpe made a fascinating discovery. Walking past a building site Liz found a mustard spoon lying in a pile of recently upturned earth. It bore the initials ‘C H’. Over the next few weeks Liz excavated a large collection of other objects from Camberwell House including keys, rings, shards of pottery, buttons, and even dolls, all of which reveal much about life about at the asylum.

Listen to Liz talking to the SLG’s Heritage Education Manager Ben Messih about her research by clicking on the link below.

Interview with Liz Sibthorpe

Find out more about Liz’s discoveries and her research into the asylum in her evocative essay The Mustard Seed Effect.

The Mustard Seed Effect
Liz Sibthorpe

A piece of cutlery, a dirt-encrusted mustard spoon, on top of a pile of soil was the start of a search for something much bigger. I could not have guessed what that find would lead to and how much local history I would discover.

The mustard spoon was like the minute seed of mustard which grows into a tall plant, found in the Bible story in Luke Chapter 13. The initial excitement of finding the little spoon led into a methodical search for other artefacts and those objects led me on to some amateur research into the history of Alfred House Academy and Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum.

One warm evening in June 2011, a few months after I moved to a flat in Mistral House on Sceaux Gardens Estate, Camberwell, I was picking mulberries. The two ancient black mulberry trees plus a black walnut tree seemed to be the main treasures in the overgrown garden behind Mistral House. I circled the mulberry tree nearest to the back of East House; originally called Alfred House Academy and then the Royal Naval School. I noticed a mound of soil near an open drain cover. The drain was close to the abandoned black and white building adjoining Central House. The excavation had been carried out by Alumno Developers, the company that were going to re-develop Central House and East House for the University of the Arts London as student accommodation. On top of the pile of earth lay the mustard spoon. Picking it up and brushing off the dirt I saw the letters ‘C H’ stamped on the handle. I discovered later that these were the initials of Camberwell House.

This little spoon, 7cm long, was the beginning of my research into the daily life of those who lived and worked in Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum.

Having a love of fossil hunting I was eager to find more treasures. I used a hand trowel to systematically dig through the pile. It wasn’t long before I found an old penny, some fragments of pottery and then what seemed to be a wedding ring. I returned to the pile over the following days and found many other small items. I took care to gently clean and photograph the finds.

I had no previous knowledge of the history of the buildings on the far side of Mistral Garden. I did know that the Town Hall was still in use and Central House and East House were Council offices. In the Camberwell Library I found and bought Mary Boast’s book The Story of Camberwell (1972). I began to look up references to Camberwell House in history books and on the internet. I learnt that Camberwell House had been a psychiatric hospital called Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum.

Each time I dug I found more small items of interest. I was puzzled by the fact that some of the metal objects appeared to be fire damaged and wondered why so many and such disparate items came to be in one place? It was many months later that I read that in the Second World War high explosive bombs had been dropped in the grounds of Camberwell House and that probably resulted in fires which may have destroyed part of a building and the rooms where these objects were stored. Perhaps the objects dropped down below floor level and got into the drains, then over the decades they may have been swept along until jammed together they caused a blockage.

My digging was nearly curtailed when, after a week or two, a metal fence was erected around the area. I avoided the daytime, when workers were around, and slipped between fencing panels late in the evening to continue to sift through the lower level of the pile of soil. One evening I was surprised by the security guard. I held up the half a crown coin that I had just unearthed. He smiled and went back inside. I finished my digging within a day or so of that event.

As the months went by I discovered more of the history of East and Central House (30–35 Peckham Road) by visiting the Local History Archives in the John Harvard Library.

Alfred House Academy, now called East House, was opened by Dr Nicolas Wanostrocht, (1816–1899). He founded the school in 1795, choosing the site because of the convenience of coaches passing hourly in and out of London. The school continued on this site until 1832 when it moved to Blackheath. Then the buildings were taken over by the Royal Naval School until it moved to its new site in Lewisham Way, now Goldsmiths’ College. In 1846 the buildings were taken over for the use of Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum. In the Local History Archive Section of John Harvard Library there are a number of pamphlets and documents relating to the school, its pupils, curriculum and prize giving days.

Camberwell House opened in 1846. John Hayball Paul (1816–1899) was the medical superintendent from its opening until 1899. The Asylum was a Metropolitan Licenced House. The proprietors were Aubin & Co; Mr Paul, Mr F G Aubin and Mr Alfred Richards. It was the last asylum to be given a license to house paupers. It consisted of three large houses which had been built in 1790. Alfred House (30 and 32 Peckham Road) was the main building. The hospital could accommodate 70 male and 80 female paupers plus 12 private male patients. Local residents objected on the grounds that the space was insufficient for such large numbers and that it was overlooked by two private dwellings and the workhouse on the corner of Havil Street. The grounds were vast and more like the park of a country house. By 1859 there were 318 patients; 247 paupers and 71 private patients. The patients were kept busy with work in the 20 acres of grounds and unusually, for the time, both sexes were allowed to mix together outdoors. The hospital was forward thinking. Concerts and other performances were held and patients were given an annual seaside holiday. By 1878 it was the largest asylum in London and the proprietors built several cottages in the grounds where some patients could experience a degree of independence. By the late 1800s Camberwell Lunatic Asylum had expanded into the Georgian houses on the south side of Peckham Road. It grew in numbers and practiced advanced methods; including shock treatment, insulin treatment and occupational therapy. When the NHS was established in 1948 the hospital remained independent until its closure in 1955 when London Borough of Southwark bought the buildings and land and Sceaux Gardens Estate was built.

Gradually I made connections between Camberwell House Lunatic Asylum and the objects I found. I may not have reached the correct conclusions but I think the items have given me some insight into the daily life of patients and staff. The finds fall into two categories; domestic and leisure.

The domestic items include several small buttons. There is a pearl button, a cloth covered button which may have come from a nurse’s uniform and suspender buttons marked ‘Suspender’ or ‘Excelsior’. One theory that I have read suggested that suspender straps and buttons were confiscated from women psychiatric patients to help prevent suicide attempts. However it could be the that buttons were stored in the Housekeeper’s room ready for sewing repairs. There was also a thimble. I found one large glass medical syringe and a number of metal caps from toothpaste tubes, marked with the brand name Macleans. These were perhaps stored in a medical room or cupboard.

The rings, several plain wedding bands and one signet ring appeared to be made of inexpensive metal. They too may have been removed for patients’ safety or perhaps left in store after their owners had died. I suggest this because, on average, pauper patients did not survive many months in Camberwell House. They were already physically weak on admission.

I found quite a collection of front and back plates from padlocks. The padlocks, 4cm wide, are identical; slightly rusty and a little blackened by fire. These could have been attached to individual lockers or boxes and used for patients’ belongings. The 9cm wooden-handled pocket knife with a brass end may have been in safe storage too. There were ‘old money’ coins. Of the coins which are readable, the dates range from 1862–1928. There was a half a crown, shilling, silver sixpence, a few pennies, halfpennies and farthings. Over the five years that I have lived in Mistral I have found other old coins across Mistral Garden, dropped by patients, or lost by residents of Sceaux Gardens Estate.

Clay pipe stems and broken bowls were amongst the finds in the pile of soil. The oldest, having small bowls, would have dated back to the 1700s–1800s. The 20th century pipe bowls, up to the 1950s, are larger because tobacco had decreased in price and became more readily available.

A couple of years after my initial search another area of Mistral Garden was dug up and I found many more pipe fragments and several oyster shells. Oysters were a cheap and popular food for many centuries in London. These finds were closer to East House, formerly Alfred House Academy.

Shards of pottery, mostly thick blue and white earthen ware, were scattered throughout the pile. Some fragments bear part of the name and crest of Camberwell House. The mustard spoon, teaspoons and a fork all stamped with Camberwell House indicate an institution with its own crockery and cutlery. I can imagine Camberwell House having a detailed inventory and the Housekeeper docking the pay of a kitchen assistant who broke a plate. There was one wood or bone teaspoon, 18cm long, with a dark brown silky smooth surface perhaps dating to before the metal cutlery was in use.

I only found a few leisure artefacts. There was part of a metal implement; probably the tines of a hoe and this may have been used by patients in the gardens. I also uncovered a tube of artist’s oil paint of indeterminate colour, rock hard and with an almost unreadable label, and a small artist’s palette marked with the Windsor and Newton art company’s initials. These two objects tie in with the hospital’s reputation for providing calming hobbies for its patients. At its peak, the hospital had 20 acres of pleasure grounds, flower beds, a vegetable garden, squash and badminton courts and a bowling green. There are a few photocopies of photographs of the gardens in the Local History Archive section of John Harvard Library and online.

I found two toys. One was a minute led or tin soldier and the other a little china or pottery doll, 7cm tall. The head appears to have an integral bonnet and the face has lost most of its features. The body and legs are joined but the arms are missing. The face has lost most of its features. I don’t think there were any child patients at Camberwell House, but perhaps visiting children left the toys behind, which were then stored and forgotten.

All these finds made me think about the people who had owned or used them. They led me to read about the founders of the hospital, the treatments and care, and the daily life of both patients and staff. Although I wanted to keep the artefacts I decided to hand them over to the Cuming Museum so that others could access them, enjoy them and do their own research. I deposited the collection of objects in August 2011 as a donation to the London Borough of Southwark. In March 2013 there was a fire which severely damaged the Cuming Museum. This time the fire was accidental, rather than an act of war. As my little collection was not put out on display I hope that it survived in the storage area of the museum and that one day the mustard spoon and all the other objects will be found again. [In 2017 the artefacts were found. They had been rescued and, though uncatalogued, were safe in storage.]

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