For nearly 1,000 years, Monyhull – the name probably refers to the hill it stands on – has been a prominent place for the community around it. Listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as an estate, it is thought that a moated manor house has stood on the site of the current Monyhull Hall (now converted into private flats) since at least 1237. Before the current development as a housing estate it was Monyhull Hospital, home to nearly 1,400 residents with epilepsy and learning disabilities at its peak and a walled institution kept separate from the local community for nearly 90 years until its closure in 1998.
So how did all these people come to live apart from the rest of society in such a prominent place and what led to them being resettled into the community? To look at that question, we need to look back and please excuse my use of the terminology that was used at different times in history for the sake of accuracy, as I realise that such language is insulting and offensive.
Although the first hospital for people with learning disabilities opened in 1232 “for the sustention of poor and silly persons”, care in St John the Baptist, Chester was basically confinement and it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th Century that major steps were taken nationally in this area. The Lunacy Act was passed in parliament in 1845, leading to an act passed by the Council of Birmingham that enabled the establishment of four asylums over the next few decades. This legislation made no distinction between learning disabilities and mental illness. It wasn’t until the Idiots Act was passed in 1886 that a clear distinction was made between ‘lunatics’ on one hand and ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’ on the other.
At this time, Victorian society purported to be protecting them from exploitation by unscrupulous people, but in fact the motivation was more due to fear and shame, with the altruistic motives of the few outweighed by an overriding culture of restriction and exclusion. The theory of Eugenics was also on the rise with its intent to improve the quality of the populations’ genetic stock, so preventing “mentally deficient” people (as they became known at the start of the 20th Century) from breeding was also seen as desirable.
In 1904 a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the “Care and Control of the Feebleminded”, looking at existing provision, numbers of people and the conditions in which they lived. They exposed “appalling living conditions” and recommended the establishment of institutions or colonies for the provision of care and training of ‘mental defectives’. Kings Norton Joint Poor Law Establishment Committee was following this commission’s work closely and in 1905 purchased Monyhull Hall, which had up until that point been the private residence of a wealthy gun manufacturer. The building and land stretching from Monyhull Road to what is now Druids Heath were bought “for the purpose of the provision and maintenance of Homes for the reception and treatment of sane epileptics and feebleminded persons” in a place to be known as Monyhull Colony.
The Colony opened in 1908 with 63 “colonists” admitted in the first month and 159 in residence by the end of the first 12 months. These numbers grew dramatically after the passing of the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913, which gave wider powers for authorities to remove people from the community and place them in institutions. By 1940, there were over 1,300 people living at Monyhull and wards were all overcrowded. Life in Monyhull Colony was hard for those living there, with men and women not only segregated from society, but from each other with strict segregation of the sexes. The “training” that was supposed to help them adapt to the community they were excluded from consisted largely of unpaid labour on site in workhouses or on farms for the men and in the sewing room, laundry or doing general housework for the women.
Visitors were only allowed in for two hours every two months and permission to leave the site would only be granted under “safe and proper control”, so it was very much a closed community and all facilities had to be provided on site. The church (later dedicated to St Francis), which still stands today, was opened in 1917 and St Francis School (now Lindsworth) was opened in 1920 with over 300 children living there by 1926.
The idea of rehabilitation and patients being able to be discharged into the community was introduced in 1927 and this was reflected in the move when Monyhull’s ownership was transferred from the Poor Law Guardians to the Birmingham Council’s Mental Deficiency Act Committee in 1929. Such institutions became known as Mental Hospitals, rather than Asylums, with the idea of treatment becoming more prominent.
From the 1940s, to deal with the problems of institutionalisation and help residents return to life in the community, they were granted the ability to work outside and leave the colony for half a day a week, then in 1951 the National Council for Civil Liberty’s report “50,000 Outside the Law” highlighted concerns over the legality of detaining ‘mental defectives’ in asylums. The numbers of people being detained also created pressure on resources in the newly created NHS, as nearly half of hospital beds were for ‘mental illness or mental defect’ in 1953. By the end of the decade, the Mental Health Act had been passed, repealing the Mental Deficiency Acts, espousing ‘community care’ but with little funding for it and saying that patients should only be admitted on a voluntary basis unless seen as a danger to themselves or others (subsequently know as being ‘sectioned’).
With such changes to the law and culture, by the end of the 1970s, the number of residents in Monyhull had fallen to 552, they had sold off the farms for housing developments in Druids Heath and there were physiotherapists, mixed facilities, trips outside were organised and much more effort was made to involve the local community. Despite all these changes, the move against institutions kept on growing through the next decade as the ‘care in the community’ idea grew more popular. In the mid-1980s a Resettlement Team was established to assess the needs of residents and ensure that these were met upon discharge, although 45% of those remaining were assessed as severely disabled, needing residential care with a high level of support.
1990 saw the passing of the NHS and Community Care Act in which all institutions were to be scheduled for closure. Consultation on the options for the closure of Monyhull took place in 1994, an exercise which determined how it was to take place, rather than whether this should happen and the last people moved out in 1998. A few former residents live in purpose-built bungalows on the same site, but all the buildings of the hospital were demolished apart from the church and Monyhull Hall. Nothing now stands on this site as a reminder of what stood there for nearly the whole of the 20th Century, or indeed the centuries before that, but it is vital that while the people who lived there are still with us, we preserve their stories.
Myths and prejudice around the activities in Monyhull Hospital were rife in the local community because of the closed nature of the institution. However, those who worked there speak about it as being like a family and to help us dispel those myths, many have already got in touch because they want to share their stories about life there to help celebrate the lives of the people who lived and worked in Monyhull. We look forward to adding these more personal insights into the story of this key local site over the next few months.
Funding for the “From Institution to Community” project to record the stories of Monyhull Hospital is provided by the Heritage Lottery fund. Much of the factual information in this article was taken from the book “Monyhull 1908-1998 A History of Caring” by Deborah Hutchings and The Open University’s Timeline of learning disability history http://www.open.ac.uk/health-and-social-care/research/shld/timeline-learning-disability-history