Everyone who grew up in the 1980s or earlier probably had that place near where they lived that people would talk about: “The loony bin”, “The madhouse” – the place where the men in white coats would take you away to.
In the Kings Heath/Kings Norton area of South Birmingham that place was Monyhull Hospital. Opened in 1908 as “Monyhull Colony for the Feeble Minded and Sane Epileptics”, it was a long-stay hospital for people with Learning Disabilities, but nevertheless the myths persisted. It was a dare to go near the place, kids would run screaming if they thought someone from there was coming near and the term “Monnies” was used as an insult at schools in the area for people who did stupid things.
Sior Coleman was Chaplain at St Francis church in the hospital grounds, but he was also a teacher at the local Baverstock School, built in Druids Heath on land that used to be part of the hospital, so saw things from both sides. He recalls: “The belief amongst local residents was that Monyhull was full of potentially dangerous people and when the fire alarm went off for testing or by accident that was because one of them had escaped.”
When I went along to a local history society to ask if they knew anything about the history of the site, a gentleman there stated the common misconception that; “They all lived in padded cells there, didn’t they?” I also spoke to people at Kings Norton farmers’ market and a man there remembered he and his friends daring each other to go onto the grounds. Becky Crampton grew up near the hospital and her childhood was spent playing just over the fence from the white house, as most people called it (the Grade Two listed Monyhull Hall): “I remember when we heard the alarm go off we’d all run off screaming because we thought someone had escaped. Whether this was because of something a parent had told us, I don’t know, but all the kids did exactly the same.” One former student from Baverstock school admitted they used to perpetuate the myths; “We told stories to each other about scary men who lived there.”
Even staff who grew up nearby remember what people said about it before they knew the truth. Lyn Lawson worked there for many years in a number of different roles, but the hospital always loomed large; “I was aware of it all my life really. You’d hear people saying ‘Ooh, the people in Monyhull’ and you were made to feel it was scary because of ignorance really, as nobody knew what was there.”
The place wasn’t totally closed off to the public, they rented out rooms there for different clubs and even had a soft play area that could be used for children’s birthday parties, as well as holding community bonfire nights, fetes and other events. Becky Crampton’s mum took her to a bonfire night at the hospital and says that despite being frightened and not wanting to go, her experience once she got there; “didn’t fit in with my perceptions, as everyone was fine up there” and she was no longer scared of the place after that.
Alison Last was a Physiotherapist at the hospital, but also ran a gymnastics class for kids in a room on the site in her spare time. She says that by taking them there; “I was helping a group of young people to understand that people with learning disabilities aren’t scary. It was OK to say hello. That was really positive.” Sior Coleman also took his students there to bring presents from the school’s Harvest Festival and they would stop and talk to the residents in the homes. “That was great to break down these barriers of ignorance”, he says, while also believing that the students got just as much out of it as the residents did. This is borne out by the memories of his former students now; “I can remember volunteering and bringing residents to church services on a Sunday morning. I also remember the best way to prevent someone in distress from hurting themselves or others was to hug them!”
When the hospital closed down, another of Sior’s former students lived next door to some nurses from the hospital lived and remembers; “We used to find former residents coming to visit Pat and Julie. It was sad in some ways, but also endearing because a lot of those were men and women with Downs Syndrome. They were very loving and kind people just thrust into the world by care in the community, very lost, scared and probably alone.” It was a big change for those who’d spent their entire adult lives in an institution, but overall you would hope that this move should be a positive one and encourage more interaction and understanding.
Twenty years on and although people with Learning Disabilities live in the community rather than behind the gates or walls of an institution, there are still many barriers of ignorance for them to overcome. Christine Spooner, an Ambassador at the charity CASBA, who provide advocacy for people with Learning Disabilities and ran the Heritage Lottery funded project about Monyhull, says; “People are still scared – some think they can catch it off you, like it’s a contagious disease rather than a lifelong condition.” Unless more people are given the opportunities to have meaningful interactions with people of differing abilities at work, or in social settings, myths and fears such as these will continue. Rather than playing a full part in community life, people with Learning Disabilities will be more likely to suffer from social isolation – staying at home and remaining excluded from the activities most of us take for granted.
We need to ensure that they are seen as valuable members of society who can teach us a huge amount about life. As Sior Coleman (who still leads services for people with a Learning Disability at Monyhull Church) says; “It’s a two-way street. I initially thought I was a giver, but in the 30 or so years that I have been working at Monyhull I have realised that I am more of a receiver and have learnt so much from my friends at the Church.”
Written by Joe Peacock, Heritage Project Coordinator
This project was made possible by a £44,000 grant from Heritage Lottery Fund.