Sad memories of Hackney patients sent to live in asylum that branded them ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’

PUBLISHED: 18:27 27 January 2017 | UPDATED: 08:55 28 January 2017

St Lawrence's in Caterham

St Lawrence's in Caterham


Harvey Waterman, now 80, tells Emma Bartholomew about his youth in the mental institution he was sent to age four

Mabel's certificate when she was admitted Mabel's certificate when she was admitted

Until the 1980s many people with learning disabilities were forced to live in hospitals and labelled “idiots”, “imbeciles” and “feeble minded”.

Some were made to scrub the floor with their own toothbrushes if they misbehaved.

A new exhibition at Hackney Museum – Madhouse, My House? – explores what life was like at the mental asylum for “insane paupers” where many patients from Hackney were sent.

St Lawrence’s, which is actually in Surrey, was one of two such hospitals serving London.

A male ward at St Lawrence's A male ward at St Lawrence's

The exhibition recounts stories from two patients – Hackney man Harvey Waterman and Islington girl Mabel Cooper, both given no choice but to live there when they were detained under the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act.

The display was researched and created by members of Access All Areas, a Hoxton theatre company that works with adults with learning disabilities. Harvey, now 80, has been a member of the troupe half his life.

There were 2,000 people living at St Lawrence’s with up to 50 beds per ward.

Life for people like Harvey and Mabel was extremely regimented.

St Lawrence's wash room St Lawrence's wash room

People had no choice of wardrobe – they wore what was handed to them that day by laundry staff.

Men and women were not allowed to talk to each other, though the exhibition tells some stories of people passing love letters to each other.

Scrubbing the floor with your own toothbrush was one punishment meted out. Patients also had to share toothbrushes.

Harvey remembers being given big brown pills by nurses who would push medicines around on trolleys. They would sedate patients who misbehaved.

St Lawrence's dining hall St Lawrence's dining hall

Harvey tells the Gazette he “wasn’t in there very long”. In fact, he was locked up for 29 years – from 1941, when he was four, until 1970.

“It wasn’t very good,” recalls Harvey, who was never told his diagnosis. “The doors had to be locked. If you wanted to go out, you had to ask someone to unlock it.

“I was in different wards. First I got into K block then A2 then F2 – moving around.

“They sent you there if you didn’t know what money was.”

Mabel Cooper was just seven when she was admitted to St Lawrence's Mabel Cooper was just seven when she was admitted to St Lawrence's

Pointing to his head, he adds: “What it was, it was something up here wasn’t right.”

“The damage that was done, up ere, wasn’t good,” he added, pointing to his head again.

Mabel, who died four years ago, was taken away from her homeless mother at three weeks old. Seven years later she was put into St Lawrence’s.

She went on to campaign for the closure of such institutions, and got to press the detonator button on one she had lived in.

Harvey Waterman Harvey Waterman

“You would think you were going into a mad house, because of the noise,” Mabel once said. “There was bars on the windows. It was like a prison.

“Years ago I wouldn’t speak. Only ‘yes’ or ‘no’– because they used to keep saying ‘shut up’ all the time.”

Ciara Brennan from Access All Areas said: “The conditions they lived in and the constant reaffirming they were ‘slow’ and ‘idiots’ impacted their self-esteem, ability and physical health. Those who are still alive still deal with the impact it had on them.”

Harvey says his life has been “much better” since he was released from the hospital, which closed in 1994. “I’m happy now,” he says. “I wasn’t happy there. It makes me sad thinking about it.”

He went to live at the Pebble Centre off Hackney Road before moving into sheltered housing with the help of charity Creative Support.

The most important thing about his life, he says, is “that I got out”.

Madhouse, My House? will be on display at Hackney Museum in Reading Lane from February 2 to May 13.

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