Ruthin Probus Club

MENTAL health is a much-discussed topic at the present time, especially concerning young people and the prison population.

This discussion is today informed professionally by psychological, psychiatric and pharmacological advances among medical sciences which have developed beyond measure over the 70 years since the foundation of the NHS in 1948.

At Rhewl Pavilion, the Ruthin Probus Club welcomed Clwyd Wynne, from Denbigh, who referred to that period and those developments towards the end of his fascinating talk ‘From Asylum to Community’.

The main thrust of his story, however, generously illustrated with his large collection of excellent photographs, concerned the 70 years prior to that, during the time that ‘Going to Denbigh’ was synonymous throughout North Wales with entering the Denbigh Asylum.

This was a period when treatment had progressed to institutional provision of physical labour and recreation.

Clwyd Wynne served as a nurse and nursing manager at, or was associated with, the North Wales Hospital for some 30 years until it closed in 1995 and has distilled this knowledge and experience for the pleasure of audiences over the 25 years since with his oft requested presentation.

At the start of the 19th century, those with mental health and behavioural issues remained in their communities as there was no formal public provision, and in most cases they were kept isolated in their homes in horrendous conditions.

Denbigh Infirmary had been built in 1813, but did not admit mentally ill patients.

Medical supervisor Dr Lloyd-Williams occasionally managed to gain entry for a sufferer, but for the most part help, if any, was found in asylums in England.

The County Asylums Act of 1808 and the later Lunacy Act had enabled public money to be allocated for asylum provision by individual English counties.

Welsh counties were too small in population to afford such provision, yet the law precluded several counties acting in concert. Dr Samuel Hitch, the medical supervisor in Gloucester, found that Welsh-speaking pauper patients were in a particularly parlous state being cared for as they were unable to understand or be understood.

After Dr Hitch wrote to the papers, the two doctors came together in 1842 to seek asylum provision in North Wales.

The committee which assembled at Denbigh Infirmary in October 1842 succeeded in acquiring by gift a site of 20 acres on the edge of Denbigh from Joseph Ablett of Llanbedr Hall and also raising by subscription (including, and encouraged by, Royal patronage) the necessary funds to commission the building of an asylum for 200 patients between 1844 and 1848: thus the North Wales Hospital came into being.

From its inception, demand for places outstripped provision and successive expansions increased capacity eventually to 1,500 beds.

Successful lobbying was undertaken for a change in the law and other counties came on board with the project.

With the help of his photographs, Clwyd Wynne was able to give his audience an understanding of the vibrant community which was established at Denbigh Asylum.

Both staff and patients undertook a full range of work and play as the institution became virtually self-sufficient while participating in the society beyond its boundaries.

Teams participated in sports and leisure activities throughout the wider district.

Indeed, those in this wider community were not unknown to envy some of the parties, balls and events staged on their doorstep.

Although medical treatments increased from the 1940s with the provision of an operating theatre, after the foundation of the NHS and the development of newer drug treatments these started to decline and patient numbers fell away.

In 1960, Enoch Powell, as Health Minister, introduced the policy change to replace large regional mental institutions and to transfer patients to new district units at general hospitals.

For North Wales Hospital, this was the beginning of the end and patient numbers dwindled until 1992, although formal closure would take a further 10 years.

Proposing a vote of thanks, Phil Durrell raised the impact which the hospital must have had on Denbigh town throughout its long history, but also with its closure.

Care in the Community, intended to replace such provision, would remain an aspiration without adequate and appropriate resource.

On May 1, Dr Frank Nicholson will speak on sheep farming in Patagonia 100 years ago.