THE STORY OF A MENTAL HOSPITAL: FULBOURN, 1858-1983

by David H. Clark

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| Contents | Foreword | Preface | Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | Postscript | Acknowledgements | References | Index |

 

1 HOW IT BEGAN

The Chairman of the Appointments Committee said, ‘The Committee has decided to recommend your name for the position of Consultant Psychiatrist and Medical Superintendent of Fulbourn Hospital, conditions as advertised; are you willing to accept?’ Breathless and rather astonished, I muttered ‘Yes’ and wondered if it was all a dreadful mistake.

On my first visit to Fulbourn the previous day I had been taken round the wards and found them as dreary as I had expected. In the early 1950s, the back wards of any county mental hospital were depressing; I had visited a number and found Fulbourn like the others. My conductor had to unlock every door; within the ward patients, grey-faced, clad in shapeless, ill-fitting clothes, stood still or moved about aimlessly. There were however a few particularly striking things on the first visit to Fulbourn. The overcrowding was worse than most other hospitals; in some dormitories the black iron bedsteads were so close together that the patients would have to climb over the foot of their beds to get into them. The men’s dormitories were particularly depressing; the ventilation seemed poor, chipped enamel chamber pots stood everywhere on the bare deal floors, the smell of urine was strong and there were no personal items of any kind to be seen in the cold rooms. The wards seemed bare; there were no curtains on the windows, which were a mosaic of tiny panels of grubby glass set in cast-iron frames; the furniture was massive, deep brown, dingy and battered. The floors were bare scrubbed deal from which the knots stood high while the boards creaked ominously as I walked over them. The corridors between the wards were gloomy, brick passages painted dark green, roofed with glass, with a floor of ancient, worn flagstones, in the hollows of which lay pools of water and slops of food.

The patients themselves made little impression on that first visit. I remember a few things: the shapeless grey suits of the men, crumpled by boiling in the laundry, and the corduroy trousers, whitened by many washings; elderly men shuffling up to a guttering gas jet to light their stubby pipes and to spit in a bucket of sand; a group of women passing by in shapeless hospital dresses with unkempt grey hair and coarse lisle stockings sagging down over worn shoes; a disturbed women’s ward full of shouting, with many women in bizarre clothes of colourless quilted cotton; a number of padded rooms with their grey rubber walls, several occupied.

I had, however, been shown some more heartening things. I saw ‘The Admission Villas’ – two outlying buildings in which the short-term patients were treated. They were sunlit, pleasantly decorated one-storey buildings with an air of brisk purpose. A number of recently admitted patients lay in bed, some with relatives sitting looking anxious and solicitous, rustling paper bags. Other patients sat at tables, making baskets or playing billiards, looking tidy and almost cheerful. There was a pleasant occupational therapy department, housed in an airy building on a hilltop, where patients were producing fine cabinet work and excellent embroidery under the direction of a gracious and enthusiastic lady.

I had looked with particular interest at the staff for it was with them, I believed, that the future lay. In the women’s wards they seemed to be few and harrassed – elderly, grey-haired women in curiously antiquated uniforms, crumpled, untidy and preoccupied. On the men’s wards, however, there seemed to be more staff and some spoke confidently and briskly about their work and seemed to have a warm and protective attitude to their patients. I looked for signs of tension, the surface indications of underlying violence, or brutality. I noted less of this than in some hospitals I knew. In most of the wards the atmosphere was one of friendly if resigned acceptance rather than the tense, hostile watchfulness I had felt in some other hospitals.

The overall effect of my tour was, however, disheartening, and I spent some time the night before the interview wondering whether I should withdraw – as several other candidates had. On the other hand, there seemed to be at least a few possibilities: I had talked with several Cambridge people who had said that though the hospital, for various reasons – historical, personal and accidental – had made little progress in recent years, there was a real desire to see movement and that there would be funds and backing for any vigorous attempt to improve things. I decided to go forward to the interview; it was the first time I had been to an interview for a Consultant post and I wanted to savour the experience. I thought it unlikely that I would get the job and did not greatly care, as I had plenty of interesting work on hand in my current situation as a Senior Registrar at the Maudsley Hospital in London.

It may have been this very indifference that won me the post, since it meant I was not over-anxious at the interview. The Appointments Committee was a large one and I knew that they had failed to make an appointment at their first interviews two months earlier. They soon showed that they were split into several factions. I was challenged by the task of trying to answer the questions of one faction so as to please them without alienating their opponents and yet to give my own opinion (where I had one) honestly. I managed a few sallies which raised laughs and presented myself, for all my lack of experience, fairly adequately. Since candidates were seen in alphabetical order I was one of the first interviewed. When I actually was offered it I experienced mingled feelings of elation (at the prospect of a Consultant’s salary at last!), of unworthiness (for I knew how little I knew), and of dismay (at the tremendous, perhaps impossible task I was taking on). However, I did accept and then rushed out to telephone the good news home.

 


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