Memories of Napsbury & Harperbury from a former Nurse

I have been searching for information on all the former asylums in Hertfordshire. When I was a Student Nurse in 1994 I worked at Harperbury & had many study days at Napsbury. First of all, Napsbury was a beautiful building set in glorious English countryside, but inside the doors there was a strange haunting atmosphere as if here was a place that the outside world had no idea about. I would see the residents shuffling up and down the corridors, often on there way to the shop to buy something special just for them. They had faraway looks in their eyes, and you just knew that many of them had been there most of their lives. From the corridor you couldn’t see the wards they were hidden away and had names like Larch & Cedar. The buildings were quite far apart and the first building as one entered through the main gates on the left was designated as our Library.
Harperbury was another thing altogether. I arrived there as a pretty fresh Student Nurse on my 2nd placement. I was to be situated in 7 Forest with the most wonderful group of people. I loved it so much there, I used to go back and visit even when my 12 week placement was finished. On the first day we ( my colleague & I) were ushered into the House Manager’s little office. It was more like a country cottage with the little square window and the flowery curtains! We were introduced to the residents who all had varying degrees of disability. There was one lady who if you had a necklace, would suddenly without warning grab your neck and pull it so tight you couldn’t get away without assistance! There was the guy who was utterly obsessed with football and had his own TV in a small room. If you got invited in to share his viewing ( and I did) you felt very honoured. He couldn’t speak but he made himself understood! We were warned about the patient with Hep B and how careful we must be when dealing with him. Occasionally we were allowed to take the residents out to St. Albans for a little trip. I can vividly remember taking a lady into a chemist as she wanted her ears pierced! I have since seen her in the community after all the hospitals were closed and care was to be given in the community.

This to my mind was a huge mistake. Places like Harperbury were outdated of course, but in all honesty for many of the residents, it was the only home they had ever known and to be thrust into the modern world must have been a shock for them. At Harperbury they had their own little shops, like the shop where they could use their allowances to buy their own clothes. There was a kind of community club house where they were regularly entertained by singers and suchlike. At times I would have to take a resident to the ” school”. On one particular occasion I can remember standing outside the classroom when another resident came right up to me and pushed me so hard it took my breath away! At other times, I would be asked to take someone to the music therapy. It was amazing to see how they responded to music. I have not written this down before so the writing of it may be a little haphazard but I have many happy memories of these hospitals and am sad that they are all being developed as housing estates now. I would love to hear other stories and if any of you were University of Hertfordshire students in 1994-1997 it would be great to read your thoughts.

This page was added on 09/02/2018.

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  • I was a student nurse on secondment from Edgware General Hospital in the early 1980s and agree that it was a mistake to move these patients to the community. It was laregely seen as institutionalised care but above all as stated it was those peoples home and they felt safe and secure. They were motivated and could spend their lives in a community which was familiar and safe. Today these people are largely left to their own devices and can be frightened which can lead to behaviour misconstued as aggressive and violent. The result is what we see today, police being called to attend and inevitably being bought to AE.

    By Mary Bot RN (01/07/2023)
  • Hello, I wonder whether you knew my mother, Brenda Malcolm? She was a resident at the hospital and I would like to know more about her. I was fostered after she gave birth to me in 1964 . I was born in Victoria hospital, barnet. I was conceived during her residency.

    By Susilangridge (16/02/2020)
  • Wonderful to hear about your time as a nurse at Harperbury. My father worked there as a male nurse for over 30 years and retired in 65..but carried on doing some rehab work at the little units in Harper Lane.
    Fond memories of swimming galas, pantomimes, Christmas parties in the big hall…along with swimming every evening after school and homework in the social club along with my tea before walking back to Shenleybury…
    My Dad would turn in his grave if he knew how it had changed….but now million pound houses and a small unit…
    So sad for those that cannot adjust to social life…like you Saadi..they enjoyed their lives there…

    By Pauline Wilson (29/09/2019)