Tales of Hill End Hospital

A work in progress. Thanks to Highfield Park Trust

By Bob Houlston

Hill End Hospital


This section was written by Martin Booty – Administrator of Hill End Hospital for many years and the first Chairman of Highfield Park Trust.

Early history

In 1900, Hill End Hospital, built especially for the mentally ill of Hertfordshire, opened its doors to its first 100 male patients. The very first patient came from St Albans prison. Female patients did not arrive until later in the year.

By 1902, seven male and eight female wards were open. These were separated by locked doors, not only to keep the male and female patients apart, but also the male and female staff. (In fact if a female member of staff married a male member of staff, she would have to resign her post.) The hospital continued to develop. It had its own station on the railway line (now the Alban Way) between St Albans and Hatfield, and the platform can still be seen near Brandon Court. It also had its own branch line, complete with turntable, which brought coal and other goods into the hospital, and later on, wartime casualties. During the years preceding the Second World War, the hospital was nearly self-sufficient, at one time having five farms and large gardens. Every morning, milk was brought into the hospital in churns from the farms by horse and cart; then the wagon, driven by someone called Ernie(!) went to the station to collect any goods or parcels.

The hospital also had a water pumping station within the grounds, which drew water from a large well. There was a bakery producing bread and cakes, a large laundry, a tailor’s shop, a butcher’s shop and various workrooms. By 1937, there were 1200 patients and they were now allowed to leave the wards and go into the corridors and grounds. Eventually wireless sets (radios to those too young to remember) were provided on each ward.

The Second World War and St Bartholomew’s Hospital

In 1936 however, the war clouds were gathering and the Ministry of Health was actively considering the likely consequences of a new World War. It decided to set up an Emergency Medical Service to control the medical resources of the nation, to empty the bigger London Hospitals so that they could accept a large number of casualties, and to establish auxiliary hospitals within reach of London and other large cities.

It was decided that St Bartholomew’s Hospital (Bart’s) was to be evacuated to Hill End Hospital. Imagine the problems in trying to transfer such a great teaching hospital into a large psychiatric hospital, which covered nearly a square mile, with long corridors, wards on two floors, and no lifts. Before this could happen, the Hill End patients had to be transferred elsewhere within quite a short time. Many of them travelled from St Albans City Station, all with their identification details, medical records and food for the day. On 31st August 1939, 5 sisters and 18 nurses arrived at Hill End as the Bart’s advance guard. They found 1000 beds and 1000 stone hot water bottles (Government issue), but little else to enable them to nurse the sick. To convert an old mental institution to the needs of a general hospital, which would cater mainly for surgical cases, must have been a Herculean task.

Casualties from Dunkirk, and the development of penicillin

It was some months before gas was laid on to the wards, so Primus stoves had to be used for sterilization, and some cooking, on the 60 bed wards. There was only one small operating theatre at Hill End, which was totally inadequate for the number of surgical cases expected. However, there was a very large barber’s salon which, with other adjacent rooms, were transformed into three operating theatres, with the necessary anaesthetic and sterilizing facilities. The barber’s salon had large mirrors on the wall, which were retained throughout the war, like an emblem of British confidence in winning the war and reverting to its original use.

In October 1939, the first 230 service patients were received from France , but they were mainly the chronic sick, accepted into the Services in the rush to enlarge the Army. Although more sick and injured men were received from France during early 1940, in general it was civilians who were admitted.

THEN CAME DUNKIRK! During the period from late May to early June 1940, over 330,000 troops were evacuated from Dunkirk by an armada of naval ships and small boats of every description. In one week, 600 casualties came to Hill End – on one day, 321 were received in one convoy. The serious stretcher cases were taken to the Recreation Hall for immediate attention; less serious cases had to be kept in the grounds until room could be found for them. Fortunately the weather was fine. The operating theatres were used day and night, and during this time the occupancy rose to nearly one thousand. After a short lull, the work of the hospital became augmented with the reception of air-raid casualties from the London “Blitz.” It is reported that a land mine dropped near the entrance to Cell Barnes Hospital, but luckily no one was killed.

War has the reputation for hastening the advances of medicine and surgery, and Bart’s was certainly amongst the leaders. Advances were made in plastic surgery and neurosurgery, to name just two, and in 1944, Hill End was one of the four main centres in this country to investigate the uses of penicillin.

Hill End and the new National Health Service

After the war, Bart’s gradually returned to London, and by 1950 only six special units remained, with the last leaving in 1961. With the end of the war, the Medical Superintendent was anxious to restore the hospital to the care of the mentally ill, and in July 1948, the NHS took over the responsibility of running the hospital from Hertfordshire County Council. In 1951, a service was held at the Chapel (now the Trestle Arts Base) to commemorate the faithful service given by the staff of Barts and Hill End during the war years. The Dedication was by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Another service was held in 1957 of combined hospitals to commemorate Florence Nightingale, and during this service, a lamp was passed down from Matrons, Sisters, Nurses and Students to the Chaplin, and then to the Bishop for Dedication. (The passing of the lamp from hand to hand symbolized the undying spirit of service displayed by Florence Nightingale.) The lamp, which had been loaned by the actress, Miss Anna Neagle – a former pupil of St Albans High School for Girls – was subsequently given by her to the hospital and was kept in the Chapel.

During the 1950s most of the changes revolved around the reopening of the wards for psychiatric patients, and in 1955, Hill End was approved as a training school for male nurses – approval for female nurses followed in 1956. It was reported in 1958 that most of the ward doors had been opened, whereas previously they had always been kept locked, and most of the signage was painted in brighter colours, with many of the symbols of the “Asylum” being relegated to the dustbin or a museum.

Also in 1958, the hospital farms closed down, but the gardens remained and horticulture was added to the therapeutic activities. Hill End also set up “factories” where patients did work for outside firms. This decade saw evidence of increasing success in the treatment of mental illness with drugs, etc. A varied programme of entertainment for patients was started with film shows, whist drives and dances, and one of the highlights each year was a pantomime performed by the staff, which was also attended by members of the public. 1954 saw the introduction of televisions to some wards, and in 1958-9, the wards were renamed using the names of famous people.

1960 saw the introduction of the new Mental Health Act, which laid down special criteria for the detention of patients, and informal patients (previously known as voluntary patients) could discharge themselves in the same way as patients in a general hospital. The last of Bart’s returned to London in 1961, and in that year Hill End opened its first Day Hospital, where patients returned home each evening. In 1962, a Nucleus Unit was opened in preparation for the opening of a new hospital at Welwyn Garden City in 1963, to be called the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital.

During the early 1960s, Hill End was specifically mentioned for its pioneer work in Community Care. In 1967, the General Nursing Council gave further approval to Hill End as a training school for admission to the register of mental nurses (RMNs), the training of SRNs in psychiatry, and psychiatric nursing experience for student nurses from Bart’s. This School of Nursing issued a special badge to nurses on completion of their training, depicting Pandora opening her box. In Greek mythology, Pandora was sent to Earth by Zeus with a box containing evils. She opened the box and all the evils flew out except hope, which was left inside as a consolation. 1963 saw the Cemetery renamed as a “Garden of Rest”, when it was also decided that, in future, it would be used for the scattering of ashes following cremation. A new Adolescent Unit was opened in 1969.

Latter years

The 1970s saw further improvements being made to the wards, with better furniture and floor coverings of carpet or PVC. A purpose-built Chiropody Unit was installed, and an outside ward was converted into a Day Hospital for the elderly, mentally frail, complementing the existing Day Centre used for younger, more acute, patients. Later, this Day Hospital for the elderly was improved to include beds for assessment purposes. A patients’ clothing department was also developed to provide individual personal clothing for all medium and long-stay patients. Because of the condition of the boilers at Hill End, the boiler at Cell Barnes Hospital was enlarged to enable it to provide steam to Hill End, via a pipe link both above and below ground level, and the Hill End boilers eventually closed down in 1974.

Further improvements were made including better recreational facilities, Industrial Therapy and Art Therapy. The number of in-patients began to decrease during the 1970s, from 561 in 1974, to 426 in 1980. The early 1980s saw the building of a large central store on a site previously used by the garden department.

A new Mental Health Act (1983) came into force, which included improvements for the rights of detained patients, and programmes were developed to prepare patients for living outside in the community.  By the mid 80s, it was evident that Hill End would be closed down as soon as possible and the numbers of patients were considerably reduced. Demolition of unused buildings began, and in 1994, the building of the first houses on the site started. Just before the actual closure on November 29th 1995, a special exhibition was held in the Alexandra Ward, commemorating the life of Hill End. This was followed by a special function for Hill End staff, past and present.

The Highfield Park Trust and the NHS Partnership Trust have erected an information board in the Hill End Commemorative Garden showing the layout of Hill End Hospital , photographs and a brief history. The Garden is also a “touchstone” where former staff, patients and relatives can quietly reflect on the life and times of Hill End and their part in it.

This page was added on 13/01/2010.

Add your comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.

  • My mother was a patient on Anderson Ward in the early to mid 1990s. I think she had two stays there that both lasted a number of weeks. I visited her daily and would have been around 9 or 10 years old at the time. I can still remember some of the patients and staff to this day as well as some of their names. I remember the first time I entered the place; it must have been a winter’s evening. I remember long deserted corridors which only seemed to be partially lit with light coming in from elsewhere. The ward itself was in contrast very busy and full of people. I spent a lot of time hitting balls around the snooker table that was between the TV room and the female dormitory. Even as a young child, I never felt intimidated or nervous when in the ward and would take myself down to the shop which outside the ward on one of the ground floor corridors to buy biscuits and sweets.

    There was bonfire night celebration where there was a huge bonfire in the grounds and fireworks.

    I know that it’s been revealed that there was a lot of abuse at the hospital, especially amongst younger people. And looking back, I’m not sure that the environment was the right one to bring about positive change for people with addiction issues – a lot of people on Anderson Ward seemed to be in that category. I also remember some very bewildered people who seemed to be very withdrawn and unhappy on the ward.

    Having said that, there was a place back then for people to go to get treatment or some kind of management for their issues whether it worked or not. That seems inconceivable now. People are often now left to their own devices with no real intervention.

    Different times.

    By MW (20/07/2023)
  • My Uncle George Whitlock was admitted to hospital where he died on the 16th of November 1949 at the age of 18, a post mortem was carried out and the cause of death as stated on the death certificate was
    Vagal inhibition and general enlargement of the lymph glands following an operation for swelling of the chest whilst suffering from the after effects of empyema
    PM further stated Misadventure – trying to find reason for admission and any other details

    By Ernest Jarvis (01/03/2023)
  • Hi I was a paient at Hillhead 1884 I Remember high polished floors food was Amazing was in for very poor mental health was a very scare sad lonely child remember my mum Dad came visit then had do home run away After them to this Day still sometimes have Tramua Feel no @ 51 year hold need put closer this Charpter in my life I am now a Christian Couceller you do heal and move on thanks reading marie

    By Marie (01/05/2022)
  • I wondered many times where I had a squint corrected, at a Bart’s annexe, somewhere near St Albans, by John Dobrey. I was 7 years old and was dropped off here by my mum and dad. We were told to keep on the ward and not wander the corridors, but I did, very locally. I remember vacant mental patients roaming the corridors, often talking to themselves or standing gazing into space out of the corridor windows. There were also groups of men sitting in shelters in the grounds. What particularly made an impression on me was discovering a padded cell, going inside and realising that there was no handle to get out. Also, the very impersonal free standing baths in the bathrooms. I used to try to peek into the anaesthetic room and operating theatre, seeing the surgeons with their long gowns and knee length boots on. The smell of ether, i.e. the anaesthetic of the day, or a derivative thereof, sticks in my mind too.

    By Russell G (24/01/2021)
  • I was a patient in 1947 in Hill End at the age of 10 and a very short stay of something like ten days. No, it was nothing more dramatic than having my ‘bat ears’ stitched back. At the time, I believe, I was one of the first to have ‘cosmetic surgery’ as most patients there were servicemen with war wounds. However, I can remember one young lad having an ear made, another having a chin formed (both conditions born with) and a young girl called Norma (Ithink) who had been severely burnt by a nightdress catching fire. Memories, eh !

    By Crayston Lee (20/08/2019)
  • If you suffered abuse at Hill End you can contact Hertfordshire Police and ask to be put through to Operation Meadow

    By Toni Pearson (18/05/2019)
  • I attended Hill End several times as a patient under Rainsford Mowlem’s care at from the age of 6 months in 1943 until the Plastic Surgery Unit moved to Mount Vernon Hospital where my treatment continued. My mother took on the unenviable task of taking me from home in South Wales to St Alban’s on many occasions in difficult circumstances. I was very lucky that Mowlem was told about my condition and was prepared to offer treatment over a 20 year period to put things right for me.
    I remember bits about the hospital from when I was attending for my last operation there in April 1947. I was fortunate to be able to obtain a copy of my medical records for the period from first admission on 26th May 1943 to my last treatment at Mount Vernon by Mowlem in 1962. I was privileged to keep in touch with him after his retirement to Spain.
    I always knew that I was in safe hands at Hill End. However, its only a few years ago, when looking more closely into the treatment which I had been given, that I began to fully realised what I high international reputation the unit had.

    By Tony Moses (26/04/2019)
  • Sedation was common place for even the smallest mistake in the adolescent unit. And the padded cell.
    A nasty experience that as a child no one should have to go through.
    Unfortunately the memories can’t be wiped.

    By J (18/07/2018)
  • I believe this is probably the hospital where I had my tonsils removed in 1952 when I was only 4 years old. For years I have been trying to find the name of the hospital as only remembered being sent to Barts Annexe at St.Albans. At the time we lived in Islington and If memory serves me right I had to stay for about a week and during my stay maybe only had one visit from my parents as we didn’t have a car. I remember being in a big ward with French doors to the gardens and being so excited at seeing a squirrel for the very first time! I also remember having lots of ice cream and jelly (no crisps given in those days) and the girls had pink plastic cups and bowls while the boys had blue. My abiding memory though is that mum and dad bought me a new baby doll to take into hospital with me (as I had a baby brother at home) and when the time came for me to go home I was told by the nurses that I had to leave my dolly there – something to do with taking infection away and it would also be kind of me to leave it for other little girls to play with! I was four years old and devastated.

    By Carol Kelleher (05/07/2018)
  • My Father, Sidney Lyons, was sent to Hill End Hospital in November 1944. Dad had been injured In North Africa and then contracted TB as a result of his wounds. At Hill End Dad had thoracoplasty surgery which involved the removal of one of his lungs. I don’t know whether Dad also received the new penicillin but the operation was a success and instead of succumbing to TB in a matter of months he lived until 1999 and was married with three sons and had numerous grandchildren!

    By Mick Lyons (19/03/2018)
  • My name’s Laura and I am currently working on a documentary about the history of the NHS and its highs and lows across the decades. If anyone has a story to tell about this hospital, good or bad, then please get in touch.

    By Laura (11/01/2018)
  • I was forced to be taken as a patient by the system, I’ve was put in a straight jacket and put locked in a cell yes white padded left for many hrs even through the night . Was sedated many occasions, I remember a time because my toothpaste was sliced open thinking I’d hidden something I’m guessing a blade and all I said was . Wow what is this a prison, and bam sedated for several days scared of that. I did brake out once . Well there’s another story……..

    By Beth (12/10/2017)
  • I was a patient at Hill End adolescent unit for behavioural problems in the 1980″s my crime, I was a child in care, my social worker dropped me off and left, it was horrible, I was for one reason and another, (still dont know) sedated, I was even woken to be sedated, if I didnt drink the concoction I was held down and stabbed in the leg with a needle and told to count to 5, thats how quick it was to pass out, I remember being dragged downstairs being held up by 2 members of staff holding me up by my arms and my dressing gown coming loose, I had nothing else on, my memories are not pleasant and still dog me today, I can only say thank god its shut… It was nothing more than abusive, had it not shut I would of started legal proceedings for cruelty against them.

    By Julie J (14/08/2013)
  • My father was a patient at Hill End from 1943 until he was moved out prior to D-Day. He was badly injured but was lucky to receive some of the first penicillin, for an infected leg. The only other option was amputation. He was also operated on many times by Rainsford Mowlem – “a real gent” – a skilled plastic surgeon, who rebuilt his face with a metal framework, using a piece of my father’s pelvis to make a new cheekbone. For quite some time when my mother, then his girlfriend, visited him she would feed him pieces of Mars bars through the hole where his teeth had been. At the time there were only three plastic surgeons in the country, so Dad looks back on this time as being lucky.

    He remembers Nurses Day-Lewis and Wilkins (from the jam family). The ward beds were so tightly packed together that they were touching, and apparently it wasn’t good form to groan if you were in pain – if you did, there would be shouts of “Die, you bastard!” He also remembers the people of St Albans with affection, and says that no one was at all shocked at seeing a patient from the hospital with a badly disfigured face.

    When he finally came out after numerous operations, he found that his brother had used his clothes, probably thinking he would never need them again. He has just passed 90, so Hill End did a good job. Our thanks go out to the staff and the hospital.

    By John Fisher (21/04/2013)
  • I was a patient for about six months at Hill End in 1941, aged 10, having been transferred there from Barts, when the London Blitz got really bad. Having had an accident on the railway, I had to have a number of skin graft operations on one of my legs which were commenced at Barts and then finalised at Hill End. These were all carried out by Sir Archibald McInroe, who did the operations on the Battle of Britain pilots at East Grinstead hospital. Due to his skill I have always been able to carry out an active lifestyle. I saw many seriously wounded servicemen in the wards at that time and although, as a child, I did not realise the implications of the appalling wounds on their lives, I can still remember the extent of them even now. The medical and nursing staff were wonderful in the dedication and the caring attitude they showed to all the patients, many of whom must have had terrible psychological problems as well as physical ones.

    By Evan Harris (23/03/2013)
  • I was a patient at Hill End adolescent unit for behavioural problems (self-harmer) – was a teenager at the time & my experience was not a pleasant one. On admission refused a medical & was told would be sedated & the medical would go ahead whilst I was asleep. Daytime activites were limited & were made harder due to the regular bouts of being sedated, this was how many patients were controlled as well as being excluded, which meant sitting in a corner with our backs to the rest of the group. The only time I drowsily saw any sky was when we went to a small hut for an hour of schooling. Many years have passed now & though memory is faint still have these specific memories of my time in Hill End.

    By Katarina Storm (12/10/2012)
  • I was a child patient at Hill End from 1949 to 1951 in ward FG2. I was receiving skin grafts to major burns – I was 8 years old at the time. I never knew what caused the burns and have been trying to trace any records or other patients from the time. I can only remember 2 names of patients from my time, firstly Robin Arthur William Cunningham from Norwich, and also Norma Sewing from London. There were about 50 in the ward all suffering from significant burns. If anyone can throw any light on this time, I would be very grateful. I do not have email myself, but can be contacted here. Thanks again, Robin Biddle.

    By Robin Biddle (06/04/2011)