Our local history……..
In 1873 the Metropolitan Asylums Board (MAB) decided that mentally handicapped children should be separated from adult lunatics in the Caterham and Leavesden Asylums. Therefore, at the end of 1874, a temporary asylum was established for the children in the former London Orphan Asylum in Clapton.
In 1875 MAB purchased 164 acres of land at Darenth, near Dartford in Kent, to build a school capable of housing 500 children aged between 5 and 16 years.
The Darenth School for Imbecile Children opened in 1878, the children arriving from Clapton in covered wagons. (The opening of the School had been delayed because of a smallpox epidemic; a temporary tented hospital had been set up in its grounds to house convalescing smallpox patients while the Gore Farm site was prepared. The staff and children of the School were revaccinated against smallpox and there were no reported cases).
The School was one of the largest establishments of its kind. The Gothic-style buildings had cost £88,750 and could accommodate 580 children. The central administrative block had the kitchens and laundry behind; on its west side were the schoolrooms and chapel and, on its east side, the dining and recreation rooms. The children’s accommodation consisted of five 3-story blocks – girls on the west side and boys on the east. Bed-ridden children were housed in three one-storey blocks, epileptics in another two blocks and infants in another.
The children were taught rudimentary skills in elementary subjects, including how to tell the time and how to handle money. Deaf and dumb children learned sign language. The School also had workshops where useful manual and industrial skills were taught – boys learned printing, carpentry and boot-making; girls did needlework and learned domestic skills. The children responded well to instruction and only a small number proved to be ineducable.
The education and training offered at the School made it one of the most interesting and successful of the mental hospitals and attracted many important visitors, who came to observe how the scheme was run.
As the children approached the age of 16, the School found it was difficult to place them back in the community. Also it did not want to lose the labour force it had been created (in 1877 in Clapton the patients’ labour had earned £66 5s 7d, about £66.25). Thus, the Darenth Asylum for Imbeciles was built in 1880, east of the School, as adult accommodation. Those who were considered ‘improvable’ received further workshop training, while the more severely mentally handicapped adults lived in a separate part of the Asylum.
In 1888 MAB was compelled to add ten single-storey pavilions to the site – five for female and five for male ‘feeble-minded’ patients – as the Caterham and Leavesden Asylums were full. At the same time a new wing for 400 children was added to the School. The site then contained almost 1000 children in the School and 1500 adults in the Asylum.
The School and Asylum had their own gasworks and was almost self-sufficient in food production on the farm at the south of the site. Sewage was disposed of by irrigation onto the farm land. The water supply came from a well 250′ deep, the water being purged to two tower water tanks at the rate of 100,000 gallons a day. The patients manufactured the necessary everyday items for use on the campus. An acre of land was consecrated as a cemetery (later known as Southern Rest).
In 1904 a training colony was established to teach ‘higher-grade mental defectives’ industrial skills and crafts. About 400 boys and 300 girls were employed in various occupations – farming, plumbing, engineering, manufacture of clothing and domestic goods – and the products were used to supply MAB’s other institutions.
In 1911 the School and Asylum became known as the Darenth Industrial Trading Colony and, two years later, the Darenth Industrial Colony.
In 1918 a new cemetery (now known as Darenth Rest) was consecrated.
In 1921, when it had 1668 beds, it was renamed the Darenth Training Colony. By 1924 bed numbers had increased to 2260. The Colony was wired for electricity in 1926, at a cost of £9,300, and a new automatic telephone system installed at a cost of £1615. In 1927 a War Memorial for the Colony was unveiled (the Memorial is now at the entrance to the cemetery).
By 1930 the Colony was producing goods to the value of £70,000 a year. The female patients did laundry and domestic work, and produced items for sale – ‘flat needlework’ (towels, sheets, pillowcases, etc), rugs and knitted garments and socks. Male patients undertook brick-laying, carpentry, decorating, plumbing, helping to maintain the buildings. They made shoes, mattresses, mats, brushes, baskets and toys, and also did tailoring, printing and book-binding. Tinsmiths made kettles, coal-scuttles and other household items, while carpenters made benches and stools. They also did baking and domestic work. Some worked as gardeners or on the farm.
The farm had 103 acres of arable land, with 46 acres of grassland; the farm buildings occupied 3 acres. The livestock consisted of 300 pigs, 100 sheep and 27 dairy cows. About 200 hens provided eggs for the patients and staff and, later when they had stopped laying, chicken meat. Five horses were kept for ploughing and other farm work. Enough green vegetables were grown to feed everyone for a year, but only enough potatoes for eight months (the yearly consumption was 220 tonnes).
In 1930 the LCC took over administrative control of the Colony. Children ceased to be admitted in 1935. In 1937 the Colony was renamed Darenth Park Hospital.
In 1948 it joined the NHS. It had 2260 beds. A special ward was opened in 1949 for maladjusted patients whose behaviour was undisciplined and irresponsible.
Psychological treatment was offered to patients to enable them to learn social skills which would help them lead normal lives outside the Hospital. Two psychologists were seconded from the Medical Research Council’s Social Psychiatry Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry. A Social Adjustment Centre was established and patients were employed by outside companies via the Centre. In this way, contracts were procured for box and carton-making, finishing plastic products, wiring electronic organs and fitting plugs.
By the 1950s the Hospital had 1900 adult patients – 1100 men and 800 women. In 1951 over 3000 books had been bound and over 500,000 forms printed. Patients were paid 5 to 10 shillings (25-50p) weekly pocket money (the exact amount depended on performance). They were able to buy clothes and sundry items with this and the remainder of their wages was banked for them. Doctors often found that, once relatives had discovered that patients could earn a decent wage, they did not hesitate in trying to claim the money!
By 1954 the number of beds was 2058. In 1959 children were once again admitted to the Hospital. A school was opened so these severely mentally handicapped children could be helped to improve their speech and mobility, as well as their social skills.
In 1967 a new wing was built for boys aged between 11 and 16 years, and another one was planned for girls.
By the 1970s, however, the Hospital was in a poor state of repair and needed re-wiring. It had over 40 wards, ten of which housed more than 50 patients each, and there was only one lift in the entire complex. Its catchment area of South East London, Kent and parts of Sussex meant that relatives had long and difficult journeys to reach the isolated site. In 1973 the Regional Hospital Board decided that conditions were unacceptable by modern standards and that the Hospital should close. The school closed in 1978 and the children transferred to the new Milestone School.
The closure programme was implemented slowly to allow institutionalised patients time to adjust (40% had lived at the Hospital for more than 25 years). Patients had to learn how to cook for themselves, how to shop and how to use a door key. They were gradually transferred to other hospitals, hostels, homes and other facilities throughout South East England. Orchard House at Joyce Green Hospital and Archery House at Stone House Hospital accommodated some of the severely mentally handicapped patients.
By 1984 the Hospital had 735 beds and, by the following year, 695.
The Darenth Park Hospital finally closed in 1988 – the first NHS institution of its kind to close as a result of government policy to move mental health care out of hospitals and into ‘the community’.
Present status (October 2008)
The vacated buildings remained empty and unused, apart from the administration block which was used as the District Headquarters for the Dartford and Gravesham Health Authority until 1994.
The Hospital buildings were demolished in 1995.
The only building that survives today is the former farm, now used as a riding school.