Exminster Hospital

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Exminster Hospital
Opened 1845
Closed 1986
Current Status Preserved
Building Style Radial Plan
Architect(s) Charles Fowler
Alternate Names
  • Devon County Pauper Lunatic Asylum
  • Devon County Mental Hospital
  • Exe Vale Hospital
  • Devington Park (Current)


Commonly known as Exminster Hospital, it was finally commissioned in 1841 by Devon Quarter Sessions from the eminent London architect, Charles Fowler, after various attempts to establish a county asylum over the previous 22 years had come to nothing and just before it became mandatory for counties to provide asylums for the mentally ill. J.C. Bucknill, who has been described as a 'key figure in the consolidation period of psychiatric reform', was appointed as its first Superintendent and patients were admitted in August 1845. It was then known as Devon County Lunatic Asylum, Exminster.

Fowler designed the asylum with classical architectural features and beautifully landscaped gardens with views of the Devon countryside in order to provide a therapeutic environment in which to house the patients. The building even had a ballroom (now known as ‘The Orangery’) in order to effect curative treatment away from society at large. Although there was a custodial element to the buildings, it was intended that the asylum would provide social care in addition to the treatment of the mental conditions from which many of the patients suffered.

His design took the form of a central semi circular link block (now known as 'The Cloisters') with six radial arms like the spokes of a wheel (these are now the current ‘Walks’). At the ends of each radial arm stood service areas, or day rooms which were used depending on the gender of the patients. Near to the central area stood a large kitchen, an octagonal building which is now the site of 'The Priory', one of the private dwellings on the Park. Near to the kitchen was a very large building used as an administrative block, known at that time as the ‘Centre House’. That magnificent building is, today, known as ‘The Mansion House’ and is the centre piece of the modern housing development conversion.

The number of insane admitted to the DCLA rose steadily during the first fifty years of its existence, but more worrying was the steep increase in the numbers of patients remaining under treatment at the end of each year. In the 1860s this number oscillated around 590, by the late 1880s it had risen to well over 800. It continued to rise, reaching a first peak in 1915 with 1,421. During WWI the Hospital was used to accommodate shell shocked soldiers and it was during this period that the hospital name was changed to Exminster Mental Hospital. Tthe following six to seven years, the pressure eased slightly, but the patient population started to grow again from 1923. In 1951 over 1,500 patients were under treatment in a hospital that had seen no extensions since the late 19th century, and voluntary admissions had to be suspended once again owing to lack of space.

Given these circumstances it is remarkable that the Devon County Mental Hospital (DCMH), as it had then been renamed, experienced another, albeit short, period of fame in the 1930s, this time owing to Richard Eager’s tireless efforts to build up an outstanding occupational therapy system. The second World War did not leave the hospital unscathed as it was bombed with the loss of 9 patients and over 30 patients were injured. At the same time, five wards were destroyed. After the Second World War, when occupational therapy was introduced nationwide, the DCMH saw itself repeatedly in the firing line of the Board of Control. In 1948, for example, the visitors were ‘disturbed by the inadequacy of the care given to the female bed patients’ (Visitors’ Handbook, 1948). After their 1949 annual inspection the Board of Control summarised the condition of the DCMH as ‘overcrowded, understaffed and in serious arrears of structural repairs’, but proceeded to say that ‘the hospital is certainly in a better state than it was a year ago.

Following World War II, the National Health Service was created and this was to have a significant effect on the Exminster site. There were other mental hospitals in and around Exeter at that time, namely Digby Hospital and Wonford, The three sites were integrated to become collectively known as Exe Vale Hospital. The Exminster site was mainly used to house elderly and chronic cases of patients with mental illness, as was the Digby site, known at the time as Exeter Mental Hospital, becoming Digby Hospital in 1949. The Wonford site is still used as the psychiatric unit of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, which stands on the site formerly belonging to the Wonford unit.

In his 1961 ‘Watertower speech’ Health Minister Enoch Powell laid out his plans for the reorganisation of mental health treatment in the UK. These included drastic cuts to the number of beds and the integration of mental health services into general hospitals. He based the 1962 National Hospital Plan for England and Wales that introduced the cuts solely on the results and statistical predictions of one study (Tooth & Brooke, 1961). According to this, the DCMH, then known as Exe Vale Hospital and combined with Digbys and Wonford House, was expected to almost halve the number of beds by 1975 and the hospital eventually fell victim to the closure plans in 1986.

The Exminster site finally closed in July 1985 and remained empty for many years. The west wing and indeed almost all of the subsequent additions to the Fowler design were demolished to leave the original design, by and large, still standing. During this period the buildings were designated as Grade II listed and became under the protection of English Heritage. During a period of approx. ten years the building structure fabric fell into disrepair and despite injections of money the buildings were vandalised and neglected. The Centre House floors became very unsafe due to partial collapse and the site in general was in a sorry state. Not much is known of the extent of the deterioration of the site and buildings over this period, however as trawl of the internet will reveal images of the sad state to which the buildings succumbed.

While the former buildings of the DCLA and Digby’s have been converted into apartments, Wonford House has since been acting as headquarter of the Devon NHS Trust, providing specialist services amongst others for people suffering from eating disorders. [1]



  1. Source: [1]