Forston Asylum

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Forston Asylum
Established 1832
Opened 1863 (2nd Hospital)
Closed 1992
Current Status Preserved
Building Style Corridor Plan
Architect(s) HE Kendall Junior
Location Charlton Down
Alternate Names
  • Second Dorset County Asylum
  • Dorset County Mental Hospital
  • Herrison Hospital


In 1863 the new County Asylum at Herrison was, after some difficulty (the first builder having gone bankrupt), ready for occupation with 300 beds. The first 15 patients moved in from Forston in October of that year. These presumably had the job of preparing for the others. Much of the furniture, including iron and wooden beds, was made by the male patients at Forston in readiness for the move. The building was compact and well designed, with the entrance and working departments to the north, and the main wards jutting out to the south on either side of the communal recreation room and chapel, with an open view across the country towards Dorchester. The female wards were in the eastern half of the building and the male wards on the west, while the central area contained the kitchen and the stores. A corridor connected the west wing with the superintendent’s house.

Inside the central part of the building is the well, 520 feet deep. Legend has it that while the well was being dug there was a sudden flooding and the workmen had to run for their lives, leaving implements and tools behind that remain there to this day.

Early pictures of the hospital show it sitting on a bleak, bare hillside. The first avenue of trees which we see today were planted by this first generation of patients, who, under the direction of Dr Symes, the then Superintendent, also laid out the first terraces of gardens. Records show that at this time some three-quarters of all patients were fully employed. This was not slave labour, but had a definite therapeutic purpose, although admittedly it helped to relieve the burden on the local rates. An honest attempt was made to employ patients in jobs which they preferred, or which would appear to be of benefit to them. Many of the men, being farm labourers, were employed in the farm and garden. Others made boots, shoes and clogs for the asylum, Dorset County Hospital, and the local gaol, and carried out all footwear repairs for these three institutions. The women were mainly employed in the laundry, in cooking and cleaning, and making and repairing the men’s underclothing and almost the whole of their own clothing and household linen. They also made dolls and woven straw articles. The hospital at this time was lit by gas from its own plant below the lodge at the corner. It is interesting to note that the laundry was equipped with a new-fangled kind of spin dryer, operated by a heavy fly-wheel.

1866 is the first year for which records of staff can be found – 14 attendants, 10 nurses, 3 laundry maids, 3 kitchen maids, but no night duty staff. The unmarried staff were, in those days, only allowed out for so many evenings a week, and slept in the vicinity of the wards so they were on hand if required. It is recorded that a number of a visiting committee suggested that the nurses should sleep actually in the dormitories, but the Medical Superintendent pointed out that they might be expected to be tired the next day. It appears that difficult cases were often handcuffed at night to their beds. Although a superintendent has recorded destroying all means of mechanical restraint, these seemed to have crept in again. Restraints were, of course, in use outside of the hospital. Records tell of a patient being brought to the hospital chained to the bottom of a farm cart, and another who was chained up at her home after being discharged.

Profits made on the farm and by sales of work provided small sums of pocket money for the workers, and small cash payments for discharged patients to tide them over until they could find employment. Life was hard for many on the outside, and the superintendent’s report of the many patients admitted suffering from the effects of poverty and malnutrition, who improved on the hospital diet, poor as it was by the present day standards. Others had been weakened by well-meaning efforts of their friends to improve their conditions by a drastic course of bleeding, blistering, and purging.

In 1873 the first “night-watchers” were appointed to visit the patients 4 times a night. Later staff were issued with clocks which were automatically stamped at various points in the hospital at the stated hours. In 1890 the farm was extended by 200 acres. In the same year the first comprehensive Lunacy Act was passed., the staff were issued with uniforms and regular nurse training was instituted. Further expansion was now necessary, and in 1895 the present female wing was completed, and the remaining patients transferred from Forston House. In 1895 too, it is reported that Dr MacDonald introduced the “open door” system and extended it until, excepting for the door that divided the male and female wing, no ward doors were locked, and patients had free access to other wards and to the grounds.

In was in the same year that the hospital showed advance in other respects. Electric Light was introduced – one of the first installations in the country. The same plant continued in operation until about 1955, when it was removed to a place of honour in the Science Museum of South Kensington. Steam heating was also installed in 1895, and a new church built with seating for 400. In 1896 additions were made to the farm buildings, from old bricks brought from Forston, and the old gas house was converted into a cottage, now the residence of a member of staff. In the next year four further pairs of staff cottages were built.

Further expansion was now again necessary. In 1899 another 139 acres of land was acquired for the erection of separate building for private patients, and in 1904 Herrison House was completed with accommodation for 102 patients. The Superintendent at that time, Dr MacDonald, who appears to have had very advanced ideas, expressed his wish to the authorities that the doors of the bedrooms should open normally, that the baths should have ordinary taps, and that the system of the time clock should not be introduced. The authorities remarked that they did not anticipate that any obstacle would be placed in the way of Dr MacDonald’s wishes to conduct his establishment on the lines, which if unusual, are not without their advantages in the treatment of the insane.

Between 1904 and 1914 further expansions took place, mainly on the female wing. During the First World War patients were received from other districts and the numbers rose to 1,165 .. This over-crowding took its toll with a high death rate from typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis, and influenza. The percentage of accidental fractures also increased considerably, possibly due to the reduced diet. In 1938 the present Nurses Home was erected, with accommodation for some 99 staff.

In the early 1950’s the whole hospital, as others throughout the western world, underwent an internal revolution, consequent upon the introduction of the new synthetic drugs, which while aiding other forms of active treatment, mean, we hope, the final abandonment for ever of all forms of mechanical restraint. What would not some of our great pioneers have given for such aids?

During 1958 in anticipation of the forward -looking Mental Health Act of 1959, the last great expansion of the hospital took place with the new building, light, airy, and comfortable, set in wide open lawns, its many doors opening directly on to the free world, and named appropriately after its famous forerunner, The Forston Clinic. Mention must be made of the Blackdown Hospital at Weymouth, with 12 beds, under Herrison control, and St Ann’s Hospital at Canford Cliffs, Poole with 71 beds. These in 1963 , together with Herrison proper formed the Herrison Hospital Group with a total of 1,288 beds and a staff of some 600 covering the whole of the Dorset and Bournemouth population.

In May 1973, the wards of Herrison Hospital were re-organised and some 900 patients were moved into three therapeutic team areas, based on geographical areas of Dorset. At the same time an integrated resettled scheme was commenced where groups of patients were encouraged to live semi- independently for a period before leaving hospital to live in the community in a group home or other selected accommodation. The 31st March 1974 saw the end of another chapter of Herrison’ s history when the Health Service Re-organisation brought about the end of the Herrison Group Management Committee, and on 1st April, Herrison and Blackdown Hospital’s became incorporated into the West Dorset Health Care District. St Ann’s hospital joined the East Dorset District. The hospital continued as the headquarters of West Dorset Health Authority until it finally closed in 1992.

Today the hospital and grounds have been converted to housing and public park space called Charlton Down Village Hall.


Website for current use of the property