Middlefield Hospital was a home for people with learning disabilities which closed and was demolished in the 1990s. Keen to get a shared learning project off the ground, Janice Anderson – the moving spirit behind the project – invited members from various U3As. A small group formed to research the history of the hospital up to the First World War. The end result is a booklet we have produced.
Once we started and realised what a rich vein of information we could mine, it was difficult to know when to stop. As well as looking at the history of Middlefield, we researched the lives of some of the staff and patients and looked at their everyday life.
It was a harsher era but also one tempered by unexpected acts of kindness. The attitudes of the time are typified by the changing names of the institution – from the Midland Counties Middle Class Idiot Asylum through the Midland Counties Asylum, Midland Counties Institution, Middlefield Hall and finally to Middlefield Hospital.
The hospital’s origins go back to 1866. Two prominent local medical men, Dr Bell Fletcher and Mr Jonathan Henry Kimbell, founded a small private asylum in a former public house. Demand for the asylum soon outgrew the premises. New land was purchased and a brand new building constructed: The laying of the foundation stone in 1872 was a grand occasion with the great and the good attending and a special train laid on from Birmingham. The first patients were admitted in 1874.
A few memorable stories from the booklet:
William Gabriel Blatch, the first secretary and superintendent, was a fascinating character. As well as his long service to the asylum, he was a self-taught man who became a well-known entomologist, with a particular interest in beetles, and was elected a Fellow of the London Entomological Society. He and his family are buried in Knowle churchyard.
Ann Darke was the first matron from 1866 until 1869. She was highly regarded by many but a controversial figure after she was investigated but exonerated by the Commissioners. Soon after she resigned, she married a man thirty years her senior – 78 to her 48. Sadly, the marriage was short-lived as he died only 8 months after the wedding.
Ellen Harrison was a laundry worker who had an illegitimate baby in 1892 after a concealed pregnancy. The body of her newborn baby was found on the roof outside her room. She was found guilty of concealing a child’s body and sentenced to one month’s hard labour.
Frances Adams was admitted to the asylum at the age of four, becoming one of the youngest patients to be admitted. She was described as “idiot from one year”. She spent the rest of her life there and died at the age of 55.