Hospitals & Asylums

Harperbury Hospital History : The Forgotten Harperbury Mental Asylum Sits Abandoned & Decaying

Harperbury has gained much popularity over the years on the urbex scene, mainly due to it’s labyrinth of derelict buildings and easy access.  Also personally, sneaking around avoiding security just adds to the fun.  I live only a few miles away so naturally I’ve explored it a dozen times and I still haven’t seen all I wanted to see.

But time is running out, the demolition team are in and work already underway. This location will soon be history after it’s turned into a housing estate, just like it’s sister hospitals, Shenley and Napsbury.

The Beginning Of Harperbury Mental Asylum

Once occupied as the London Colney Aerodrome during World War 1, the land in which Harperbury Hospital sits, was owned by Mr Cecil Frank Raphael.  In 1924 he sold the Porters Park Estate of 420 acres to Middlesex County Council so they could build a mental hospital.  Rumour has it Mr Raphael’s decision to sell was based on his desire to annoy the local golf club who had refused him membership.  To be clear the total land included both Harperbury and Shenley Hospital sites.

On October 25th 1925, the Hangars Certified Institute was opened. So named because of the three remaining hangars on the site. The first patients were 8 men who were heavily involved in turning the hangers into wards. By the end of the decade the first buildings had been built. Again built by the now 86 residential patients. The buildings were designed around three loop roads and opened in February 1931.  By the end of the year, it housed 342 male patients.

Additional buildings were built to accommodate the daily needs of the institution. Dormitories, nurses block, admin building, recreational hall, tennis court, sports ground, farm and laundry facilities were built to support a self sustaining colony.  It was completed in 1936 and renamed the Middlesex Colony.

Opened by the Minister of Health Sir Kingsley Wood, Middlesex Colony was designed to house around 1355 patients. It now housed male, female and children in separate sections. The colony never struggled recruiting nurses, even though mental health nursing wasn’t of high regard back then. Initially the staff were British and Belgium. Then at a later stage, recruited from Ireland, Spain, Italy, Mauritius and Malaysia.  An interesting fact is that these recruitment phases were evident in the nurses hierarchy by the 1970’s. Generally speaking, the most senior nurses were Irish. Nursing Officers and Ward Sisters were Italian. Nursing Sisters were Mauritian and Staff Nurses were Malaysian. Support staff were generally Spanish.

Male patients capable of working, would work various labouring jobs, from farming to making clothes, shoes, etc, in the workshops. Cattle were raised, as well as chickens. Milk was even sold to Shenley Hospital. Women would work in laundry, kitchens and help with cleaning the wards. Even children would be given simple tasks. Later a school was built.

This rural colonisation approach had the view that the quiet country lifestyle would be beneficial to the patients wellbeing. In the early days, things were very strict. Patients were shadowed by their nurses. The institution were also strict on their staff. A nurse losing their keys or their patient absconding were serious breaches that were met with instant dismissal.  During World War 2, the institution functioned as usual, apart from extinguishing all lights at nights. It homed 1200 patients.

Below are some pictures of the west side of the colony, the male section.

Harperbury Hospital

In 1948 Middlesex Colony came under control of the newly formed NHS. Two years late it was named Harperbury Hospital. The 1950’s saw further expansion. 4 more male villas were built. Along with male nurses quarters, a clinical psychology unit and an expansion of the school to include a swimming pool.

In 1960 a cerebral palsy unit was opened that serviced users from all over the county as well as those at Harperbury. The Minister of Health at the time, Enoch Powell visited and questioned the future role of these large mental hospitals. By the middle of the decade, overcrowding had become a severe problem. Whilst being intended to accommodate 1354 patients, Harperbury in fact had 1587 patients. With over 200 patients above capacity, it is said the beds were packed so tightly together, nurses often had to crawl over patients to reach other patients in need of care.

Despite overcrowding, the site continued to expand.  A centre was opened to study clinical genetics, which is the study of chromosomal abnormalities in the unborn. In 1969 an activity centre opened which provided stimulating activities for patients.  Expansion and the remodelling of existing space continued into the 1970’s. The activity centre expanded and a playground also built.

However during the 1970’s, the general consensus was changing towards mental health. Rules were slackened. Opposite sex patients were allowed to integrate.  The view leant towards integrating patients back into society.  Patients took day trips to nearby St Albans, shopping and visiting the cinema.  They were taught skills that would help them integrate back into society, such as handling money and looking after their appearance. The hospital farm closed as part of the down-scaling process.

From there the down-sizing continued. The clinical genetics centre moved to another site in 1987. In the 1990’s it was decided Napsbury, Shenley and Harperbury Hospitals were to close. In 1995 and 1998, Harperbury got an influx of patients from two institutions that closed in St Albans, Cell Barnes Hospital and Hill End Hospital. By the end of 2001, there were 200 patients remaining and was officially considered closed.

Check out pictures from our most recent explores of the east side. This section includes the women’s section, nurses block, day rooms and more.

After closure, the wards, dorms and villas were boarded up, whilst training, storage and administrative tasks were still being used on site. The male villas are in the worse state, having been poached by thieves for its scrap metal. Several arson attacks have occurred over the years, with the latest time being fairly recent.

The Tunnels

The engineering service tunnels that run under Harperbury Hospital are vast and extensive. They cover the whole site. There are many entrances to the tunnels, but over the years some have been blocked off. Navigating them can get confusing. It’s easy to lose track of where you are in relation to above ground.

The Final Visit To The Abandoned Harperbury Asylum

So we decided to visit Harperbury one last time, seeing as demolition is in progress. It’s actually been quite handy having the demolition team in as buildings we’ve never been in before, were now wide open. We finally made into the De Salis Hall, which I’d been attempting for some time. I must have spent about 2 and a half hours in the tunnels trying to get here avoiding security.  I also found the cobweb building, which if I hadn’t been given a tip off, I’d have never known about. This building was very cool. Covered in cobwebs and the cobwebs were covered in soot from an earlier arson. Yet the walls were still white, weird!

So that’s a wrap for this iconic location. It’s provided hours of exploring fun over a dozen different occasions. I expect the next time i visit, there’ll be very little left to see.

The Final Final Visit


If you are interested reading about a couple of interesting encounters I had on this final explore, please register here or login here to view the details.
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