View Full Version : Archived: NE61 6AA – St Mary’s Asylum, Stannington – July ‘09

19-07-2009, 08:44 PM
They say access to healthcare is a "postcode lottery". This explore proved it. In contrast to almost everyone else who’s visited St Mary’s – I didn’t see a soul. I’d driven past the Stannington turn-off on the A1 a dozen times over the past couple of years, always thinking that I’d visit it “next time”. Last weekend, I parked up and wandered through its grounds – the first impression was of the policies of some long-abandoned estate, with Edwardian red brick buildings dotted around in meadows, and overgrown avenues of trees that created tunnels of greenery. I found an access, was inside for several hours, then wandered around the grounds. Maybe I was just lucky …




Around 1909, Gateshead Corporation purchased part of the West Duddo estate in Northumberland, and engaged George Hine as architect for their new 500 patient asylum. Before it was renamed St Mary’s (when it was vested in the NHS in 1948), it was known as the Gateshead Borough Asylum: but in this report, I’ll stick with the name we’re familiar with. St Mary’s was built in the “Queen Anne” style, or at least the toned-down version of it which the Edwardians used, and the building’s detailing is classic Hine: red brick with buff brick banding, sash and case windows, sandstone lintols, and slate roofs. Decoration was concentrated in certain areas: notably Admin, with a belvedere on the ridge of the roof, and a little glass canopy over the entrance. The wings are much plainer, and their walls are solid brickwork, which has allowed the damp to percolate through, as it always does when a place is abandoned and the building fabric cools down.




Once inside, the peeling paint was instantly recognisable: I guess that comes from an over-familiarity with St Mary’s, from seeing scores of reports on it. The aspect which did surprise me was the structural damage: not just the rot-ridden floor of the hall, but huge cracks where a leaf of brickwork is splitting away from the façade; lintols that have collapsed; roof beams that have failed; vast lengths of lead flashing stripped away from roofs. It’s no surprise that over 13 years of neglect will result in serious trouble … and I would put money on Bellway Homes declaring it structurally unsound and pulling down parts of the asylum in future. In fact, St Mary’s has had structural problems for a long time - the boiler house chimney collapsed into the adjacent yard shortly before the hospital closed, and that explains the scar on the water tower.




GT (George Thomas) Hine was an asylum specialist, in some respects the British equivalent of Kirkbride, and he designed St Mary’s with his associate Hallam Carter-Pegg. The asylum was the last project completed by Hine during his lifetime: it was built between 1910 and 1914. Hine’s concentration on this one building type reflected his perception of asylum architecture as an "almost distinct profession in itself". Specialisation paid dividends for Hine, but the turn of the 20th Century was the only era during which an architect could have thrived solely by building new facilities for psychiatric patients. There’s never been a boom like it, before or since. St Mary’s is a broad arrow design: the main ward blocks sit “en echelon” facing southwards, laid out symmetrically with male and female departments to the east and west respectively. Later in its life, the asylum instituted mixed wards, which weren’t universally popular. The male and female sides are separated by central services (engineering, kitchens, laundry) flanked by three-storey staff blocks. The recreation hall sits on axis to the south, whilst the administration block sits at the other end of the axis, to the north. Admin faces the freestanding chapel and isolation hospital, superintendent's residence and main entrance.




Later additions to St Mary’s – such as the nurses’ home of 1928; plus further staff cottages, two additional blocks flanking the main building, male and female chronic blocks and a large admission hospital with convalescent villas at the north of the site – were all completed in the late 1930’s by James M. Sheppard. The hospital reached its greatest extent during WW2, after which it began to shrink back. As ever, Care in the Community pushed forwards a policy of resettlement during the 1980’s, which led in turn to the contraction of services back into the main building, with the areas to the north closing first. The site closed completely at the start of 1996 and was sold several years later to a developer, Bellway Homes, subject to planning permission being granted. Meantime security and maintenance were costing the NHS £160k a year. An outline planning application to build 180 houses, a community centre, bistro and other facilities was thrown out on appeal in May 2006 … not due to the fact people objected to the buildings being demolished, but over concerns about traffic. That perhaps goes some way to explaining why Bellway Homes don’t love the old buildings. Meantime, the NHS clearance team did a thorough job and compared to other asylums I’ve explored, there’s little in the way of medical paraphernalia to give the place a context … so decay is the main thing that contributes to its atmosphere.




By contrast … on my way back up to Scotland, I passed Dingleton Hospital, the former Roxburgh District Asylum, which was one of the first places I explored with a camera, in 2005. Dingleton has been converted into flats now – but I’m mystified why no-one else explored it while it lay empty. The only reason I can think of is forum culture, specifically the way it feeds off itself so that some sites become “magnets”, whereas other places don’t register at all. It’s down to the visibility of reports, and Dingleton passed unreported … whereas I’m still not sure whether the publicity St Mary’s received has been to its benefit? There’s a rhetorical question for you …

Photos shot on Agfachrome RSXii, with no post-processing. :thumb