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Springfield House Asylum Kempston

Springfield House about 1890 [X611/82]
Springfield House about 1890 [X611/82]

Springfield House Private Asylum opened at Kempston in 1837. The County Asylum, opened in Ampthill Road, Bedford in 1812, admitted both pauper and private patients but this arrangement had proved unsatisfactory. The asylum was financed by the county rate so there was constant pressure to reduce expenditure. This became more marked following the Poor Law (Amendment) Act of 1834 when the Asylum Committee expected an increase in the number of pauper patients admitted at the expense of private patients with financial means, who were not catered for under the act. At a meeting held on 30th June 1835 [LB1/6] the committee recommended that: “the institution be confined entirely to an establishment for pauper lunatics”. John Harris, the Medical Superintendent, proposed: “to establish a lunatic asylum for private patients on his own account”.

John Harris was a successful Bedford doctor who had started work at the infirmary as House Surgeon in 1823. In 1828 he was appointed Medical Superintendent of the County Asylum at a salary of £200 a year, with an extra five shillings per week for each private patient admitted. He stood to lose this sum when the County Asylum began to admit only pauper patients, so a compromise was reached. Harris remained Medical Superintendent at the County Asylum on a visiting basis at a reduced salary of £140 per annum, to be supplemented by income from his own private asylum [LB1/7]

In the summer of 1835 John Harris began looking for a site for the new asylum. He approached Thomas Bennett, the Duke of Bedford’s estate agent, and asked if his master would lease him the site occupied by Saint Leonard’s Farmhouse near the junction of Ampthill Road and London Road, Bedford. Bennett was doubtful [R3/3879]. The value of the surrounding building plots would be reduced if the asylum was built too near to Bedford town centre. Would Harris consider a site adjacent to the County Asylum in Ampthill Road? “To this site he has no objection”, wrote Bennett on 7th July [R3/3880]. However, by mid-August Harris had changed his mind. “Mr. Harris says there is an insuperable objection to it from being so close to the County Asylum”, Bennett noted dryly on the 18th “…between the patients’ yards there would only be a narrow close bounded by a brick wall and that the language of many of the patients is such that he could not place his private patients within hearing…” [R3/3885]

Harris eventually found a site on the north side of Elstow Road, Kempston, in today’s Spring Road – safely out of earshot of the County Asylum! Thomas Gwyn Elger, an architect who had designed the treadmills at Bedford Prison, was commissioned to draw up plans [PLS1-2]. Building work began in the spring of 1836 and in March 1837 the asylum was licensed to receive thirty patients, each of whom would pay a guinea a week in fees [LSM4]. On 28th April Springfield Asylum opened and the private patients were transferred from the County Asylum to the new buildings [X611/7/1 and LSL1]. The asylum had cost John Harris over £2,000 to build.

The Springfield House Visitors’ Book provides interesting glimpses of conditions in the asylum in the nineteenth century. The reports [X611/31] date from 1845 when an Act of Parliament created the Commissioners in Lunacy empowered to inspect asylums and make recommendations.

Restraint of patient by belts, muffs and strait-jackets was commonplace in the early years. The Commissioners recommended in February 1851 that the staples and chains attached to some of the bedsteads should be removed [X611/31]. John Harris was unwilling to comply, being “…unable to dispense with restraint”. By the 1870s seclusion was increasingly used instead of restraint and padded rooms were built in 1894 off the main dormitories [PLS5].

On a lighter note we read that patients were encouraged to meet in the evenings for cards, music and reading. During the day patients could walk escorted around the grounds and some visited Elstow church on Sundays. Food was apparently of good quality. “We saw the patients at dinner which consists of beer, potatoes, peas and pudding” the Commissioners recorded in July 1855 [X611/31]. On 12th April 1859 there were “abundant portions … of roast pork, two vegetables and rhubarb pudding” [X611/31].

In 1855 Springfield was licensed [X611/52] to admit ten extra patients and the clothes room in the staff block was changed into a dormitory to accommodate them [PLS3]. A new bathroom was added in 1858 [PLS4]. The alterations were approved by the Commissioners, in particular the enlargement of the day room windows, but they also recommended that “…the walls of the airing yards be lowered as they have a depressing aspect” [X611/31].

John Harris died in 1861 and was succeeded by his son Henry as resident surgeon. Henry was in failing health himself and died suddenly in 1878. His mother Sophia, who worked as matron, wanted to continue running the asylum, but the Commissioners considered in 1879 that “The license ought not to be permanently renewed to her unless she introduces … some approved medical man who will be resident” [LSM5].

In June 1879 the asylum was sold privately to Dr. David Bower, a Scotsman who had worked at Saughton Hall private asylum in Edinburgh [X611/64]. By this time overcrowding had become a problem at Springfield. The asylum was licensed to admit forty seven patients yet the building had remained substantially unchanged since 1837. Improvements were soon coming. New wings containing dormitories and day rooms were added between 1890 and 1895 [X611/80/1 and PLS5] and a new dining room in 1912

The energetic Dr. Bower also introduced the “employment system”, what would today be called occupational therapy [X611/59/1]. Patients were encouraged to do gardening or work at embroidery. An advertisement of 1885 lists billiards, tennis, boating and carriage drives along the recreations.

The Rating and Valuation Act 1925 specified that every building and piece of land in the country was to be assessed to determine its rateable value. The valuer visiting the asylum [DV1/R25/72] found it run by David Bower and Son who paid £400 per annum rent. They were licensed to accommodate forty eight patients and the average number at any one time was about forty. There were seven or eight male attendants and eighteen females.

An insurance policy of around this time [X611/100/1] shows the extent of the hospital:

  • 139-141 Spring Road occupied as a nurses’ home;
  • 143-145, 151, 172-174 Spring Road;
  • Offices on Spring Road;
  • Dairy adjoining 174 Spring Road;
  • Springfield Cottage, Spring Road;
  • Springfield House (insured for £20,700);
  • Hillside, Lidlington also run as a private asylum;
  • 139 Spring Road as a private hostel for lunatics.

Dr. Bower died in 1929 after fifty years in charge of Springfield Asylum, latterly assisted by sons William Scott Bower and Cedric William Bower. His son Cedric succeeded him. A combination of rising costs, falling applications and the problems of recruiting adequate staff led to his decision to close the asylum at the end of August 1962 and most of the patients were transferred to Saint Andrew’s Hospital at Northampton. In 1963 Springfield House was demolished to make way for the expansion of Kempston. Henderson Way, Fearnley Crescent and Whittingstall Avenue now occupy the site but Springfield Cottage, built for David Bower when he married in 1888 still stands in Spring Road. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a very detailed archive [X611].

Aerial view of the Springfield complex about 1935 [Z611/85]
Aerial view of the Springfield complex about 1935 [Z611/85]