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The Three Counties Asylum Later Fairfield Hosp

Three Counties Asylum east end - view from the north-east in 1870 [Z50-2-11]
Three Counties Asylum east end - view from the north-east in 1870 [Z50/2/11]

The Three Counties Asylum was established at Stotfold in 1860. It replaced the Bedford Asylum. It served as a hospital for people with mental illness from Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Huntingdonshire, hence its original name and its location, close to the boundaries with the other two counties. The name was later changed to Fairfield Hospital. It was closed in 1998 as part of the government initiative to provide cheaper "care in the community" rather than running mental hospitals.

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a very good archive of official records from the hospital. These offer a view of the lives of people in the past who suffered from mental illness though as Judith Pettigrew, Rory Reynolds and Sandra Rouse said in the introduction to their book A Place in the Country: Three Counties Asylum 1860-1998: "One of the problems with archival history is that the survival of material is predominantly that recorded by official bodies in compliance with regulatory agencies. Glimpses of day-to-day life in the early asylum are rare". Nevertheless even the cold facts of the official record reveal some shocking facts, such as the numbers of young children in the asylum and throw some light on the sadness of so many blighted lives.

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service staff have selected some information on some of the patients in the asylum in the early 1880s. Men and women were strictly segregated and so the patient case books are divided by gender. It is interesting to note that 10% of female and 22% of male patients in the respective case books [LF29/6 for women and LF31/6 for men] were in the asylum because they suffered from epilepsy.

This condition, treatable in many cases today, was a killer in the 19th century. One famous case was the Lancashire and England cricketer Johnny Briggs. He was a great slow left arm bowler, a good lower order batsman and a splendid fielder. He was also very popular because of his outgoing and friendly personality. Cricket historian H. S. Altham wrote of him: "With his round but resilient figure, his quips and pranks and generous heart, Johnny Briggs was immensely popular wherever he went, and as long as he was on the field the game was sure to be alive and human". Born in Sutton-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire on 3rd October 1862 he played 391 matches for Lancashire from 1879 to 1900 and thirty six times for England between 1884 and 1899. In first class matches he made 14,092 runs at an average of 18.27 and took 2,221 wickets at 15.95. In tests he made 815 runs at 18.11 and took 118 wickets at 17.75. He was hit over the heart by a shot from a batsman and this bought on his epilepsy. He had a seizure during a test match against Australia on 29th June 1899 and was confined at Cheadle Asylum in Cheshire, perhaps due to the pressure of playing in such an important match. He seemed to make a full recovery and played a full season for Lancashire in 1900 but he had another violent seizure that winter and was again confined to the asylum. He died there on 11th January 1902 aged just 39. It was said that he spent his days wandering about the ward, bowling imaginary deliveries.

A portrait of Johnny Briggs
A portrait of Johnny Briggs