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Description

Aerial photograph of North Wales Counties Mental Hospital Complex in the snow, 2006.
North Wales Counties' Lunatic Asylum at Denbigh was built by public subscription, primarily out of concern for the welfare of Welsh-speaking patients who had previously been sent to asylums in England. The original core of the hospital was an impressive U-shaped range in Jacobean style with a central clock-tower, designed by Thomas Fulljames of Gloucester and opened in 1848. The principal benefactor, the local landowner Joseph Ablett, was commemorated by a bust in a niche in the entrance hall. The original building housed 200 patients, but there was progressive enlargement. By 1908 there was a self-sufficient 'village' of 1,000 patients and staff with a chapel, a farm, workshops, and private water and electricity supplies. Significant inter-war developments included schemes for dispersing patients and staff: six detached villas for patients were planned (though only two were built), a substantial nurses' home was added and a reception hospital for voluntary patients (the 'nerve hospital') was established in an adjoining villa.
Closure of the North Wales Hospital was envisaged by the 1980s and it was finally closed in September 1995. It was visited by Royal Commission staff shortly before closure to make a photographic record. Among the most affecting items were garments formerly worn by inmates, including 'tick' dresses and lockable boots. These were specially made for patients who kicked off their shoes or tore their clothes. Other moving artefacts included a painting by a patient which depicted the male airing court of the asylum devoid of patients. Astonishingly, many of the patients' records remained, some dating back to the foundation of the hospital, and this archive formed the basis of a research project on the history of mental illness in north Wales led by Dr Pam Michael of the University of Wales, Bangor.
These extraordinary complexes of buildings have posed problems of conservation and adaptation to new uses. Talgarth and Denbigh asylums have remained empty and semi-derelict for many years. The most frequent solution has been to demolish accretions and additions and retain the original buildings. Various health service functions are maintained in some cases, as at Whitchurch hospital in Cardiff. At Abergavenny, conversion to apartments has been achieved successfully since the hospital closed in 1996, with the cost of refurbishing the original buildings offset by 'enabling development', building houses in the extensive grounds. This solution is hoped for at Denbigh.

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