First trip to Solihull Core Library Archives

NB: this blog currently doesn’t include any photos as we are waiting on advice on copyright permissions. These will hopefully follow soon!

Yesterday we took a trip to the Core Library in Solihull to have a look at some of their local history collection relating to Middlefield Hospital. Unlike Hampton Manor, which still looks largely the same as it ever has (from the outside), and of which there are many photographs online, there seems to be no photographs of Middlefield Hospital online at all. The fact that Middlefield Hospital has since been completely demolished and has had houses built on top of the original site made it even more important to source some images for the project. Photographs are also a brilliant tool to help jog people’s memory.

The staff at the library were extremely helpful and already had the materials we had located on their online Heritage Gateway ready for us. we had requested several postcards and photographs of Middlefield Hospital, a series of building plans from 1893 detailing developments to the site and a manuscript book compiled by Evelyn F. Wootton in 1956.

There were three different postcards, all dating from the early 1900s. They all feature the front of the Hospital, situated in its impressive gardens. These were particularly interesting, as having not seen any images of Middlefield, and knowing that it became an NHS institution, I personally was expecting it to look like a more traditional red-brick hospital; blocky, square and ‘institutional’. However, it turned out to have been a grand building, almost like a longer and bigger version of Hampton Manor. The postcards also highlight how Middlefield Hospital’s name has changed a few times throughout its history as attitudes towards and labels used for people with learning disabilities changed. Originally titled ‘Middlefield Counties Idiot Asylum’, the earlier postcards title it ‘Midland Counties Asylum’ or ‘The Asylum, Knowle’, and a slightly later one ‘Middlefield Counties Institute’. The 1886 Idiots Act referred to ‘idiots’ and ‘imbeciles’, and the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, which would influence policy and practice in treating people with learning disabilities until 1959, uses the labels ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’, ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘moral imbecile’.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that these photographs have been made into postcards. A couple of the postcards in the library’s collection were ones that had actually been used and sent to friends or family members, and their messages were generally nothing to do with Middlefield Hospital. Additionally, the postcards of Middlefield were not a ‘one-off’; there are a few different versions from different postcard series. This suggests that people were impressed and/or intrigued by the exterior of the building, and perhaps even saw it as a tourist attraction or spectacle. They certainly show no sign of life inside or outside the building, and speak nothing of the people who lived there. They show more interest in the actual building than the residents and their lives.

As the postcards are addressed to people in other parts of Birmingham, this would suggest that the senders of the postcards are local to the area. Perhaps, then, they are proud of their local ‘asylum’ and are almost showing it off to other people. This seems a very strange attitude to us today, given the ways in which the term ‘asylum’ now tends to be associated with horror films and games, worlds apart from its original intention of a place of calm and tranquillity. The idea that local people were proud of their institution is backed up by an extract from Evelyn F. Wootton’s unpublished book, ‘The Book of the Village of Knowle’. Wootton was writing in 1956, and the book is beautifully handwritten and illustrated. She writes of a grand opening ceremony for Middlefield, with the foundation stone being

‘laid by Lord Leigh, with full Grand Lodge Masonic ceremonial and pomp. Special trains were run from Snow Hill, and a procession of robed Clergy, Mayors, magistrates and gentry, masonic dignatories [sic], the two founders [Dr Foster and Surgeon Kimbell], Mr G. F. Muntz, and the police, took part.’

It certainly sounded like quite the occasion!

The last thing we looked at were a series of building plans drawn up when Middlefield Hospital was being developed and enlarged, dating to 1893. They were on very flimsy paper and required a great deal of care to unfold! The plans help to demonstrate the huge scale of the building, and also its complete segregation into male and female ‘sides’, with each side having its own ‘Day Room’, ‘school’, facilities and dormitories. The ‘Dining Hall’ was a shared space, though from reading reports of similar institutions, it is likely that the room was still split into male and female, or that the different groups ate at different times. Perhaps most strikingly is the rather large ‘Room for Helpless Cases’ at the far edge of the female side, which was to be added with these new alterations. This conjures up rather sad images, and at the present you can only speculate what went on in there.

In all, our first visit to the Solihull Core Library archives was extremely useful, especially for gaining a better understanding of Middlefield Hospital’s earlier years. We would like to thank the staff for being great and assisting us, and can’t wait to go to more archives soon!