The Hangers Certified Institution

(Harperbury Mental Hospital),

Hertfordshire, England...



In a secluded part of the Hertfordshire countryside a vast, sprawling area is covered in derelict villa style hospital buildings. Part of the site is still in use and security seems very lax so on our visit one rainy March day we found ourselves wandering through active areas and back into dereliction with little to show where we were or to indicate what we were looking at. Indeed some of the buildings which appeared to be active turned out to be abandoned and locked down, but only close inspection by peering through the windows showed this to be the case! It is a depressing place and to be honest we felt quite uncomfortable for the entire time we were wandering around. Perhaps it was the rain, but I tend to think it had more to do with the extreme dereliction.

 The history of Harperbury Hospital...

At the end of the Great War in 1919 when the armistice had been signed, the Royal Flying Corp's London Colney aerodrome was abandoned. In 1924 Middlesex County Council purchased the Porters Park estate, comprising a total area of 420 acres, upon which the aerodrome had been built. The area would eventually become the site of both Harperbury and Shenley hospitals. On October 25th, 1928, a new mental hospital was opened on the site utilising the old aircraft hangers as ward accommodation and it would become known as  The Hangers Certified Institution . The first patients were eight males and they were immediately set to work clearing out the hangers and converting them - talk about making your own bed!!!

Before too long there were 86 male patients living and working on the site and in 1929 several new buildings were constructed forming the nucleus of what would become both Harperbury and Shenley hospitals. Three looping roads were laid to service the buildings with an administration block at the front just off the main B556 road, Harper Lane. The first of these new buildings was opened in February 1931 and by December of the same year the institution housed 342 male patients. Various other buildings were built to service the daily routine of the complex together with proper dormitory blocks and a recreational hall which could seat 700 people. A nurse's home was built to the west of the administration building and tennis courts and an extensive sports field were laid out. The sports field is still there today and in regular use as football pitches.

By completion of the work required for the site expansion the new hospitals could accommodate 1355 patients - male, female and children. In May 1936 the Minister of Health, Sir Kingsley Wood, officially re-opened the site naming it  The Middlesex Colony . Although the job of nursing at mental institutions in Britain at that time was not very desirable, and the administration was extremely strict, the Middlesex Colony was always able to find plenty of nurses willing to work there, such was their reputation. Staff were recruited from Great Britain but also from Europe, especially Belgium.

The Middlesex Colony was intended to be as self-sufficient as possible, with patients working in various jobs. Most of the farm labour was provided by the male patients who raised cattle, pigs and chickens, and any excess milk produced was sold locally. The male patients also worked in the workshops providing clothes, shoes, brushes and upholstery for the hospital. Female patients worked in the laundry and kitchens and helped to clean the wards. Even some of the child patients worked in a limited capacity when they were not attending the new school built on site.

After World War Two the newly elected Labour government created the National Health Service which took over control of the colony in 1948. Changes in county boundaries at that time also meant that the colony had "moved" to Hertfordshire, so in 1950 the institution was renamed Harperbury Hospital. During the 1950s there was continual expansion at Harperbury, the institution had 1,464 beds and an annex at Hemel Hempstead with a further 30 beds. Four more patient villas were built together with another nursing home for male nurses, a department of clinical psychology was established, the school was enlarged, and an indoor swimming pool was built. In 1960 a cerebral palsy unit was opened which also provided services to mental hospitals throughout the area.

In 1961 the Minister of Health, Enoch Powell, visited Harperbury. Overcrowding was beginning to become a problem by this time and what he witnessed led him to question the future role of large mental hospitals. Harperbury had beds for 1,354 patients but by 1964 it was over quota by 233 patients and the overcrowding was so severe that nurses often had problems reaching patients in need of emergency intervention. As a result of the increased requirement for beds Harperbury continued to expand. In 1965 the Kennedy-Galton Centre opened to study clinical genetics and to diagnose chromosomal abnormalities in the unborn, and in 1969 an activity centre was opened to provide a "stimulating environment for patients". Expansion at Harperbury continued right into the early 70s, the activity centre was enlarged and a new children's playground was added.

As a result of Enoch Powell's earlier examination of the mental health care system moves began to be made in the early 70s to rehabilitate as many patients as possible back into the community - in essence what we now know as "Care In The Community" had begun. Patients were taken out on day trips and they were taught skills which would help them to function outside of the hospital environment. They were encouraged to take better care of their appearance, encouraged to participate in sports events at the hospital, and to participate in various groups. Musical events were held at Harperbury and severely handicapped deaf patients were taught the Makaton sign language. In essence the patients were subjected to a program of de-institutionalisation.

The hospital farm was closed in 1973 as the first part of the scaling down operation, and by 1974 a discharge programme had begun moving patients out of Harperbury and back into the outside world. The Kennedy-Galton Centre was moved away in 1987 and by the 1990s plans were in place to close Shenley, Napsbury and Harperbury hospitals, however, in 1995 and again in 1998, Harperbury experienced a temporary influx of patients from two other institutions that were closing. But the discharge program continued and by late 2001 there were only about 200 chronically sick patients in residence. 

 So... lets get on to the pictures now...


In order to view any of our photos from Harperbury in a larger format just click on the smaller image of your choice and a bigger version will open in a new window...


The photographs on this website MAY NOT BE USED WITHOUT THE EXPRESS PERMISSION of the website author...


Most of Harperbury is built in the villa style.
With ceilings fallen in and rotten floors it's a dodgy explore.
Many of the buildings are tagged and sprayed up to excess.
There are not very many long corridors but this was a good one!
An early and not very successful attempt at light painting.
It was pouring down both outside and inside the buildings!
Another attempt at light painting...
many of the roofs are completely gone.
An abandoned commode for a geriatric patient.
All that's left of the swimming pool now.
Part of the children's playground.
A disabled bathroom for elderly patients.
Not the reality of this part of the building!
But this is the "real deal", a padded cell.
A large domed mirror gives a view of the occupant to an attendant.
One of many wards.
A different style of bath but again with aids for the disabled.
Control panel.
Most of the buildings are single story with the odd exception.

And we'll leave Harperbury on a stair porno note!

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