A tale of two developments: Cane Hill and Caterham Barracks

By - Wednesday 12th February, 2014

Matthew Doyle contemplates buildings steeped in Victorian history which are set for regeneration

Cane Hill in 2008. Image taken by underclassrising.net and used under Creative Commons licence.

Two developments. Two lives. A shared sense of history links them both as does proximity. One is in Croydon, the other over the boundary in our spiritual home of Surrey. The Victorian era gave them their birth but their future lies in the residential housing market. Unlike the visual migraine of the IYLO building (surely worth listed status now as an urban sculpture/folly), both these developments have had contrasting regeneration in the short term.

If any concept defined the Victorian era, it was institutions. From workhouses for the poor to grand designs like schools, prisons and hospitals – these visionaries were full of dramatic self-importance usually expressed in vernacular architecture. Their structures were designed as statements for the future aligned to functionality of the era. These years not only put the ‘Great’ into Britain but smelted and forged it in a way encapsulated, perhaps immortalised, by Danny Boyle in that balmy Olympic evening of 2012. A career as an architect in Victorian Britain was an employment ‘no-brainer’.

Cane Hill was the more dramatic of the two by design and scope. This was due in part to the impressive buildings designed by Charles Henry Howell and in part due to its 83 acres. By 1888, Cane Hill Hospital was open and functioning as a mental health institution and it lasted in this guise for over 100 years. The hospital, whose motto was “Aversos Campano Animos” (“I bring relief to troubled minds”), boasted such amenities as a ballroom, a water tower and a chapel. David Bowie fans can admire the architecture of the hospital on the sleeve of US version of The Man Who Sold the World (1970) which featured a drawing of the administration block. This was far from random as he had a half brother who had been a patient and tragically took his own life near Couldson South station. Charlie Chaplin’s mother was an early patient, as was Michael Caine’s half brother later on. At its height, it is estimated that 2,000 patients were treated there in its sweeping grounds. Mental stability was thought to be achieved by the site’s dramatic views across London.

Mental health was big business in neighbouring Caterham too. Dating from 1870, Caterham Asylum/Caterham Mental Hospital/Saint Lawrence’s Hospital were various guises of the same place. Located at the distinctly separate, self-contained area known as Caterham On The Hill, estimates of in-patients hover around the 2,000 level, oddly mirroring its westerly neighbour whether by accident or design. Caterham Barracks was developed subsequently on a comparatively small parcel of land belonging to the institution.

Who needs a psychiatric hospital when there is care in the community? Who needs a military barracks so close to London?

By 1877, Caterham Barracks was operating as a Guards Depot. Built to house the vertebra of the British Army, the Household Division is still the definition of British military precision, drilling and finesse. These men regarded the Shire Regiments as inferior – more akin to illegitimate offspring than natural relations. They are soldiers who collect battle honours the way Adele collects Grammy awards.

As a Guards Depot, locals enjoyed the rotation of the regiments of the line – Irish, Scots, Welsh and their two English components – Grenadier and Coldstream. As befits a garrison town, a disproportionate part of the local community was born with this illustrious lineage in their DNA if not directly in their parenthood. By 1990, the depot was surplus to Ministry of Defence requirements and the site was sold off in a re-evaluation of Britain’s own peacetime needs for a standing army aligned to the need to swell the treasury’s coffers.

This brings us to the modern era: the era of South London gentrification and large scale housing developments; a dynamism fuelled by the need to house the bulging demands of London’s ever increasing population. Who needs a psychiatric hospital when there is care in the community? Who needs a military barracks so close to London? Soldiers morphed into commuters and mental health patients were let loose in a way that would have shocked their paternalistic Victorian forefathers.

The council is as consistent in its thinking as Ian Holloway was in the summer transfer market

In Caterham’s case, there was a smooth transition in landlords from the Military of Defence to Linden Homes. Adverts no doubt proclaimed a “…sense of history” and the punters rolled in. The IRA bombing of a Caterham pub in 1975 was neatly skated over in a self-cleansing past. The development became a success as it was intertwined, embossed and tattooed into the neighbouring community and even won design awards.

Meanwhile, Cane Hill was less fortunate despite having a superior geographic location married to the advantage of a large open space. Perhaps the problem lay in part due to Croydon Council intervening in its future (any excuse will do to point the finger at them). The council is as consistent in its thinking as Ian Holloway was in the summer transfer market. Of course this is a blessing if you are opposed to its development. A decade of malaise ensued in the noughties as debate raged between interested parties.

Countless stop/starts are nonetheless now chronicled by an impressive website, elaborately funded by Barratt Homes and Ward Homes which documents its current status as a residential development. In the midst of the planning permission battle, the obstacle of the structural remnants obtaining listed status and the nirvana of preservation was scuppered when suspected arson occurred in 2010. This was as perplexing for Croydonians as the mystery fire on the listed West Pier is for Brightonians. Nonetheless, plans for 650 residential units are under-way with estimated expenditure costs of £250m. In the sands of time, this delay is nothing more than a momentary lapse.

Matthew Doyle

Matthew Doyle

Matt is a long term Croydon resident believing it to be 'blessing rather than a curse' to live here. He has lived in most areas including all three parliamentary constituencies. It follows that he is a Crystal Palace FC and Surrey CCC fan and is an expert on both clubs implicit idealism. Shortly after the Spanish Civil War, he emerged with unbridled zest and vigour, from the London School of Economics with a degree in History.

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  • http://www.pearshapedcomedy.com Anthony Miller

    If you want to see what St Lawrence’s looked like when I was child see Silent Minority http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=az2fTYud0us

    There still is actually a hospital facility on part of the old site but you wouldn’t know. These days it’s called the Life Care Trust (was the Oakhurst Trust). The name changes every few years according to the whims and caprices of the Euphamism Treadmill. When the place was demolished for housing the graveyard which had fallen into neglect was demolished too. There was an attempt to put this right in 2010


    You can see what the place used to look like when I was child here


    There was actually a duplicate hospital that is still existant in Leavesden built on exactly the same design. I suppose one less publicised fact is that these days less people would be born with the kind of disibilities one could see at St Lawrences due to better medicine and …erm … abortion. Most of the patients at St Lawrence’s had forms of cerebral palsy (what was called in the era of Joey Deacon [poster boy for care in the community] spasticity …until that became a playground pejorative thanks to Blue Peter)…. so it was possible for a lot of them to live in the community. Most of the patients at Cane Hill on the other hand had psychiatric disorders. At least that’s how it was at the end.

    There is a link between the Caterham Barracks and the catholic Church on the Hill – (The Sacred Heart) – it was financed by Captain William Harriott Roe of the the Guards for his son Fr Roe who was the local priest. Roe married someone very rich.

    I dont think St Lawrence’s would have been as suitable to be transformed into housing as the Barracks. It was a very unwelcoming place. Huge wards and miles and miles of corridors. A teacher of mine who had a slight lisp went in the there once to do some voluntary work and because his speech was slightly slurred they thought he was a patient and refused to let him out.

  • Matthew Doyle

    Thank you for your amazing recollections that but my article to shame ! I admit that there is a massive depth of local knowledge on both sites that I skate over in a superficial way. The issue for me was sourcing this level of primary knowledge. You have contributed to that by what you have written.