In memory of the soldiers of Cane Hill

By - Thursday 27th August, 2015

Sean Creighton on actions to honour the memory of local soldiers traumatised by combat

Barratt Homes has started work to build 675 homes at the former 205 acre Cane Hill Asylum and Hospital site. It will cost £210 million. Croydon Council will receive around £10 million in community infrastructure levy monies. Hyde Housing Association will run the 25% of the homes designated ‘affordable’. It is estimated that the homes will generate £1m in council tax and result in £7.2m in spending in Coulsdon.

This new chapter in the area’s history is a suitable moment to remember that a memorial to First World War servicemen who were patients at the former asylum is supposed to be being erected at Croydon Cemetery in Mitcham Road. This, along with their belated edition to the national Roll of Honour, will be the culmination of a campaign to have such men recognised.

As a result of research work by Pam Buttrey for her book on the history of the hospital, published in 2011, church of England minister Adrian Falks began campaigning in 2009 for their recognition and for an enquiry into why parliament and the church had allowed the hospital’s cemetery on Portnalls Road to be deconsecrated.

They are heroes as much as others who faced horrors

This was allowed under the Cane Hill Cemetery Act 1980, designed to release the land for use for other purposes. Nearly 6,000 bodies were exhumed, but no distinction was made between the soldiers’ remains and those of ordinary patients. Their ashes were scattered over Location 1,000 within the garden of remembrance at Croydon Cemetery. The asylum cemetery site was subsequently used for a housing development.

Adrian was joined in his campaign by the Croydon Guardian, descendants of the soldiers, and the British Legion’s Norbury branch, highlighting twenty-six of the more than forty soldiers admitted to Cane Hill during the War. Many died within months and were buried in the cemetery with full military funerals, separately from other asylum patients.

In a letter to the newspaper, the Norbury branch wrote: “These people too were heroes. The only difference between those who survived, the thousands who died and the poor souls who broke down mentally and were classed as mad, because of the constant strain and horrors they faced, was the fact that instead of losing their lives, they lost their sanity.

As well as losing their minds, they lost their homes, loved ones and friends. They risked just as much but lost more than most who were lucky enough to live through their ordeals”.

For years relatives have asked to see a final resting place

Gavin Barwell, now MP for Croydon Central but then Croydon cabinet member for community safety and cohesion, said in 2009: “For years, we’ve been approached by people wanting to see the final resting place of their relatives and we’ve only been able to point them towards an unmarked mound of earth in Croydon cemetery’s garden of remembrance”. A memorial was in fact placed at the cemetery but was later stolen. It is the implementation of the promise of a replacement memorial that is awaited.

Adrian has also been running a campaign to have what he regards as the desecration of the cemetery addressed by government and the Anglican church. In May 2015 he had a letter published in the Croydon Guardian seeking action by prime minister David Cameron. Adrian has made himself very unpopular within some Anglican circles over his campaign.

However, it was not just First World War servicemen who died at the hospital and were buried in the cemetery. Soldier Luther Henderson, who fought in World War Two, never mentally recovered and was placed in the hospital in 1950 where he soon caught and died of tuberculosis. His sister Thelma Cook and her husband Bill were horrified at the way in which the graves of the war dead at the cemetery were dealt with, and their inability to object. The cemetery stopped being used for burials in late September 1950. For many years Thelma used to take flowers up to the plot each year on the anniversary of his death, until the graveyard became so overgrown that she could no longer find it. Mrs Cook never got over the trauma of what happened to her brother and her inability to have her objection taken seriously.

Army dentists would drill black patients’ teeth without anaesthetic

Bill, a West Indian, re-called that new officers in the Army Dental Corps were apt to single out black soldiers for treatment, even though their teeth (due to genetics) were usually far sounder than those of white soldiers. Furthermore, these newly-trained dental officers would do unnecessary fillings without local anaesthetic, which bill claimed was based on the premise that black people were impervious to pain and would be afraid to report the practice.

Adrian has not yet received a reply from the prime minister and no date has been announced by Croydon Council and the Commission for Commonwealth War Graves for the unveiling of the new memorial.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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