Ancestry UK

Eastern Counties Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles / Royal Eastern Counties Institution for the Mentally Defective, Colchester, Essex

The Eastern Counties Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles was established at Colchester in 1859. It occupied a former hotel building near the North Station where, since 1850, branch of the Park House hospital for idiots, Highgate, had been in operation and known as Essex Hall. The new asylum, only the second of its type in England, served the counties of Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire. It was financed partly by voluntary subscriptions and partly by payments from some of the patients. The premises were steadily expanded and the number of inmates rose from 66 in 1862 to 245 in 1897, with children forming the bulk of the institution's intake. Patients were initially admitted for a period of five years, with up to 20 per cent then being offered a permanent home.

Asylum for Idiots, Colchester, c.1860.

The asylum placed great value on providing its inmates with education and training. 'Higher-grade' patients were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, or learned tailoring, housework, gardening, and laundry work. Recreational activities included cricket, football, croquet, keeping animals, and watching magic lantern shows. By the 1890s, patients made all the staff uniforms, repaired shoes, clothing, and bedding, did carpentry, and made mats and mattresses. In 1892, an adjacent farm known as Poplar's Hall was taken over and provided with livestock to provide agricultural work for the men and boys. In 1894, Crossley House at Clacton, was acquired for used as a seaside holiday home.

On March 17th, 1922, the asylum, by now known as the Royal Eastern Counties Institution for the Mentally Defective, was certified to operate an Industrial School, allowing it to take young people committed by magistrates under the Mental Deficiency Act. Its accommodation then numbered over 600 places.

In 1933, the establishment became a Special Approved School, one of the new institutions introduced by the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act to replace the existing system of Reformatories and Industrial Schools. The Royal Eastern provided accommodation for 17 mentally defective girls committed under the Act. In 1936, it was decided to end the use of Approved Schools for such individuals and the Asylum's certification for this purpose was withdrawn on September 29th, 1937.

Essex Hall was closed in 1985 and the buildings demolished. The site was sold in 1988 and is now covered by modern housing.


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