The inspiring story of a mental institution

This is a layman’s review of Better Courts Than Coroners: Memoirs of a duty of care, Volume 1, 2011, by Barone Hopper (1937-2019). It’s a marvellous book (BCTC, in Hopper’s shorthand): a memoir both of its author, a psychiatric nurse, and of Graylingwell, the Chichester mental institution (1897-2002) in which he worked for several years from the 1960s and of which he became an informal but diligent historian and archivist. I had not heard of Graylingwell until I read in the Annals of the Chichester Carmelite convent at Hunston that in 1929 the community’s handyman gardener went to be treated, and eventually died, there. (More on that towards the end of this post.) So here was a link between Chichester institutions which share late 19th Century formation and a similar lifespan before dissolution. Both were fascinating communities.

In 1967, Barone Hopper – in his 30’s and a stably married man with two young children, but also an orphan at his core – fetched up at Graylingwell Mental Hospital, Chichester, to begin a three year training course which would lead to his becoming a State Registered Mental Nurse. He is at first and temporarily given a small bedroom over a staff restaurant. His arrival at this Victorian building on a cold, wet winter day is a little like the opening to a gothic horror film. Luckily, good humour soon becomes evident, a little as though Mel Brooks or the Coen Brothers had a hand in the story. For sure, this is not One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the 1962 Ken Kesey novel and 1975 Miloš Forman movie which it discusses).

The book is not exactly a defence of Graylingwell’s “total institution” – or asylum – approach to the suffering of the mad, the addicted and the mentally damaged. Indeed, Barry throughout his time at Graylingwell and after was immersed in the emerging “Anti-psychiatry” and anti-institutional “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” thinking of RD Laing and Ken Kesey and all the rest. He saw much in it which resonated with his own journey into French existentialism and Continental Phenomenology. None of this new-old stuff was incorporated in the book-learning his training course required. So he and like-minded fellow students, professional staff and patients were wrestling with their exposure to Alternative Culture and its intellectual fashions; with their own demons and doubts; and with the practical business of finding what worked. Successful modern approaches included Electric Shock/Convulsive Treatment and the emerging psycho-chemical regimes. Many readers of BCTC will perhaps be surprised how well patients accepted and asked for EST/ECT as bringing them relief. As for modern pharmaceuticals and traditional drugs in a medical context, they have always been open to abuse within and outside institutions, and as subject to debate about the Chemical Cosh convenience they can bring to the management of suffering.

This book is not a mandarin-style lofty overview of the merits of the intellectual arguments always raging in psychiatric care, still less does it defend or decry institutional as against community, or medicinal as against conversational, approaches. But it does throughout make it clear that the author believes the treatment of patients at Graylingwell was always humane and as free of physical intervention as possible. The hospital leaps off the pages as being pretty well literally a community.

Barry’s book has several intertwined threads, and that is a word you see everywhere in the book (not always usefully). As a boy and teenager he lived in orphanages, with occasional contact with his mother (and none with his father). He then graduated to National Service, with its own institutionalisation. He knew and appreciated the merit of asylum or sanctuary, in history and in our time. He does not give us his views on the merits of the system which replaced Graylingwell (and inwhich he went on to work); he is more concerned to record its life, and – it is fair to say – to celebrate it.

One way or another, it was becoming clear that the system of institutions (successively called lunatic asylums, mental asylums, mental hospitals) which had evolved over centuries was nearing its end. “Care in the community” was the new mantra, especially from the 1980s, and it is moot how well the great Dissolution has gone.

So this is a diary-cum-memoir of a mid-60s mental institution in flux, but also as a stable entity which satisfied the needs of both staff and patients.

Barry Hopper does not give us an exhaustive history of Graylingwell from its 1890s foundation to his 1960s arrival nor of the diminishing role of its declining decades. He gives us, rather, sketches of the historical developments in the treatment of mental suffering. The bulk of the book hangs on the chronology of his experiences of Graylingwell in the three years of his studentship there. It extraordinarily gives us a picture of the patients and staff of a mental hospital, and of his own development as a practitioner and personality. It is clear that from his early days at Graylingwell he was encouraged in his aspiration to be its story-teller. Many staff gave him extensive interviews. He had access to its chaotic archives. He made notes of his extensive conversations with all the denizens of the place.

Barry was clearly an exceptional practitioner from the start. He gives us a surprisingly entertaining deep-dive into the characters and mores of Graylingwell. As much, he gives us an account of his self-observation. There is something timeless in both. The institution seemed to hold steady as intellectual fashions changed around it. And so did Barry. For all that Graylingwell was running out of time, and this period would spell the end of permanent and even most temporary residential treatments for mental patients, it seems that Barry from the start and throughout his career was accumulating hands-on experience, just as his fellows were, and they (and their institution) seemed to some extent immune to wild swings in practice.

It is interesting that after WW2 Barry and his world could read sympathetic accounts of residential mental hospitals in popular but serious papers such as Picture Post. As time went by, the 1960s produced a plethora of trailblazing coverage of the thinking of, say, Sartre in magazines such as Playboy. Thr Hopper coterie also devoured and discussed movies such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The IPCRESS File (1965), both concerning the dark arts of brainwashing.

There is an important possibility that the final epitaph of the 1960s will record that us moderns find it hard to build institutions of worth. I am not a joiner and not clubbable but for some reason I admire great institutions (just as I think the professions are crucial social institutions) and think of our age as living in their ruins.

Graylingwell, the Carmel at Hunston, and Parkminster

I came across Barry Hopper’s book because The Annals of the Chichester Carmel at Hunston, record that “Mr Smith”, an elderly handyman-cum-gardener working for the nuns was sent, in 1929, for residential treatment at Graylingwell, where he died. I am struck by the way in which that man (who admired and was admired by the nuns) would have recognised the architecture and some of the life of the mental hospital (built in 1893) as not dissimilar to those of the convent he served (built in 1872).

In the 1980s I spent a few privileged days in the Parkminster Carthusian monastery (also in West Sussex) and built in the 1890s. There I met and was shown much of the huge and somewhat under-populated building by an untutored “man of Sussex”, a few years older than Barry, and living in an institution which, like Hunston, and unlike Graylingwell, was able to keep its impermeability to the outside world throughout the 1960s. Like Barry, the Carthusian brother had been brought up in orphanages, and he seemed proud that his childhood had been even more exigent than his Carthusian adulthood. The brother had volunteered to leave his monastery for WW2 active service, and afterwards soon returned to his muscular enclosed solitude.

I must be careful. Monasteries are pretty well defined by their guardianship of their privacy. Mental institutions, at least throughout the 20th Century mostly seemed to welcome the families and friends of their inmates. But Hunston, Parkminster and Graylingwell have it in common that they were all considerably more self-sufficient early in the last century than they became during it. All could grow more of their sustenance and fix more of their fabric earlier in their lives than later. Even in the 1960s my own undistinguished but rather good public (boarding) school in Sussex had a farm which presumably produced income and provided un-academic youngsters with an adjunct to their formal schooling.

Some of the nuns of Hunston became much more familiar with the outside world after the closure of their old convent as they went to other Carmelite convents not least in the US; Parkminster’s monks (though always dangerously few) retained a greater commitment to former strictness of enclosure and an austerity which most other orders began to think was too penitential for its own good. These were adjustments brought about by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, which was the Catholic church’s attempt to respond to the new gods of “relevance” and “social reform” epitomised by the world of Flower Power and sexual liberation whilst also holding out against the new anti-revelatory “relativism”.

Graylingwell became an upmarket housing estate in the 2010s and 2020s. Hunston’s 1872 buildings were honoured architecturally as the core of Chichester Free SchooI. Parkminster may as a building be too precious to be allowed to decay, though the redundancy of its scale may well be increasingly obvious. (I will inquire about that.) Anyway, these institutions – their buildings and legacy, both – make one very proud of the Victorians.

BCTC Volume 2 Lest We Forget…

There is a second volume of this work, with the rather confusing title, Lest We Forget…, BCTC Volume 2 – Memoirs from a Duty of Care. This is a standalone resource archive of documents covering many aspects of Graylingwell’s life and work. I have not really got to grips with it.

The books’ title
It isn’t made clear but it seems likely that the title “Better Courts Than Coroners: Memoirs of a duty of care”, was chosen in honour of a saying by a colleague of Barone Hopper. This was Basil A Boxall (aka “Admin Baz”), Graylingwell Patients’ Affairs and Medical Records Officer 1950-[?]. [BCTC, Pages xxii, 220, 570].

Admin Baz’s idea was that it was better to have to go to a court to try to insist on the hospital’s right and duty to care for a patient, even against their will, than passively to let the patient die and become a subject of a coroner’s inquest. The background to such a notion was presumably the competing tendency of lawyers, legislators and commentators to assume or hope that it was always and above all important to accord rights to patients, especially in their agency when it came to treatment. Baz and Barry thought differently.

The future of these books
I am not at all sure where the copyright of these Barone Hopper 2011 books resides. As usual, I think this sort of material ought to be online. Indeed, Volume 2 – but not Volume 1, for some reason – is at Internet Archive. If I get round to it, I might inquire how someone could go about putting Volume 1 online as well. (Both volumes are available for public loan at West Sussex libraries.)


My medical school training was at its best in Dundee in the 1960's with the (too scant) psychiatry components. I regret it is by now too late to congratulate and thank those consultants and registrars on their wonderful, organized, systematic presentation of mental illness and how to treat it. With that debt inadequately acknowledged, the relevant comment arising from your heart-warming article is my awareness of a mental hospital in Dundee. Liff, by name [ed: Royal Dundee Liff Hospital]. Very much typical of the Victorian era relics housing society's damaged persons. We were shown the source from which our patient presentations were drawn. All I have are fragmentary impressions that have no ability to convey whether the staff were humane and caring, or (my conjecture) undermanned and simply coping. A vaulted entrance hall milling with every variety of grotesque, babbling, drooling, and screaming. A hell realized.

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Publication date

10 March 2022


Mind & body; On books