Wunderkammer: Cane Hill Asylum

The Internet, like the material world, offers places you’ll stumble across and never find again. An hour’s exploration can stay with you for years, long after the original site has disappeared, changed it’s name, or been wiped away by progress or neglect.

I came across photographer Mechanised’s images of Cane Hill Asylum on Livejournal years ago, and of all the teeming galleries of urban exploration you can trawl through online, this one left an impression. The photos struck a sensitive balance between the human narrative of the building’s original function and the beauty of the decay, and when I recently rediscovered the gallery’s new location – an accident – all the images packed their original punch.

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Mechanised indulges in none of the pound-shop Halloween gimmickry you often get with urban exploration. The overflowing drawers of patient art are particularly poignant.

Epitaph for Happiness (and Audrey) There’s not one curse or evil deed, No spells or promises to heed, There is no equal power within the mind Yes! Love’s happiness was hard to find [April, 1969]

Epitaph for Happiness (and Audrey)
There’s not one curse or evil deed,
No spells or promises to heed,
There is no equal power within the mind
Yes!
Love’s happiness was hard to find
[April, 1969]

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Post-war, wards at Cane Hill were named after historical luminaries in an attempt to lighten the stigma of the asylum. Waiting in the pharmacy, this wheelchair is from Rossetti ward – named for Gabriel, not Christina. Considering his mental health, it’s an affecting image.

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David Bowie’s half-brother Terry died on the railway tracks outside the hospital.

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Charlie Chaplin’s mother was a patient here.

She looked pale and her lips were blue, and, although she recognised us, it was without enthusiasm; her old ebullience had gone. […] She sat listening and nodding, looking vague and preoccupied. I told her that she would soon get well. “Of course,” she said dolefully, “if only you had given me a cup of tea that afternoon, I would have been alright.” The doctor told Sydney afterwards that her mind was undoubtedly impaired by malnutrition, and that she required proper medical treatment, and although she had lucid moments, it would be months before she completely recovered. But for days I was haunted by her remark: “If only you had given me a cup of tea, I would have been alright.”

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Cane Hill was demolished after arson and flood made it unwelcoming to prospective buyers. The land is now being offered up for flats.

As Mechanised says, London is a ruthless city.

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