William Goldring and Asylums

At the end of last year I wrote about the work of William Goldring, a prolific landscape and garden designer who died in 1919. Apart from his private commissions  and work on  public parks he was also involved in the design of landscapes that have been generally overlooked by garden and landscape historians: those of hospitals and asylums.   A large number of these were being built in the later 19thc so I thought, with the Victorian love of order and record keeping, this would be an easy subject to  research but once again I’ve been proved wrong.

The Conservatory at Rauceby after closure © Steffie Shields 1999

The grounds of these new hospitals, particularly those for mental illness, were seen as having equal therapeutic value to the buildings where the patients were housed. But whereas architects are almost always known,  landscape designers are not.  This is surprising considering that many  were mainly on large rural or semi-rural sites and in many way can be seen as a continuation of the planning and layout of great landed estates in earlier times.

William Goldring from The Journal of the Kew Guild, 1913

Sarah Rutherford attempted to uncover these lost designers in her PhD thesis  about the landscapes of asylums but says that when she started her research “of all the 115 public asylum sites begun by 1914 only one was known to have a named designer.” Luckily that one was by William Goldring and she went on to show that he designed at least two more.  These three sites, Napsbury near St Albans in Hertfordshire, Hellingly in Sussex and Rauceby, near Sleaford in Lincolnshire, are the subjects of today’s post.

The remains of Rauceby Hospital from Google Street View

Gardeners’ Chronicle, in his obituary March 1st 1919 said Goldring had  “a wide and intimate knowledge of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, and their development, as well as possessing imagination and the artistic perception and able to create garden pictures of great beauty and interest.”   This is clear from the three sites, all of which have been redeveloped as housing, although with totally different outcomes.

Its never easy to decide whether we start with the good news or the bad, but if  I want to end the post  on a positive note I’d better begin with Rauceby and Hellingly.


Work began on the Kesteven County Asylum at Rauceby in 1897 to an “echelon” design by George Thomas Hine  Britain’s most prolific asylum designer, who had 14 sites to his credit. The echelon plan saw the wards arranged in a staggered form behind one another, but gradually progressing outward from the administrative centre in order to maximise sunlight, air and views for all patients throughout the day. Kesteven was, at the request of the authorities, a fairly utilitarian design in red brick with minimal decorations. It opened in 1902 with room for nearly 500 patients.

The gardens and grounds were designed separately, and Goldring only got the contract in July 1900 because Robert Lloyd, the gardener at Brookwood, the Surrey County Asylum, who was initially approached to submit plans had to withdraw because of ill health.  Goldring was paid  at 4 guineas per day and produced a layout plan within a matter of a few weeks which was implemented under his supervision, although incorporating some modifications suggested by the Committee over the following 5 years.  Rauceby is the only surviving one of his plans and is now in the Lincolnshire Record Office.


By 1905  £1,072, had been spent on the grounds, with £624 spent on iron fencing and £125 on building a conservatory attached to the south front of the main building. This compares with the £156,000 on the hospital buildings. Much of the landscaping, particularly the planting, was carried out by the male patients as a part of their therapy, as had been the case in many other asylums.

Despite Rauceby’s somewhat modest appearance compared to other asylums, it was nonetheless a source of much local pride and excitement, with the Sleaford Gazette [5th October 1901] calling it “a magnificent institution” and reporting that  the site of “this palatial asylum… is an ideal one, and standing on its elevation on a delightful autumn day, the view there from was restful and picturesque to a degree.”

The Patients Kiosk in the one of the Airing Courts at Rauceby © Steffie Shields1999

One of the airing Courts, photo by Sarah Rutherford 1998 from Garden History 
Vol. 33, No. 1 (Summer, 2005),

Each of the wards had direct access to gardens known as “airing courts” which overlooked the parkland and/or orchards. These can be clearly seen on both Goldring’s plan and  the aerial views. They had rectangular  lawns flanked by mature trees and flowering shrubs with a formal and very basic geometric path system centred around an octagonal shelter.

The courts were completely railed in so the patients were contained, although some sections were removed in 1930 when a policy was adopted of allowing  them some  freedom of access to the grounds.  These designs match accepted best practice of the time, as outlined  H C Burdett’s Hospitals and Asylums of the World in 1891:  ‘The courts should be laid out as gardens, and orchards, and lawns. The walks should be twelve or fifteen feet wide, and laid down to asphalt or concrete. All the courts should have sun-shades and kiosks’.

from Google Street View

One of the orchards © Steffie Shields1999

Rauceby like all such institutions, was intended to be at least partially self-sufficient. Its 112 acres contained a home farm, large kitchen garden and several orchards where much of the work was carried out by inmates as part of their therapy. The farm lasted  until 1964 when it, like those at other asylums, was shut down on the direct orders of Enoch Powell, the then Secretary for Health.

There was also a small conservatory where patients grew houseplants and flowers for the hospital.

The Conservatory after closure

Rauceby was taken over by the RAF during the Second World War as a pioneering burns and plastic surgery unit,  and several peripheral buildings were added, mainly a large block [now called Orchard House] with adjacent staff housing  in the northern part of the park. It returned to being a mental hospital again in 1949 but finally closed its doors in 1997. By then the core of the hospital estate and its two principal driveway approaches had been designated a Conservation Area. The parkland and gardens were  added to Historic England’s Register of Parks & Gardens  as Grade II  in May 2000, and  the airing courts added to the description in June 2002. Unfortunately this does not mean statutory protection.

from Google Street View

The Conservatory © Steffie Shields1999

After closure the site was acquired by David Wilson Homes, now part of Barratt Homes,  who began redevelopment at the site in 2004, with a new housing estate, named Greylees which virtually filled  the park, orchards and kitchen garden  and blocked the countryside views from the centre of the site.

They moved the protected newts and bats which lived in and around the empty hospital buildings, before  bulldozing many of the old hospital buildings including  the water tower and almost all the central buildings. However, as can be seen from the still taken from a drone flight  the conservatory and its two adjacent buildings were left standing.  .

Then the developers ran out of steam.


Meanwhile 15 years later the remaining buildings and grounds are still derelict and in  a gradually worsening state, with no further progress toward building or development.  As a view of the site on Google Earth reveals all that’s left are the gutted ward blocks, the chapel   and the admin centre which now  stands isolated and forlorn in the middle of a huge patch of rough muddy ground, while the conservatory is virtually a ruin.

As a result the whole site, including the remaining buildings, parkland and gardens are on the Heritage at Risk Register

Nevertheless an arboricultural survey by Symbiosis Consulting (April 2002) revealed that a large numbers of trees have survived from  Goldring’s original planting particularly along the approach drives, and framing various views around the complex. They suggest that he drew on his Kew background to add some exotic species to a mainly native mix, in much the same way as would have been done on a grand country house scheme of the time, which gives an insight into the way that the site was conceived and valued.

Since then the future of Rauceby has been a long and drawn-out saga, with various attempts to redevelop the buildings grinding to a halt over the years. Barratt’s submitted an application for 106 homes in May 2016 but their plans involved demolishing too much of the historic structure and in the light of evidence from the Lincolnshire Gardens Trust and others the local planning committee rejected the scheme.

The latest plan, which was given the go ahead in December 2018, does not cover the listed buildings or the central core but merely proposes  new homes  being built on adjacent land.

The future for the rest of the site remains uncertain.

I’m grateful to Steffie Shields of Lincolnshire Gardens Trust for her photos and comments about Rauceby.  For a more detailed history of the site, particularly its buildings and the treatment of patients take a look at the  fascinating  County Asylums website.   Abandoned Rauceby made in 2017  is a 7 min film about the hospital which includes some interesting staff interviews. There are also some beautifully eerie photographs of Rauceby in 2016 on the webpages of the Sun [I know I didn’t believe it either!]. If you want to see the state of the site now Youtube has several short videos from drone flights.

At almost exactly the same time he was working on Rauceby, George Hine was working on the East Sussex County Asylum at Hellingly too, and the designs of the main blocks are almost identical. Hellingly  stood in the middle of 400 acres of farmland some distance from the village from which it took its name, and was considered one of the most advanced Asylum designs of its time when planning  began in 1898.

Apart from the massive main block there were a number of villas and smaller blocks as well as a separate  isolation hospital, a chapel and a farm in the grounds.

By the time it opened in 1903 it had cost over £350,000 and could house 1260 patients.


Sarah Rutherford identified Goldring as the designer of the landscape at Hellingly, and just as at Rauceby you can see the airing courts he designed  attached to each ward, and surrounded by protective belts of trees and shrubs.  He also seems to have laid out several long avenues and belts of woodland to visually isolate the site. However the bulk of the forest  to the north of hospital was already there.  Can you spot the sunken cricket pitch which I assume he designed as well?

It shut in 1994 and after lying abandoned and vandalised for some 15 years  most of the site was cleared for housing in 2010, with just a small selection of the original buildings retained. and converted.   Notice how the relatively open parkland surrounding the hospital had already become overgrown and is now extremely dense surrounding the hospital.

As Sarah Rutherford pointed out in her thesis: “Conservation Area status could have been used at sites such as Hellingly where Goldring’s landscape work was degraded too much for inclusion on the Register but was of considerable local importance and so ideal for such a local designation. For similar reasons, Hellingly was also a valid candidate for inclusion on a local list, but had never been considered as potentially of sufficient interest for such action.”

After those depressing sagas it’s good to be able to be more upbeat about another of Goldring’s landscapes: Napsbury.   Work began on  the Middlesex County Asylum in 1901. It had a similar estate layout to Hellingly, with a main block and a number of villas in their own grounds, and was originally designed to house 650 patients, but pressure for space required additional buildings later taking the total to 1150.

The site had been farmland and Goldring worked within the existing planting to create an informal parkland landscape.  The estate was surrounded  by a shelter belt and  small copses  incorporating  a wide range of other tree and shrub species, including many exotics.   Each ward block was given its own airing courts with the margins planted  mainly with deciduous trees, and  a thatched wooden shelter, [sadly mostly lost]. The area immediately around the main hospital itself  was well planted with shrubs and trees, crossed by a network of curved paths which also led to the  detached “villas”.

As was usual the hospital had its own home farm, together with a large kitchen garden and orchards, and as at Hellingly there were sports facilities including a cricket pitch. The institution was so large it even had its own dedicated railway station.

Part of the hospital was taken over  for wounded soldiers during the first world war but otherwise the layout and planting remained  largely unchanged until Napsbury closed in 1998 and was sold for housing.

It was acquired by Crest Nicholson in 2002.  Some of the hospital main buildings were adapted for housing, although others and all the utilitarian service buildings were demolished, with new housing being built largely on their footprint  and designed to match the old in the use of warm orange-red brick, whilst  in style they take their cue from Rowland Plumbe’s buildings.    There are now about 550 homes on the site.

Generally Napsbury is one of the better examples of the re-use of a former asylum complex because  the developers seem to have worked hard to preserve the general principles of Goldring’s landscaping and planting. For example many of the fruit trees in the orchard survive and have been preserved, while formal hedges have been planted to replace the iron railing around the former airing courts  and lawns.

Napsbury is thought to be Goldring’s only complete, surviving hospital landscape design, and as such was designated a Grade II historic park in its centenary year of 2001. The main buildings were also listed byEnglish Heritage when the hospital closed.  There is a long well-illustrated history of Napsbury on the Historic Hospitals website, and  more photographs on the County Asylums website.

This post started out as a quick follow-up to the previous ones about Goldring, but it has turned into a real voyage of discovery for me. I hope it provokes you into finding out more about Goldring but also about mental hospitals and therapeutic gardens and  landscapes.

If you want to know more about the  grounds of asylums then good places to start are the websites of County Asylums and Historic Hospitals, and I’m grateful for permission to use material from them.   

Sarah Rutherford’s Ph.D thesis “The Landscapes Of Public Lunatic Asylums, In England, 1808-1914” (2003) is available via the British Library website, and  her article “Landscapers for the Mind: English Asylum designers, 1845–1914”  is in Garden History vol 33, No.1, summer 2005. I am grateful to her for her comments on this post.

 You might also find Clare Hickman’s Therapeutic Landscapes: A History of English Hospital Gardens since 1800, (2013) a good background read. 

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3 Responses to William Goldring and Asylums

  1. Pingback: William Goldring and Asylums — The Gardens Trust | Historic Hospitals

  2. A great read. Always sad to see how some of these sites have been redeveloped or neglected. It is a shame that Napsbury is a rare example of a more thoughtful re-use. Rauceby is particularly frustrating, when Sleaford itself has so much new housing on its fringes.

  3. Charles GT-news says:

    I can’t think Sarah would forgive me if I didn’t mention her excellent ‘Shire Library’ book on the same subject: The Victorian Asylum (2008), currently available on Amazon for as little as 50p! Well worth the investment…

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