THERE’S no doubt it’s easy to be wise after the event, almost any event, but Powick Hospital, the former psychiatric establishment for the mentally ill midway between Worcester and Malvern, has copped a lot of flack over the years for using LSD as part of a treatment programme for patients.

Few had heard of the drug in the 1950s when the trials began, but by the mid-60s LSD had become the substance of choice for the far out and stoned Hippy Movement and in the glare of publicity its use at Powick was stopped in 1966. Thereafter the image of the old hospital has been under a cloud, which is rather a shame because a lot of good people worked there and a lot of good work was done in what has always been a very difficult field.

It’s thirty years ago this month since the place closed and there will be a chance for some of the former staff and patients to remember old times, the good and the bad, when a reunion gathering takes place at the Crown Inn, Powick on Wednesday, March 27 from 10.30am to 12.30pm.

The huge, rambling hospital complex operated for more than 130 years, but virtually all physical evidence of it has long disappeared. Bulldozed down by developers in the early 1990s to be replaced by a layout of smart modern housing with patios, neat lawns and cars on the driveways.

Only the architecturally protected main building, a red brick edifice called White Chimneys, and the old hospital superintendent’s house remain. The former has been converted into apartments and the latter to offices. Of the rest of the hospital, which had 1,200 residents at its peak, there is no sign. But for people who lived nearby or passed by and looked across at the grim complex of brick walls and little windows, there remains a fascination with the place.

It was founded in 1847 as the Worcester County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum and officially opened in August,1852. As early as the 1870s, doctors at the hospital were showing a remarkably enlightened attitude by holding a series of orchestral concerts there, as well as Friday night dances for the inmates. Sir Edward Elgar, as a young violinist in the district, played in the concerts from 1877 and in January 1879 was appointed Band Instructor.

Few people, know more about Powick Hospital than Worcester historian and former university lecturer Frank Crompton. He’s been researching its history and patients for more than 20 years and assembled around three quarters of a million words on the subject. It made you weep inside to hear him say children had been dispatched there for no other reason than they were born deaf. Unable to communicate properly, they were deemed mentally inadequate and sent away. Tragic doesn’t begin to describe it.

The hospital’s 46 acre site on the edge of the village looking across to the Malvern Hills, was deliberately chosen because Government regulations had two main requirements. Firstly, such asylums should be close to main roads for ease of patient transport and secondly, the site should fall away to provide an attractive outlook for residents.

Dr Crompton explained: “A ha-ha surrounded the hospital grounds on the Malvern side so there were no interruptions to the views to the hills. The impression was one of freedom, but the reality was quite different.”

Between its opening and eventual closing in 1989, about 36,000 people went to the asylum at Powick and in its early days there was a preponderance of certified “maniacs” from urban areas in the north of Worcestershire, such as Dudley, which was then within the county boundary.

“This did not necessarily imply there was a higher percentage of mad people in Dudley,” Dr Crompton added. “But the population lived closer together in places like that and eccentric behavior was felt more threatening. It was more easily noticed and brought to the attention of the authorities sooner. You could probably be a maniac in rural areas for quite some time before anyone noticed.”

Patients were transported to Powick initially by horse and carriage and later by train to Worcester and then onward vehicle. The asylum had originally opened with two separate wings, one to accommodate 100 men and the other 100 women. There were five wards and separate staff on each wing. However, it did not get off to a particularly auspicious start when the first medical superintendent committed suicide after only 18 months. Thereafter things settled down and the complex expanded as more buildings were added.

“They were selling the notion you could cure insanity,” said Dr Crompton. “In reality there was little they could do for the majority of patients. Also, some people sent to Powick Hospital – and other institutions like it – were not mentally insane at all. One young girl was admitted for moral insanity after stealing 10 shillings from her father and there were more like her.”

On the other hand, some patients were seriously disturbed. There was an occasion when the asylum had two men who both thought they were William IV. They were put on the same ward but a fight broke out and one cut off the other’s nose. They were removed to separate wards and a note in the superintendent’s diary read: “After that we decided one William IV per ward was quite enough.”

The positive side to Powick Hospital for many of the poor patients was that they were safe from the hardships they would have endured outside. They had food, a roof over their heads, clean bed linen and regular health checks. Head lice were unknown, as were some of the eye problems that affected the poor. The hospital had its own farm and brewery – because the water in the nearby Carey’s Brook was not good – and it was the first place in the area to be lit by gas, after oil lamps were found to be a danger.

“During my research, I came come to revise my ideas about Powick Hospital considerably,” said Dr Crompton.