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Severalls Hospital


The site has landscaped grounds of a large, echelon-style psychiatric hospital occupying about 50 hectares. Features include airing courts, parkland and a farm.


The site occupies largely level ground, set at the northern edge of Colchester.
The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):

The grounds of a large, echelon-style psychiatric hospital, opened in 1913, laid out from 1910 by the County Architect, Frank Whitmore. Work on laying out the grounds continued after the opening, including the airing courts in 1914-1915, using patient labour.



Severalls Hospital stands in north-east Essex, 4km north of the centre of Colchester. The c 50ha site lies on largely level ground, set at the northern edge of Colchester, and is enclosed by suburban housing to the south and south-east and open agricultural land to the north and north-west. To the west the site is bounded by Boxted Road; to the north by a straight track, Severalls Lane, dividing it from the former asylum farmland beyond; to the south-east by houses on Mill Road; and to the south by Defoe Crescent. The west boundary is marked by a belt of trees. The former farm buildings, known as Cuckoo Farm, stand 600m north of the entrance to the main hospital building on the east side of Boxted Road. Cuckoo Farm stands at the edge of the former farmland (outside the area here registered) which the patients worked and is now divided from the main site by the A12 dual carriageway.


The main approach to the hospital enters the site 350m west of the main, north entrance to the hospital building, off Boxted Road. The entrance is marked by a two-storey lodge (early C20) standing on the north side of the drive, and a turning circle. A gateway was removed in the 1960s. From here the drive curves east flanked by lawns planted with mature trees, passing to the north of the former nursery at the north-west corner of the main building and continuing along the north side of the main building.

The drive arrives at a turning circle in front of the main entrance to the hospital building, set at the centre of the north front. The ornate, two-storey front of the administration block overlooks a circular lawn surrounded by the carriage turn, on which formerly stood a war memorial (now gone). The turning circle is largely enclosed to the north by mature trees and shrubs. From here the drive continues north-east along the north front of the main building, turning south 200m north-east of the main entrance to the building to sweep around the whole building and exterior airing courts, returning to join the section giving access from Boxted Road, by the former nursery. Thus the drive forms a kidney-shaped enclosure from which spurs lead off to the peripheral villas and other buildings scattered in the parkland.

A spur leads north off the main drive 30m east of the main entrance, running through woodland flanked by rhododendrons. The spur then turns north-east 80m north of the main drive. An arm of this spur formerly led north from this point alongside Boxted Road giving direct access within the asylum estate for the patients working at Cuckoo Farm. The path was separated from the road to the west by a belt of trees. The spur continues north-east along the north front of Myland Court and on past Chestnut Villa, before turning south past Ivy Villa and two nurses' homes to rejoin the main drive 150m north-east of the entrance to the main hospital building.

The drive system was laid out from 1910, to designs by Frank Whitmore.


The two-storey hospital building (F Whitmore assisted by W Town 1910-13) stands at the centre of the site, built of brick with stone dressings as a series of pavilions set in echelon form. The Queen Anne-style administration block projects from the centre of the north front, with a prominent water tower to the south-west. The administration block terminates the north end of a central, spinal service block, including kitchens, laundry, and a recreation hall. This service block is in turn flanked to the west by the former male accommodation pavilions, linked by corridors, and to the east by the former female accommodation pavilions, linked in similar fashion. On the north front, to the west and east of the administration block respectively, lie service yards and former drying grounds. The south, west, and east sides of the pavilions overlook the airing courts and grounds beyond. The detached brick-built chapel stands 100m north of the entrance to the main building, from which it is screened by mature trees and shrubs and linked by a serpentine path.

Scattered within the grounds is a series of villas for private patients, each set in their own informal grounds, including Willow House (standing 300m south-west of the entrance to the main hospital), Oakwood Centre (standing 300m south-east of the entrance to the main hospital), and Chestnut Villa (standing 225m north of the entrance to the main hospital), which by 1920 (OS) were referred to as Hospital Villas for men, women, and children respectively. The larger Myland Court stands on the north side of woodland at the north-west corner of the site.


The gardens consist largely of a series of airing courts for the patients' recreation. Ten of these surround the outer perimeter of the pavilion wards, which open directly onto them. They are largely laid to lawn and planted with scattered mature trees, particularly London planes, and overlook the parkland beyond. Each contains a formal path system, at the centre of which stands a large, rectangular wooden shelter, open on all four sides. Formerly these airing courts were surrounded on their outer sides by a long curving iron fence, sunk into an open ditch in the style of a ha-ha, which largely followed the line of the perimeter drive. The divisions between the courts were also formed in this manner. The fences were taken down and the ditches filled in in the mid C20, but the sites of the divisions are still visible. The Assistant Medical Officer's house stands at the centre of the south side of the building, projecting from the ward pavilions to which it is linked by a corridor. It is set in its own hedged grounds and overlooks the sports ground to the south. The airing court perimeter fence and ha-ha formerly broke here, curving in on either side of the AMO's garden to join the ward pavilions (OS 1939).

Several further airing courts are laid out within the main building between the ward pavilions and the spinal service buildings. The two largest internal courts are laid out with a formal pattern of paths surrounding panels of lawn planted with scattered trees and shrubs. At the centre of each stand two shelters in similar style to those in the outer courts. These two courts were intended for use by the working patients (annotated plan by Whitmore and Town, 1906) whose wards projected into the spaces, and who would be allowed greater access to the grounds. In this way the outer courts were reserved for those patients who were unable to go beyond their confines but were deemed to require the benefit of views over the parkland.

The airing courts were laid out according to the recommendations of the Commissioners in Lunacy's Suggestions and Instructions (1856), that they 'should be of ample extent so as to afford proper means for healthful exercise [for the patients]. They should all be planted and cultivated, and any trees existing within them should be preserved for shade'. This was amplified in H C Burdett's influential text Hospitals and Asylums of the World (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'. The result of Whitmore and Town's estate plan, laid out from 1910, is illustrated in particular detail on the 1964 25" OS map.

The detached villas, including Willow House, Oakwood Centre, Chestnut Villa, Ivy Villa, and Myland Court stand in their own informal landscapes, set within scattered mature trees or woodland. These too had their own garden enclosures for confined patient recreation, but the fences do not seem to have been sunk (OS 1962). The gardens were each laid out on the opposite side of the building to the main entrance and contained informal lawns with winding paths and scattered groups and belts of trees, with views out to the surrounding parkland. Myland Court, erected for private patients, has the most elaborate garden layout (OS 1920-1), its perimeter planting of mature trees and evergreen shrubs being raised on a bund, and a series of looping paths focused on an oval lawn on the south side of the building.


The parkland surrounds the hospital and villas and is laid out with strips and blocks of woodland which enclose the detached buildings; these were planted in the early C20 for this purpose. A belt of mixed deciduous and coniferous trees runs along the west boundary with Boxted Road. There are many tree species planted throughout the site. The detached villas are linked to the main building by a series of paths running through the woodland. Between the wooded areas lie various open spaces laid to lawn as part of the early C20 design. The largest of these areas is the sports ground lying immediately to the south of the main building, flanked by Willow House and Birchwood Villa to the west and Oakwood Centre to the east. On the south side of the sports ground stands a wooden sports pavilion (early C20) with a verandah and tiled roof, which was formerly thatched. This is backed by mature trees which screen it from a mid C20 villa beyond to the south, and a bowling green lies nearby to the north-west. Formerly a rustic, thatched wooden bandstand (now gone) stood at the north-east edge of the sports ground (OS 1920?1, 1939; Green 2001), backed by trees and shrubs. Further open areas run along the southern end of the west boundary, and along the north boundary to the north of Myland Court. An area of orchard, now arable land (2002), occupied the area north of Eden Villa, east of the main building; a further open area runs south-east from Chestnut Villa to the north-east corner of the main building. The parkland was reduced in size in the mid C20 with the construction of the houses along Mill Road and Defoe Crescent.

Various staff residences, set in their own gardens, stand to the north and south of the lodge on the west boundary. That to the south of the lodge appears to have been the Medical Superintendent's House, standing in a spacious garden and approached via a spur off the main drive to the north.


The c 0.5ha kitchen garden lies at the north-west corner of the main building, on what was originally the male side of the building. Now (2002) derelict, it formerly contained glasshouses and cold frames (OS 1939) and during the 1990s it was used as a plant centre. It is overlooked by the three-storey Farm Villa standing at the east edge.


Commissioners in Lunacy, Suggestions and Instructions (1856, revised 1887, 1898, 1911)

Annual Report of the Essex County Lunatic Asylums, Severalls Asylum, March 1915 (at Wellcome Library)

D Gittins, Madness in its place: narratives of Severalls Hospital, 1913-1997 (1998)

L S Green, Severalls Hospital, Colchester, Historic study of its layout and grounds, (Report for Architectural Association, March 2001)


Whitmore and Town, Plan of Severalls site layout, c 1910 (in Green 2001)

OS 6" to 1 mile: 3rd edition revised 1920-1921

OS 25" to 1 mile: 1939 edition

OS 1:2500: 1964 edition

Archival items

Hospitals file 101579, (NMR, Swindon)

Description written: January 2002

Edited: November 2002

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

The following is from the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. For the most up-to-date Register entry, please visit the The National Heritage List for England (NHLE):


The second Essex County Lunatic Asylum was designed c 1905-1907 by the County Architect Frank Whitmore, assisted by William Town, and erected from 1910 (Green 2001). The asylum was intended to serve the pauper agricultural population of rural Essex and for this purpose 300 acres (125 hectares) of the Severalls estate was acquired from Colchester Corporation by Essex County Council in 1904. The land was at that time laid out with a rectangular pattern of agricultural fields. In 1906 Whitmore and Town produced a design (in Green 2001) to accommodate about 1500 patients in ward pavilions laid out in echelon arrangement to form a broad arrow plan. The echelon style, developed in the 1870s and 1880s, had by this date become the common pattern for asylum buildings. The wards were each intended to be occupied by a different medical class of patient, including sick and infirm, recent and acute, and epileptic. The airing courts were arranged adjacent to the wards as in earlier asylum designs, and wooded parkland enclosed the building and courts. Accommodation for private patients was provided in detached villas scattered in the grounds around the main building. The asylum opened in 1913.

The structure of the landscaping was laid out towards the end of the construction of the main buildings, from 1910 onwards, and an asylum farm was built. By March 1915 £17,000 had been spent on the laying out of estate roads and paths (Annual Report, March 1915). The external airing courts were surrounded by iron railings sunk in ditches in the fashion of a ha-ha, and the whole estate was surrounded by 2 metre high oak palings (Gittins 1998). Much of the detailed landscaping, particularly the planting, was carried out from 1913 by patients as part of the therapeutic regime, as had been the case in many other asylums. This work was disrupted during the First World War, when 4000 troops were billeted on the asylum site and many asylum staff left to join the war effort. However, the airing courts were laid out and planted during the winter of 1914-1915.

Several peripheral buildings were added during the mid 20th century, including a nurses' home. Housing was built during the 1920s and later 20th century along the south-east and south boundaries. The asylum, renamed Severalls Hospital in the mid 20th century, closed in 1997 and is at present (2002) awaiting redevelopment.


  • 20th Century (1901 to 1932)
  • Early 20th Century (1901 to 1932)
Features & Designations


  • The National Heritage List for England: Register of Parks and Gardens

  • Reference: 5078
  • Grade: II


  • Asylum (featured building)
  • Description: The hospital is laid out in echelon arrangement to form a broad arrow plan. It is no longer in use and is awaiting re-development.
  • Earliest Date:
  • Latest Date:
  • Tree Belt
Key Information





Principal Building

Health And Welfare


20th Century (1901 to 1932)