History

The Foster Building

By the end of 1895, there was a desperate shortage of space for patients at the Cornwall Lunatic Asylum and large-scale extensions were being planned. On January 25, 1897, the Asylum Committee chose Cornish architect, Silvanus Trevail over four other applicants. The new building was to be for 250 patients, capable of being enlarged to take 350, with a kitchen large enough to cater for 500. Trevail’s fee was to be 5% of the total cost of the building. He undertook to supply pencilled plans within three months.

He was asked at the same time to prepare plans for a 20-bed isolation hospital. The Lunacy Commissioners wanted just 10 isolation beds and their view prevailed. Trevail prepared plans that went to the commissioners. They returned them with nine points of objections involving about a dozen alterations. These done, and the plans approved, tenders were invited for the construction of the isolation hospital. Sampson Trehane of Liskeard offered the lowest tender: £3,272.8s.10d. In February 1899, 12 months later, the builder wrote to say the isolation hospital was finished. By August the hospital was still empty because the grounds were not completed. Later that year two nurses with scarlet fever were kept there, but it was not until a year later that mention is made of there being any lunatic patients in the new hospital.

In the meantime, negotiations were going ahead for the new asylum. Trevail prepared plans and talked to the Lunacy Commissioners. There was considerable concern over sewage disposal, ‘as it is at present disposed of by irrigation of land not the property of the asylum, and the use of which the asylum may be deprived of.’ The Lunacy Commissioners insisted on a minimum of one acre of ground for every 10 patients, so the estate needed to be increased by 30 acres and renting land was not deemed good enough. Was there an adequate water supply? The asylum could produce 32,000 gallons per day from its own supply and the Bodmin waterworks contract allowed 40,000 gallons per day, so one thing at least was going to be all right.

The site for the new building, to the west of Carew House, was decided on with the sanction of the commissioners, although Trevail was not happy with the slope. The Asylum Committee tentatively approved his plans in July 1898 and he was asked to complete them for the commissioners. The commissioners wanted workshops re-arranged, doorways moved and an extra lavatory; the committee wanted more single rooms (more money from private patients), observation windows, a larger recreation hall and sleeping accommodation on the ground floor. The alterations meant Trevail had to re-do all his plans before getting final acceptance. Tenders were requested for the new building and when that of Pethick of Plymouth, for £87,973, was accepted, large spreads appeared in the county newspapers, with a sketch of the proposed building and all the tenders outlined in great detail.

Trevail, one of the great self-publicists of the time, wrote the description for the new building: ‘It is a somewhat melancholy reflection that the greatest demand ever made on the Cornwall County Council is for the provision of additional asylum accommodation. Great economy observed, cost per bed in other parts of the country amount to £320, £305, £246, etc. Bodmin is £220. Structural work will be substantial but plain. The only ornamental work, and that very modest, will be on front of assistant medical superintendent’s house. Fireproof ceilings and staircases, internal woodwork varnished red deal, alternative exits from every ward. Direct access from every ward to the airing courts and recreation hall without passing through other wards.’

The building was going to be a show piece, of this there was no doubt. The Lunacy Commissioners had had 90-odd years to work out the requirements of an institution such as this and Trevail, interpreting their requirements in his own style, held nothing back. The centre block contained the quarters of the assistant medical officer, waiting room, porter’s room and visiting room. Behind it was the recreation and dining hall, then the kitchen and attendants’ block, with the workshops and boiler house, with its six-sided chimney, further back. On each side of the residence and hall were two ward blocks, set back and staggered to show a wide frontage. These blocks were labelled Chronic, Recent and Acute, Sick and Infirm, and Epileptic. Space was left for one more block to be added on each side, widening the overall appearance even further. Built of Plymouth limestone with rich red terracotta decorations, its composition contained subtleties such as varying architraves and different spacings between windows to avoid monotony.

When Silvanus Trevail died at the beginning of November 1903, the first concern of the committee was to find somebody to oversee the finishing of the building. It advertised in the newspapers and received 18 applications, including one from Alfred Cornelius who had been Trevail’s able assistant for many years. John Kirkland from London was chosen.

Kirkland started with much the same problems as Trevail had finished with: complaints from the contractors about shortage and quality of stone; the clerk of works wanted more money; Hadens, the firm installing the boilers and piping, had not been asked by the committee to give any undertaking concerning the efficiency or performance of its equipment, and Kirkland suggested it was time something was done about it; the asylum clerk admitted to ordering two 16ft boilers instead of two 20ft ones.

In May 1905, Kirkland asked if the new building was to be named and the committee resolved to call it Tremayne, in honour of the chairman at the commencement of the work. The building previously referred to as the New Building (1885) would be Rashleigh, and the Long Building (1872) would be Kendall (both Mr Rashleigh and Mr Kendall had been on the committee). Mr Tremayne declined the honour, suggesting that the present chairman, Henry Foster, had done far more work than he in connection with the building, so the Foster Building it became.

March 1906 saw the acceptance of tenders for equipment, furniture, bedding and cutlery. The first patients were moved in on July 27 and by the end of the year 290 male patients had taken up residence. The men had been moved out of the Rashleigh Building and the women moved in. In this year cost per patient was 10/9d per week, three farthings less than in 1873.

The Foster Building and Harrison Clinic (formerly the isolation hospital) are now empty and much neglected. Let us hope that these buildings will have a future. They are an important part of our history and need preserving.

History of the site before 1897

An Act for the Better Care and Maintenance of Lunatics, being Paupers or Criminals in England, was passed in June 1808. After much discussion, the foundation stone of the Radial Building was laid by the Rt Hon Reginald Pole Carew on March 25, 1817, under which was placed a bottle containing coins and a sheet of paper listing the committee members. There is no sign of the stone now and it may have gone when additions were made in1847. The building was converted into private dwellings in 1999 and has a Grade II* listing.

In 1838, due to overcrowding, George Wightwick built a house for the medical superintendent so that his rooms in the core could be used for private patients. The new house, built by John Rogers and John Rowe, cost £700 and took less than six months to build. It was later known as Townsend House and has a Grade II listing. Within a few years the asylum accommodation was again overcrowded and parish officers were asked to remove their harmless lunatics in order to make room for more urgent cases.

In 1840 and 1841, negotiations were proceeding for another building. George Wightwick drew up plans and, in December 1841, the tender of a Plymouth firm, Nicholls, Collins, Browne and Blake, for £3,438, was accepted. It was not until February 1844 that it was declared finished. It was placed behind the Radial Building, and later connected to it between arms three and four of the Radial Building. Known as High Building, it was three storeys high and held 170 patients. It was demolished in 1964.

Wightwick produced a further set of plans towards the end of 1846. John Rowe was the builder, and the tender was for £5,316. The rooms were far more spacious (kinder thoughts now being directed towards the unfortunate inmates, all men) and were ready for occupation sometime in 1849. It was later known as Williams House and has a Grade II listing. It was converted into private accommodation in 2004. Total asylum capacity was now 286.

In February 1859, the committee approved plans for the chapel and advertised for tenders. It was eventually finished a year behind schedule. The church of St Lawrence has a Grade II listing. In the early 1860s Norman & Hine, in consultation with the Lunacy Commissioners, produced a set of plans for a further extension. Tenders went out, that of Call & Pethick of Plymouth for £4,444 was accepted in February 1865, and work was under way within a couple of months. This was the Carew Building, designated for private patients only. It had two separate wings, one each for males and females (26 of each), with a central room for dining and meeting friends. A separate airing court was to be walled for the private inmates, with seats and shrubs. Patients were moved in at the end of October 1867.

Still more accommodation was needed, so another building of 126 beds was planned for pauper patients, the architects being Norman & Hine of Plymouth. In April 1871, the lowest tender of £9,500 from Jonathan Marshall of Plymouth was accepted but it was decided to omit the planned west wing. By 1873, there were 80 male patients in the building that was known for a long time as the Long Building (renamed the Kendall in 1905). It burnt down in May 2001 and was later demolished.

The dining room and kitchens for this building were built as a separate block. The main room here was the dining hall, with a high-pitched roof with exposed beams. The kitchens were single-storey with a glass lantern ventilator in the roof. There was also a two-storey building for staff.

By 1875, even the Carew Building was bursting with private patients and 25 were refused admission to this unit in one year. Norman, Hine & Odgers were asked to submit sketch plans for another new building; the committee recommended a building on the same basis as the Long Building, two storeys high, with a separate dining hall and kitchen. It then took 10 months for these plans to be prepared and passed by the commissioners, the dining hall and kitchen being an integral part. The building would take 170 patients. Jonathan Marshall from Plymouth, builder of the Kendall block, won the contract with his tender of nearly £4,500, but the committee reduced it by cutting down on the size of the building. By July 1882, the work was under way and in March 1885, almost three years after starting, the building was partially occupied by 50 men. Soon, all the men in the Long Building (Kendall) were transferred to the New Building, and the Long Building was left entirely for women.

There was a desperate shortage of space everywhere by the end of 1895 and WJ Jenkins of Bodmin designed a square, hip-roof, two-storey building with a basement, for the storage of foodstuffs. At the same time an extension was built to the Lodge, but there was no alternative but to make arrangements for the erection of more residential buildings and it was thought undesirable to build for less than 350 patients. A new 250-bed structure completely independent of the existing buildings, with its own bakery, kitchens and workshops, was opened in July 1906. It was designed by Cornish architect, Silvanus Trevail and known as the Foster Building. For a detailed history of this building, refer to the section on the Foster Building.

History Acknowledgements

Hazel Harradence, author of Silvanus Trevail: Cornish Architect and Entrepreneur who kindly provided the above historical information

Further reading

Silvanus Trevail: Cornish Architect and Entrepreneur by Ronald Perry and Hazel Harradence, 2008 – Chapter Fifteen
The Silvanus Trevail Society: www.luxsoft.demon.co.uk/sts

Information on the listed buildings referred to in the history of the site: www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk

It is a somewhat melancholy reflection that the greatest demand ever made on the Cornwall County Council is for the provision of additional asylum accommodation. Great economy observed, cost per bed in other parts of the country amount to £320, £305, £246 etc. Bodmin is £220. Structural work will be substantial but plain. The only ornamental work, and that very modest, will be on front of assistant medical superintendent's house. Fireproof ceilings & staircases, internal woodwork varnished red deal, alternative exits from every ward. Direct access from every ward to the airing courts and recreation hall without passing through other wards.”

Silvanus Trevail
Cornish Architect and Entrepreneur

Foster Hall - Outside
Foster Hall - Inside
Foster Hall - Original office