History of Springfield Asylum

Springfield House Private Asylum (1837-1962)

Springfield House which opened in Kempston in 1837, was the only purpose built private asylum in Bedfordshire. The County Asylum in Amthill Road had admitted both pauper and private patients but with the passage of the new Poor Law Act in 1834, an increase in the number of pauper patients was expected, with further pressure on the rates which provided the finances. John Harris, the medical superintendent, proposed t open a private asylum on his own account, and the Committee of Visiting Justices agreed that only pauper patients would be admitted to the county institution.

In the summer of 1835 John Harris began looking for a site for the new asylum. He approached Thomas Bennett, the Duke of Bedford’s estate agent, and asked if His Grace would lease him the site occupied by St Leonard’s farmhouse near the junction of Ampthill Rd and London Rd. Bennett was doubtful. The value of the surrounding building plots would be reduced if the asylum was built too near Bedford town centre. Would Harris consider a site adjacent to the county asylum in Ampthill Road? ‘To this site he has no objection,’ wrote Bennett on July 7th. However, by mid August John Harris had changed his mind. ‘Mr Harris says there is an insuperable objection to it being so close to the County Asylum.’ Bennett noted dryly on the 18th ‘ . . .between the patients’ yard there would be a narrow close bounded by a brick wall and that the language of many of the patients is such that he could not place his private patients within hearing …’

Harris eventually found a site on the north side of Elstow Road,Kempston – safely out of earshot of the county asylum!

Thomas Gwyn Elger, an architect who had designed the treadmills at Bedford prison, was commissioned to draw up the plans. Building work began in the spring of 1836 and in March 1837 the asylum was licensed to receive thirty patents, each of whom paid a guinea a week in fees.

On April 28th Springfield Asylum opened and the private patients were transferred from the county asylum to the new buildings in Elstow Road. The asylum had cost John Harris over £2,000 to build.

The Springfield House visitors’ book provides interesting glimpses of the conditions in the asylum in the nineteenth century. Restraints of the patients by belts, muffs and strait jackets was commonplace in the early years. The Commissioners in Lunacy recommended in February 1851 that the stables and chains attached to some of the bedsteads should be removed. John Harris was unwilling to comply, being ‘. . .unable to dispense with restraint.’

By the 1870s seclusion was increasingly used instead of restraint and padded rooms were built in 1894 off the main dormitories.

On a lighter note we read that patients were encouraged to meet in the evenings for cards, music and reading. During the day the patients could walk escorted around the grounds and some visited Elstow Church on Sundays. Food was apparently of good quality. On April 29th 1859 the Commissioners noted that there were ‘abundant portions . . roast pork, two vegetables and rhubarb pudding.’

In 1855, Springfield was licensed to admit ten extra patients and the clothes room in the staff block was changed into a dormitory to accommodate them These and other alterations were approved by the Commissioners, who also recommended theta ‘. . .the walls of the airing yards be lowered as they have a depressing aspect.’

John Harris died in 1861 and was succeeded by his son Henry a resident surgeon. Henry was in failing health and died suddenly in 1878. His mother Sophia, who worked as matron, wanted to continue running the asylum, but the Commissioners considered that ‘the license aught not to be permanently renewed to her unless she introduces . . .some approved medical man who will be resident.’

In July 1879 the asylum was sold privately to Dr. David Bower, a Scotsman who had worked at Saughton Hall private asylum in Edinburgh. By this time the overcrowding had become a problem at Springfield. The asylum was changed to admit forty seven patients, new wings containing dormitories and dayrooms were added in 1890-95 and a new dining room in 1912. The energetic Dr Bower also introduced the ’employment’ system and patients were encouraged to do gardening or work at embroidery. An advertisement in 1885 lists billiards, tennis, boating and carriage drives among the recreations.

Dr Bower died in 1929 after 50 years in charge of Springfield Asylum. His son Cedric became medical superintendent. A combination of rising costs, failing applications and the problem of recruiting adequate staff led to his decision to close the asylum at the end of August 1962 and most of the patients were transferred to St Andrew’s Hospital at Northampton. In 1993 Springfield Asylum was demolished to make way for the expansion of Kempston New Town.
Henderson Way, Fearnley Crescent and Whittingstall Avenue now occupy the site, but ‘Springfield Cottage’ built for Dr Bower when he married in 1888 still stands in Spring Road Kempston.

Nigel Lutt, archivist, Bedfordshire County Record Office.

Further information about Springfield Asylum can be found on the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Record Office website