The agenda for a Quarterly Session of the Justices of the Peace in 1875 included a point concerning the dire overcrowding in the county's two asylums. Ever since the 1808 act (where county authorities were permitted to provide accommodation for pauper lunatics) and the 1845 act (where they were obliged to provide said accommodation), the county’s Administrative Body were concerned with the provision and upkeep of lunatic asylums. But population growth, especially in the rapidly expanding suburbs of London, had stretched the existing facilities to bursting point.

The site before the asylum. Coulsdon in 1870-5.


Surrey had two county asylums: Wandsworth Asylum served London and the east of the county whilst Brookwood, near Woking, took patients from the west. Shortage of beds in both asylums necessitated patients being sent to private Licensed Houses, but an increase in rent had forced the Justices of the Peace to reconsider their options.

The increase in lodging expenses was a mixed blessing as it made the building of a third asylum viable. The savings on lodgings in private homes would more than compensate for the cost of the new building, which was estimated at £150,000. Specialists in health care also backed the new asylum, arguing on the grounds of humanity as well as economy – patients would receive better care and more would recover, thus freeing up bed space and lessening the drain on the county’s purse.

The final option considered was to add more provisions to the existing workhouses and asylums. The London Unions refused to open more lunatic wards in their workhouses whilst the superintendents of both Wandsworth and Brookwood refused to enlarge their asylums any further.

So the Justices decided on their course of action: a third Surrey county asylum would be built, for 1000 patients, with special provisions for epileptics. Furthermore it would be easily accessible from South London and be based in the eastern half of the county.


A suitable location for the new asylum was, in part, determined by rules laid down by the Commissioners in Lunacy. Patients were required to have plenty of space, clean air and engaging views and surroundings; this subsequently lead to the clichéd (albeit often true) view of the lunatic asylum perched on a remote hilltop. Plateaus were favoured with the building complex standing on the level ground affording the patient’s grand views over the surrounding countryside.

Good transportation links were vital, and asylums were often situated near to main roads and railway lines. The railway doubled up as both a conveyor of raw materials and workforce during the construction of the asylum, and for the easy transportation of staff, patients and their visitors when it was operational.

Finally, given the often remote nature of sites, where mains water, gas and other facilities weren’t readily available, a location with a spring or good water supply was absolutely vital. Other utilities could always be shipped in (such as coal) but water was an absolute necessity, and exploratory wells were often sunk to determine its availability.

It isn’t known how many potential sites the Visiting Committee examined, but in the end they settled on the northern part of the Portnalls Estate. A gently sloping plateau surmounted the hill top, which yielded to dramatic views of the Farthing Downs. The location had access to the main Brighton Road and the London to Brighton railway, with the hamlet of Smitham (later Coulsdon) to the north.

That hill was locally known as Cane Hill, and it gave its name to the asylum.

Simon Cornwell
23rd April 2010

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