We were driving from Cambridge to visit a mutual friend in Eastbourne. Our laboured route took us through the centre of London as there was a location I wanted to visit. I briefed Phil as I fought the suburban traffic: "It's called Cane Hill. It was a former lunatic asylum. There's a great website about it, but it hasnít been updated for a while. I just want to see if it's still there because there was talk about it being demolished."

I was pleased to see the water tower on the horizon as we drove down the A23. After stopping on the Portnalls Road, we found an overgrown public footpath. We walked down the wide muddly bridleway, screened by high bushes and overgrown grasses on either side. We turned the corner and there it was.

A ward of the derelict, ex-lunatic asylum loomed menacingly over us. This bleak and mesmerising three storey structure didnít just simply tower, it just simply didnít loom, it had a definite physical presence and none of the pictures on any websites (before or after) prepared us for our first physical encounter with Cane Hill.

Some of the windows were broken and shredded neon-coloured strips of curtains flapped in the breeze. We could also see some bed lamps, tables and bedsteads through the menacing arched windows. We stared and the building stared back. I now know what the hunted felt like in the hypnotic gaze of the hunter.

"Bloody hell."

It was the summer of 1999. Little did we know the effect Cane Hill would have on both of our lives for the next ten years.

Approaching Cane Hill


When written, the history of Cane Hill Asylum will doubtlessly follow the route mapped by other institution biographies. It will state how the rapid expansion of the industrialised cities in the late nineteenth century pushed the limited resources of existing mental health facilities to breaking point; and huge super-institutions with capacities of thousands were created to deal with the explosion in patient numbers.

The biography will then explain Cane Hillís groundbreaking experimental architectural design, the erection of the buildings and the opening ceremony. Then, the first influx of patients, the classifications of their illnesses and early primitive treatments will complete the first half of the book.

The second section will open after the Second World War and describe the new progressive treatments and drugs available to a new generation of doctors and superintendents. The swinging sixties will see the asylumís boundary walls come crashing down, the introduction of an open-door policy and the renaming of wards against the inhumane lettering system.

But it will also note Enoch Powellís Water Tower speech; a potent prediction finally realised by the Conservative government of the 1980s. The biography will now turn to the gradual disintegration of the hospital and its facilities; as run-down ill-financed buildings close and patient numbers dwindle to almost nothing.

And like all standard biographies it will end with the final service of Thanksgiving in the hospitalís chapel and the closing of the doors. A short epilogue will note the demolition of most of the buildings over fifteen years later.

However, Iím not qualified to write that history.

The standard history of Cane Hill should be written by an employee, who knew the buildings as a vibrant community, packed full of patients, doctors and specialists. They would know, and appreciate, the human stories: from the successes and the humour to the pathos and tragedies which no-doubt played out within its many wards and corridors.

But, this isnít the Cane Hill I knew.


After the doors closed in 1992 something extraordinary happened. Whilst the buildingís uncaring custodians slowly drew up grand plans for its replacement, curious trespassers started to circumnavigate the rusting fences and slip quietly into the dilapidated buildings. At first, these infiltrators were of only a minor nuisance to the on-site security teams who quickly barricaded entry routes, but the curious kept on coming.

As planning blight scuppered any short-term redevelopment, the siteís long-term dereliction coincided with the populist emergence of the Internet. One of the seminal urban exploration websites, the_one, described various forays around the hospital grounds and into the buildings themselves. This inspired others, and as the number of websites propagated, the number of visitors to the hospital started increasing almost exponentially.

The dangerous and derelict buildings of Cane Hill took on an unexpected new life as a post-modern adventure playground for explorers, adventurers and thrill seekers who dubbed themselves "Urban Explorers."

Therefore the final chapter of Cane Hill should be about the extraordinary relationship formed between complete strangers, this dilapidated complex of structures, the ongoing battle with an increasing belligerent security presence and the buildingís increasingly confused and angry owners. It was the polar opposite of the buildingís original purpose: it was designed to contain and perhaps cure madness and yet a collective madness gripped a small community and yet they were denied entry into the asylum.


Cane Hill has now been mostly demolished. Only key areas of the complex remain standing, spared the wreckers ball as they hold special interest, but they face an uncertain future. The legendary Cane Hill will now, literally, become the subject of legend. Older urban explorers will regale campfire stories of heroic deeds evading security to lurk in the dingy, musty interior of the strange Cane Hill to their younger cohorts.

Even though the buildings have gone, Iím still fascinated by Cane Hill. I was part of the collective madness who risked life and limb simply to get inside. Thereís a strange story to be told here: not only of the individual journeys to this forgotten building on the periphery of South London and the various battles between the trespassers and security, but of the asylumís almost magnetic effect on various individuals. As one resident of Coulsdon remarked: "It attracts people."

I photographed as much of the buildings as I could, desperately trying to preserve something of these structures before the wrecking ball came.

Thatís what this website is about: those lost years, that inexplicable drive, the collective madness, and documenting, preserving and remembering a building which no longer exists. To put it simply: The Cult Of Cane Hill. Which, incidentally, should be the name of the final chapter in the buildingís biography.

Simon Cornwell
1st October 2009

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