The DCLA in Crisis

The career of the DCLA as a model institution came to an end with Bucknill’s departure for the Chancery in 1862. While some of his actions had raised eyebrows amongst the Lunacy Commissioners but were tolerated, Bucknill’s successor, Symes Saunders, was not so lucky. Lacking Bucknill’s authority and faced with a combination of overcrowded wards, increasing staff shortages and high staff turnover, conditions in the DCLA sharply deteriorated. Overcrowding was so severe that the 450-490 cubic feet of space available per patient in 1864, were well below the 600 cubic feet recommended by the Commissioners in Lunacy (Irvine, 1976), and declining. By the 1870s the situation had become so dire that several female patients had to be turned away until vacancies could be created and admission decisions became more biased towards recovery. By then it had become clear that the construction of the DCLA did little to alleviate the burden of insanity in Devon, and it certainly failed to cure it. In fact, in 1871 the total number of mentally ill in Devon had risen to 1,438 – more than seven times the number of 1828. A similar increase was observed nationwide, which sparked vigorous debates about whether the rise in insanity was real or caused by statistics. The number of insane admitted to the DCLA rose steadily during the first fifty years of its existence, but more worrying was the steep increase in the numbers of patients remaining under treatment at the end of each year. In the 1860s this number oscillated around 590, by the late 1880s it had risen to well over 800. It continued to rise, reaching a first peak in 1915 with 1,421. During the following six to seven years, the pressure eased slightly, but the patient population started to grow again from 1923. In 1951 over 1,500 patients were under treatment in a hospital that had seen no extensions since the late 19th century, and voluntary admissions had to be suspended once again owing to lack of space.

Given these circumstances it is remarkable that the Devon County Mental Hospital (DCMH), as it had then been renamed, experienced another, albeit short, period of fame in the 1930s, this time owing to Richard Eager’s tireless efforts to build up an outstanding occupational therapy system. After the Second World War, when occupational therapy was introduced nationwide, the DCMH saw itself repeatedly in the firing line of the Board of Control. In 1948, for example, the visitors were ‘disturbed by the inadequacy of the care given to the female bed patients’ (Visitors’ Handbook, 1948). After their 1949 annual inspection the Board of Control summarised the condition of the DCMH as ‘overcrowded, understaffed and in serious arrears of structural repairs’, but proceeded to say that ‘the hospital is certainly in a better state than it was a year ago’ (Visitors’ Handbook, 1949).