Bowie’s brother to urban legend: A history of Cane Hill asylum

Cane Hill Asylum. All Photography: Simon Cromwell

When fire ripped through the last vestiges of Cane Hill Asylum in Croydon, last Saturday, it brought a final end to a site that had led two fascinating but very distinct lives.

The Asylum, whose motto was ‘Aversos Campano Animos’ (‘I bring relief to troubled minds’) was home to Charlie Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, during the early twentieth-century. In the two World Wars the site was home to soldiers who lost their sanity during the horror of battle.

Both David Bowie and Michael Caine also had half brothers who were patients at Cane Hill. The original US release of Bowie’s album ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ even featured a drawing of the asylum’s administration block.

When the site was reduced to a skeleton service in 1992, a patient wrote an epitaph called ‘An Ode to Cane Hill’. The last lines read:

Don’t be sad when Cane Hill is no more,

Just think of its closing as an opening of another door

While this first phase of the asylum’s history has filled several books, another door did indeed open.

Though the site became derelict, the traces of its former life remained. Beds, desks, telephones, even piles of yellowing papers; everything was left behind.

From these leftovers of a former life, came a whole new chapter in the history of Cane Hill in the form of a curious set of urban adventurers.

Urban Exploration is a niche movement based around the examination and documentation of unseen or off-limits parts of buildings and urban sites. There is one rule: “take only photographs, leave only footprints”, which means that the act falls within the confines of civil trespass, which while illegal is less serious than crimes such as burglary.

Adherents to the movement consider themselves to be ‘guerrilla historians.’

“It has allowed me opportunities I would never normally get,” said Urban Explorer Simon Cornwell. “I have stood in padded cells, in top secret military bases and cold war bunkers.”

Cane Hill became an “almost legendary place” on the UK scene with a visit deemed a right of passage for new “UE” followers. It was an imposing complex, complete with a ballroom, a chapel and multiple wards, which could hold up to 2,000 patients. Mr Cornwell visited the site several times:

“Cane Hill attracts people, it was a unique design and on a personal level a fascinating place, I mean why did it get to that size? Why did it have a ballroom and a chapel?”

“When you walked on the public footpath, the buildings loomed over you and on the map it looks like a giant squashed beetle, it was irresistible, especially considering the history and the fact that everything had been left behind,” he added.

Cane Hill also became a haunt for photographers, drawn by the aesthetics of decay and the post-apocalyptic, as throughout the years the asylum still looked as if the patients and staff had just got up one morning and walked out.

“You would find suitcases with patients’ belongings still in them strewn around the wards,” recalled Mr Cornwell, “Cane Hill also had art therapy for the patients and some of the drawings were still there and were quite macabre.

“The chapel was enormous and still had pews and a pulpit, it was all part of a plan to give the patients a normal life by holding a Sunday Service.”

Before the fire on Saturday, most of Cane Hill was demolished in 2008 leaving just the administration block, the water tower and the chapel. But this was not without an attempt by Mr Cornwell to get the site listed by English Heritage.

“There was another listing attempt by someone else, but the facts were wrong. So I tried again and was turned down, but at least it had been given a fair throw of the dice.”

As for the fire itself, Mr Cornwell called it “a total waste”, which reflects the mood of many in the Urban Exploration community to the final demise of Cane Hill and it’s strange double life.

To see Simon Cromwell’s website about Cane Hill click here

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