St Luke’s Hospital

"From NHS psychiatric hospital to private flats - Trevor Barre reflects on the fate of St Luke's in Muswell Hill"

St Luke’s Hospital

Thoughts at the ruins of St Luke’s Hospital

I worked at St Luke’s Woodside Hospital from November 1988 to March 1997, eight and a half years. It was, in many ways, the apotheosis of my working life. I think the 80s and the 90s were in some ways a ‘Golden Age’ of psychiatric nursing, with much of the focus still on ideas of therapeutic environments or ‘milieus’, and there were enough Consultant Psychiatrists (hello, Oscar!) to remember the notions from the 60s about there being more to psychiatry than psychopharmacology, which appears to have taken over modern psychiatry in the same way that the Conservatives have hijacked the British way of thinking. These were also the pre-Project 2000 years, before the deluded idea that nursing was and should be an academic subject raised its ugly head deriving as it did from nursing’s appalling lack of self-confidence and self-regard. The profession is now, as many predicted, suffering from the ‘too posh to wash’ syndrome, as nurses gratefully pick up the jobs that their medical colleagues now find too tedious or low-status to perform. In my days at St.Luke’s, the nursing culture was the strongest on that site, and I was proud to have run Cardigan Ward for 6 years, and to then have played a major part in setting up Fortismere and Sutherland Wards.

The wards on the site were 12-16 bedded, an ideal number to manage. I left St.Luke’s to take over a failing ward at The Waterlow Unit in Archway, which had 29 beds, a large enough number to ensure a complete failure of therapeutic and environmental effectiveness. A self-imposed impossible task. But St. Luke’s was different. A lovely site, basically a cottage hospital, set up in the 30s for what we would call ‘neurotic’ patients , from the middle-classes. Private, of course. The central buildings, connected by bucolic walkways, are reminiscent of The Hill, on Hampstead Heath, and could have come out of an interregnum romantic drama featuring a shell-shocked veteran and his devoted nurse. All very “A Matter of Life or Death”.

The grounds, or more likely, the land it was set in, was doomed from the day the Internal Market was spawned. It is in Haringey, and belonged to Camden + Islington Trust, therefore the rationale was trumped up that it was an inconvenient site for visitors and other ‘stakeholders’, who, I’m sure, would rather their nearest and dearest were cared for here, rather than in the Waterlow Unit, which was a failure of both managerial imagination and practicality. The nurses in the latter institution, naturally, were not consulted, and were left to manage very disturbed patients in sub-optimal conditions for year after year.

Friern Hospital (the old ‘Colney ‘Atch’), the Waterlow Unit (the bastard distant illegitimate relation of the old asylum, terminally riddled with an architectural version of GPI), are both now shut, the former a ‘luxury’ site with ‘a history that cannot be named’ (please, think of the effect on the value of our properties!), rebranded from a Princess Di faux-memorial to something even more ludicrously inappropriate and palimpsestic. And now, poor old St.Luke’s, feebly re-branded as “A beautiful development of apartments and houses”, starting at “a mil for the cheapest”, according to a disgruntled builder I spoke to, who I’m sure won’t be part of this project’s expected largesse. Predictably, the neighbours, solicitors and accountants to a man, have vociferously complained, as ever, because the proposed gated community affects their access to a path, the cutting off of which will mean an extra five minutes on the school run for the next generation’s Bens and Olivias. Let’s get our priorities right, shall we? Too late to bring back the lunatics, I’m afraid: welcome to your new hall of mirrors.