The Museum of East Anglian Life has just launched the St Audry’s Project, an exploration of the story of the former County Asylum in Melton Suffolk. Funded by Comic Relief, the museum is working with mental health service users to curate and create work to accompany a permanent display in the newly refurbished Abbot’s Hall. It will also collate material housed in the Suffolk Records Office, Felixstowe Museum and the Science Museum and better signpost researchers to pursue further study
The permanent displays in Abbot’s Hall focus on the regime of Dr John Kirkman who was the Medical Superintendent of St Audry’s during the 19th century. He was widely recognised a progressive leader in mental health services and believed in the importance of fresh air, communal activity and ‘moral improvement’. St Audry’s had a farm, allotments, laundry, workshops and sports clubs and for many years was an autonomous self-contained community. There are echoes of Kirkman’s ethos in today’s Care Farm movement, albeit within the moralising, patrician tone!
For the museum, the St Audry’s Project brings together many of the important strands of its work, especially in the areas of developing community activity and well-being. Since 2009 a group of mental health service users have helped develop the Abbot’s Hall walled garden. As founder of the Happy Museum project it’s an opportunity for us to explore the interconnections between general ‘well-being’ and clinical mental health services. The project encourages visitors to self-prescribe ‘Five a day’ activities to encourage their well-being.
Moreover the project will enable the museum to explore people’s emotional connections with the St Audry’s site. Although the hospital closed down in the 1990s, there are indelible reminders that this was a place of care and a community. The chapel remains, as do the graves of patients. Some of these are unmarked as developers discovered during preliminary works to build new homes on the site last year. St Audry’s had considerable influence on local society and economy. At its most extensive in the 1950s it had over 1500 patients. It was a teaching hospital with a large number of local people employed as support staff.
Today much of the site is now housing, the main House is a splendid holiday let, most of the 19th century tiling and details remain in place. Some of the adjoining land which used to be the farm is now a golf course. However many of residents we’ve spoken to talk of a sense of peace and calm which almost honours those who have gone before.
That’s not to say that this view is shared by all who experienced life in St Audry’s. Based purely on documentary records its very hard to paint a picture of the later years at St Audry’s. Patient confidentiality and 100 year rule on medical records mean that only through individuals testimony will the museum build a more complete picture. We hope that people will come forward and share their stories good and bad.
There is currently an exhibition by artist Lindsay Harris entitled Echoes of St Audry’s yu at Woodbridge Library