Tracks and traces: reuniting the Camberwell House papers online

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By | Digital Developments, From the Collections

History is often the piecing together of fragments. Archive documents are the tracks and traces of long-gone events, which the researcher looking for truth about the past follows to assemble the scraps of evidence that build up a picture. Sometimes that picture is incomplete, a puzzle with pieces missing: where that is the case, it becomes even more important to find and put together the pieces that are available.

Camberwell House, a London mental hospital that was founded in 1846 and closed in 1955, is one such incomplete picture. The hospital was big: a few years after its foundation, it was already accommodating over 300 patients and by 1878 it was the second-largest asylum in London, licensed to accommodate 362 men and women. Over the course of its existence it expanded from two houses on the Peckham Road to sprawl over various properties in the area. Its main site was overlooked by the Camberwell Workhouse and it received many pauper patients from there (as well as some private patients); it was, however, a private organisation, run as a commercial organisation by Aubin & Co, and it stayed private for all its existence, remaining outside the National Health Service when that was founded in 1948. No doubt because it was providing at a charge a service available free at point of delivery elsewhere, it lasted only a few years into the life of the NHS, closing in 1955. The eighteenth-century houses in which it was founded still stand on Peckham Road, now part of the University of the Arts.


The records of private mental hospitals have notoriously poor survival rates (one of the reasons why the archive of Ticehurst House at the Wellcome Library, now mostly digitised, is so exceptional). As commercial enterprises it appears that they generally kept records no longer than they had to, preferring not to use expensive real estate for the storage of paper, and on closing down there would often be no successor body to inherit the records that remained and save them from destruction. Of the many hundreds of patients that passed through Camberwell House in its century of existence, we know few details, making it the more important that we make available the fragmentary evidence that does survive. Digitisation brings a whole new dimension to this. The surviving patient records are split: for reasons lost in the mists of time, the very first patient register is held at the Royal College of Psychiatrists whilst the second and third are held at the Wellcome Library. (We wrote about these some years ago when a personal name index to their patients was completed.)

Patient record of John Richardson, from Camberwell House records at the Wellcome Library (MS.6220)

Patient record of John Richardson, from the Camberwell House records. Wellcome Library reference: MS.6220.

Now, digitisation has enabled us to bring the scattered archive together. The three surviving patient registers can all be seen online. In addition, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists have come other materials relating to the days when the hospital was a thriving concern: orders for the reception of pauper patients, notices relating to laundry and entertainments, and photographs of the grounds. From the Wellcome Library, meanwhile, comes a mournful document detailing the hospital’s final years: a letter from Dr Frederick Deighton, working at the hospital, describing it as somewhat run down and now, after the NHS had made similar services available without charge, lacking in purpose (MS.9171).

The former Camberwell House buildings, October 2015 (copyright Christopher Hilton, made available under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0)

The former Camberwell House buildings, October 2015 (copyright Christopher Hilton, made available under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0)

For over a century Camberwell House bulked large in its locality: as a place to which local people were admitted as patients, as an employer, and as a physical complex of buildings. With only traces of the archives remaining, all that history can be elusive and hard to bring into focus. Bringing together, for the first time in many decades, the few written records that survive is a major step towards bringing this hospital and its history back into the light.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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