“Just a Bit Barmy”: The New Book about The Princess Christian Farm Colony/Hospital 1895-1995 by CHRIS ROWLEY (publ.2019)
Lunatic asylums in late Victorian Britain were grim. Princess Christian, Queen Victoria’s third daughter, was a reformer and gave her name to the founding of a ‘Farm Colony’ which would look after not dangerously ‘barmy’ men and women and occupy them with work in agriculture or in domestic service. (‘Barmy’ from the Barming Lunatic Asylum)
In Chris Rowley’s new book, we see how they were treated – normally very well. We hear stories of the lives of the individual ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ as they were nearly always called – even when they grew old. We hear about the staff who stayed at Princess Christian for many years and who cared for their charges with patience and kindness. Kelly Holmes worked there before going into the Army and her moving stories tie in with the stories from nearly a hundred others to form a picture of how treatment progressed from 1900 up until 1990. By this time, the Princess Christian Hospital, as it had become under the NHS, had developed even more into a family, many of whom lived in their own ‘villas’ and hostels.
Kelly Holmes, who worked there for nine months after finishing school, has written movingly about her experiences, concluding “it was one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done”. Other stories include the Down’s man whose best distance for focusing was nine inches. This created chaos as he watched the communal TV set from that distance, which utterly infuriated all the other residents. Eventually, an optician got him a pair of glasses and peace was restored. And there was the time when a ‘boy;’ from Princess Christian stood on his head behind the owner of a local hair salon when she was trying with difficulty to cut a lady’s hair. One of the senior people at Princess Christian explained: “You could not impose discipline very easily … but, if one of them was misbehaving, the punishment could be not being allowed to work with their animals. That worked!”
The end of the 1980s saw the coming of ‘Care in the Community’ and the end of Princess Christian. It was not easy to take people away from what had been the only home they had ever known, often for twenty, thrity or even forty years. This book helps explain a hundred years of progress which became a forerunner to many national changes for the better. The ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ may have in a modern phrase ‘learnt differently‘ but one of the staff summed up her feelings. “Working at Princess Christian taught me an awful lot. You don’t have to fret and worry about everything in this life.”
The book – over 200 pages, full colour, with photos and maps – is available from MR BOOK, 142 High Street, Tonbridge, or Sevenoaks Bookshop: price £20 or £25 with p&p ISBN 978-0-9539340-4-1.