Paisley’s Lunatic Paupers

The Dykebar area of Paisley has an interesting history. Dykebar Hill, situated behind the Barrhead and Hurlet Road, was the site of a medieval fortress and, and during World War Two was one of around forty-three heavy gun emplacements built to defend Clydeside industry from Luftwaffe attacks.

Today, the area is synonymous with Dykebar Hospital. Founded in 1909 as Renfrew District Asylum, it was designed in the Scottish Baroque style by Paisley architect T G Abercrombie, whose other works include Royal Alexandra Infirmary, Paisley Grammar School, Wallneuk Church and the Territorial Drill Hall in Paisley High Street.

Dykebar has been cited as a highlight in Scottish Asylum design, one of the last remaining examples of the transformative village system of patient care. Rather than locking up ‘lunatic paupers’ (as they were then charmingly called) in a single institution and throwing away the key, the village system housed patients in different buildings on hospital grounds which they themselves sustained.

Male patients in Dykebar built vegetable gardens, greenhouses and potting sheds, and worked the adjacent farms growing potatoes and turnips, and raising cows, pigs and poultry. They ran tennis courts, a bowling green and aviary. Females patients worked the kitchens preparing food produced by the farms. They did the laundry and were dressmakers. The hospital had a cultural life centred around dances, concerts, films and Sunday services. The beautiful, tranquil grounds, its trees, walks and gardens were key therapeutic elements in patient recovery, and reports from the time state that the system worked ‘not only as a means of supplying the asylum with farm produce and as an outlet for the labour of the patients, but in the interest it creates. The fact that the surrounding land is our own, and farmed by our own people, rounds off in a way unfelt before, the life of the Asylum Community.’ Aside from the obvious gender stereotypes, it could be said that this system represented an enlightened period in the treatment of mental health, and is one of which Paisley should be proud.

However, like the Royal Alexandra Infirmary, and Paisley’s former Drill Hall, T G Abercrombie’s original B-listed buildings at Dykebar have fallen into disuse and neglect. The link between poor mental health, deprivation and poverty is well documented. Yet Dykebar Hospital today is a depressing sight, with patients surrounded by empty buildings and boarded up windows. The grounds and gardens are no longer tended or farmed by residents. Instead, the land has reverted to a mix of ancient woodland, lowland meadows and fens, an area of natural beauty used for recreation by the local community, a haven of peace and tranquillity in the midst of suburbia. The habitat supports several red and amber listed species of birds, including Redwing, Linnet, Song Thrush, Starling, Mistle Thrush, Grasshopper Warbler, Bullfinch, Dunnock, Reed Bunting and Kestrel, as well as Treecreeper, Jay, Tree Warbler, Chiffchaff, and Siskin, rare butterflies like Green Hairstreak, and amphibians like the Great Crested Newt. At dawn and dusk there are Roe Deer, Pipistrelle Bats and, if you’re lucky, Badgers.

I am relatively new to the area and only recently discovered this beautiful wilderness on my doorstep. It was a matter of minutes before I came upon a group of Roe Deer. I then crunched over a frozen field to ancient Shaw Wood where I sighted my first Redwing. The light was copper, the sky a crystal blue, and the air pristinely fresh. In the seclusion of ancient trees, the only sound was of individual leaves falling from the branches and spiralling softly to the forest floor. Tod Burn trickles from the edge of the wood, past the former hospital playing fields, and through a valley overlooked by native trees. It’s no surprise that some of the trees have Protection Orders; each is so distinctive it could only have grown into the landscape over many years.

Much of the talk around mental health emphasises a positive correlation between access to greenspace, and health and wellbeing. I was shocked, therefore, to find that the area around Dykebar is up for development. If plans go ahead, the Consortium of Barratt, Bellway and Cara Homes will demolish T G Abercrombie’s B-listed buildings, as well as the surrounding trees to build 605 new homes. The NHS owns most of the land and is being forced to sell off its assets in a last-ditch attempt to prove its sustainability to those waiting with the carving knife. The development represents not only a loss of some of Paisley’s best architectural and natural heritage, but the creeping suburbanisation and private takeover of the greenspace between Paisley and Barrhead. This will increase carbon emissions on already congested roads, put added pressure on overstretched education and healthcare resources, and lead overall to reduced quality of life. Locals will have to drive further afield to access greenspace, creating more emissions, gridlock and stress, or else stay in and watch YouTube with a bag of crisps, resulting in poor mental and physical health and more strain on NHS resources. Not to mention that existing Dykebar patients will be in the middle of a building site for the next seven years. Hardly therapeutic.

Local organisation, Save Paisley’s Green Space, have lodged an articulate and evidence-based objection to the proposal, but there’s no doubt people feel swept away by a ruthless tide of interests more powerful and remote than their own. I can’t help think we’re going backwards. The original concept of Dykebar is a lesson about how things could be if will-power and resources were applied in the right direction and for the genuine good of the community. The aim of the village system was to empower people, to remind them of how it feels to be a human and not a unit of industrial exploitation or, in today’s parlance, a consumer. Wouldn’t it be nice for all of us to rediscover how that feels?







Comments (21)

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  1. Jim Stamper says:

    Given the history it may be even better if some small agroecology farming could happen here, perhaps providing produce for hospital meals,
    rather than just money for developers.

  2. Irene Crichton says:

    I am 88 years old i can remember my mother walking from Glenburn in Paisley with her friend and co worker in dense fog all the way to Hurlet then beyond that towards Pollok to a hospital i cant remember the name of to do their shift nursing old people then walking all the way back home , she was over fifty , i dont think they got much thanks nor did they expect any , they just couldnt let anyone down .Nurses have been doing that for centuries only now do we realise how dedicated nurses are. i often hear people saying “ i could never be a nurse !“ it takes a very special kind of human being to do what they do so i would like to say THANK YOU TO EVERY SINGLE NURSE in THE WORLD in the PAST,PRESENT and FUTURE! THANK YOU!!!

    1. David says:

      Hi, It might have been Leverndale Hospital on Crookston Road.

  3. Gordon Peters says:

    Very sad to hear about the state of Dykebar – and the proposed ‘development’. My father [from Barrhead] often mentioned Dykebar as a good place for folks in need of mental health support

  4. Jim Ferguson says:

    A rather depressing development (no pun). I hope this plan for Barratt (et al) style housing can be scrapped and the land retained as a country park and therapeutic centre. ‘The price of everything and value of nothing’, springs readily to mind. Too much of Paisley’s built heritage has been trashed; the grounds of Dykebar and the villas where at one time quite impressive. I always enjoyed walking down that way as a boy. Sad, sad, sad.

  5. Fay Kennedy says:

    I don’t know what the population of that area and beyond would have been fifty years ago. But there was also Hawkhead Asylum and Crookston Old Folks home. Says a lot about the times with two asylums in a small area is quite astounding. I walked those areas regularly as my mother worked in both places as other women too who lived nearby. How progressive though and the grounds were magnificent. We have regressed in our care for the needy and should be ashamed. Developers turning out more ugly future slums while we neglect this rich heritage both naturally and architecturally is heartbreaking.

  6. Stuart Paterson says:

    Strange days. My mother was a secretary at Dykebar, and my uncle was a chef.
    It was a gloomy old place, I thought, as a youth.
    Takin’ Over The Asylum was filmed here, I believe, with a young David Tennant and Ken Stott. Stories.

    1. Tracy Patrick says:

      I didn’t know that. I was glued to Taking Over the Asylum when it came out. I must look it up again!

  7. Maureen Mort says:

    Once developed, this amazing natural resource will be lost forever. So sad that instant gratification (money) so often takes precedence over quality of life, nature, history, ecology, mental health. Looking to the long term, surely this is a green space to be treasured.

  8. Nancy Blane says:

    My sister isabel called bella blane was the lo gest resident she had a car accident 1968 in Bolton I had her transferred to Dykebar as wee were brought up just down the road she won local beauty contest but head injuries were severe when they were shutting down the hospital they transferred her to another address I went as I normally did take her out for her Chinese meal she lost so much weight her skirt fell down she was dead 6 weeks later massive stroke actually this is the anniversary of her death 6th may shes now an angel in heaven God bless her.xxxx

    1. johnny cumming says:

      it was tragic.i used to be friends with isabell on todholm terrace.remember i think it was tommy telling me about the

    2. MAIRI PORTER says:

      I have lived in The Lodge of the hospital for 62yrs, my father was the plumber and mother worked in the patients canteen, they knew Isabel very well and she always said she loved my parents. She liked her fashion and loved make-up, an amazing girl and her story tragic.

  9. Brenda McClure says:

    I worked in Dykebar for many years and remember the greenhouses, not to mention the mynah bird who repeated ‘Bassett liquorice allsorts’. I also have fond memories of Mr. & Mrs. Porter and the shop. Over the years I nursed Isabel who was a character and a half. She was very proud about being a beauty queen and was given a send off befitting her status, her funeral cortège travelling to her final resting place, via Hunterhill . Yes, fond memories and every wish this area does not fall into the hands of developers.

  10. Linda Carroll says:

    I totally agree with you as a nurse working in Dykebar for almost 20 years l have seen the changes and not for the better. It’s so depressing for staff nevermind patients to see the devistation around the place we used to be a community having an open day with stalls, fair rides, bonny babies for the community to be involved in a recreation hall, shop, a clothes shop all that is gone to have more houses built on the site will be another nail in Dykebar’s coffin

  11. Chris Ballance says:

    Interesting comparison is Dumfries’ Crichton Mental Hospital – beautiful buildings in lovely parkground, with adjacent farm (now an offshoot of the Scottish Agricultural College) and even a church of cathedral-like grandeur. Possibly built at a similar time as Dykebar, and gifted to the community by Elizabeth Crichton. (She had wanted to create a University of the South West as her bequest, but was stymied by Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities). It was celebrated for its innovative use of art therapy – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s dad was a patient there for years and produced some notable works of art. One of the buildings did hold a Crichton museum, a museum of the history of mental health treatment, which among other exhibits had a list of charges from the late nineteenth century – the top cost for the nobs included a coach ride round the grounds, with claret, every day. The whole is now owned by a Crichton “Trust”, which has been working very hard to destroy as much of the green space as it can for development. The NHS used some of the buildings for offices until recently, and I believe may still use one for student nurse accommodation. I’m not up to speed on the current state of its privatisation, but it sounds a very similar story.

  12. SEvans says:

    Sadly there was a fire in one of the listed buildings (I believe what was originally Ward 15) this weekend, presumed arson. It was still in use, mostly administrative staff but thankfully empty due to it being the weekend.

  13. Stephen McBride says:

    Shared with local green party who are against this also. But the cynic in me thinks this, like other similar projects will go ahead no matter what. Such a shame, as for going backward you couldn’t be more correct in that assumption.

  14. Joseph Theodore says:

    I fully agreed with the facts which you presented and your sentiments
    I worked in Dykebar hospital in the 60’s, patients did the gardening and some of the produced were sold to members of staff and the wider public. Thus raising extra resources which improve patients’ welfare.
    The complex had an open tennis court, crazy golf area and a bowling green and patients participated in inter-hospitals competition.
    Hawkhead and Lochfield Community Council made written submission to Renfrewshire council that all the housing development taking place so closely together is deleterious to the environment. There will be erosion of the green space, increased traffic congestion and added air pollution. There will be extra pressures on existing public infrastructures and services.Our plea fell on deaf ears,
    Planning in Renfrewshire area is driven by economic imperatives. Head of Planning more or less admmitted that Paisley needs more residents and jobs to revive the economic fortune of the town centre

    1. Eugene Quirk says:

      My brother was at Dykebar and I worked at Bangour Village Hospital with the same ethos of participation for patients.

    2. Eugene Quirk says:

      My brother worked at Dykebar and I worked at Bangour Village Hospital that had the same ethos of participation.

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