Inside the Foster Building: Dining


staff canteen

Staff Canteen. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

H. G Woods, Charge Nurse from 1919 – 1949 described memories of mealtimes in Charles Thomas Andrews’ book on the history of St Lawrence’s, The Dark Awakening (1978):

‘The diet was revolting: it even shocked those of us who had just returned to civilisation after four years of active service and were not easily shocked. Breakfast was at 7.30 a.m. The majority of the patients ate in Foster Hall where they would find the tables laid out with a large desert spoon and a basin to each place accompanied by a half pound hunk of bread smeared with the cheapest of margarine. There was porridge, for those who could eat it, served in the basins and, when the porridge was consumed the same basin was filled with about one and a half pints of cocoa. To patients who worked on the farm or on the grounds or garden there was fried rusty bacon and potatoes.’

He continues:

‘As most of the food that went to make up the dinner was produced on the farm and in the hospital the standard of dinners was somewhat higher, but tea at 5p.m. was back to the low standard of breakfast – weak tea served in basins and the half pound slice of bread smeared with margarine. This was the last meal of the day for some years: the patients had nothing more until 7.30 a.m. the next day. After some years this was supplemented by an allowance of bread and cheese, for working patients, for supper at 7 p.m.’

He observes the changes over time:

‘As time went on conditions for the patients became better especially as some of the older administrators retired and we were controlled by younger and more enlightened personnel. Food improved, especially the serving of it; we progressed from basins to soup plates, then to mugs and from mugs to cups and saucers, from mess room to ward messing which was a great advantage in many ways. In ward 8 we were now allowed to prepare our own bread and margarine after a battle so, instead of slicing half a loaf into four slices, we cut it into fourteen slices and the patients were very appreciative’.

staff dining room

Staff Dining Room Information. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Gordon R. Retallick, a nurse who started working at St Lawrence’s on  April 27 1929, remembers having his meals on the ward:

‘we had a roast dinner every day of the year. Our rations consisted of half a pound of sugar, half a pound of butter and half a pound of bacon weekly and a small loaf of bread every alternate day […] On night duty we brought our own food and ate it in the dormitory when convenient, during duty hours.’

Gordon worked at St Lawrence’s for 41 years. Of patient mealtimes he recalls:

‘Before patients were allowed to leave the dining room, all knives, forks and spoons were checked and, if found not correct, no one was allowed to leave the table until the missing piece was found. This sometimes meant searching the patients. The charge attendant always said grace before the patients dispersed’.

Eileen Goff, who spent 24 years at St Lawrence’s, a ward sister for 12 of these, also had her memories of mealtimes recorded in The Dark Awakening:

‘Meals were very poor for both patients and staff during the war years and some dreadful looking brawn, a horrible pink colour with even black bristly hair showing in the horrible looking concoction, was served at least once a week. Night nurses went on duty with a last meal served in the dining room at about 7.15 p.m.; then they had no further meal until breakfast at 7 to 7.30 p.m. next day when they came off duty’.

milk machine

Milk Machine. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Robert Rowe, Assistant Chief Nurse who worked at St Lawrence’s for 36 years, from 1919 to 1955, remembers breakfast being at 8 a.m.: ‘Staff when to breakfast in relays, some had to have their meals in the ward with the patients’. Dinner was at noon, with tea at 4.30 p.m.: ‘This, the last patients’ meal of the day, consisted of two slices of cake with bread and margarine’, although stating that aside from this meal, the patients’ food was ‘generally very good’. However, ‘There was no canteen or any other facilities for obtaining food in the institution’. He noted the improvements made under Mrs. Belinda Banham, as Chair of the Management Committee (and who wrote the Preface in The Dark Awakening) during the late 1960s and early 1970s:

‘Under Mrs. Banham’s administration we have noted what progress has been made. The food and furnishings, the wellbeing and care of the patients is excellent. Both my wife and I expressed the view that we wouldn’t mind spending a month’s holidays at St. Lawrence’s. The old 20 foot long bare tables with basins for tea have gone: it is now a first class hotel service’.


© M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

These recollections contrast with the diet during the early 1820s, on the opening of the Cornwall County Asylum, devised by Dr Richard Kingdon. There were three meals a day, and the typical menu consisted of:

Morning: milk, meat broth or gruel and bread

Midday: baked or boiled meat and potatoes with seasonal vegetables, or soup with vegetables and bread. Sometimes there would be ‘good broth’, pea soup or rice milk, with pudding on a Wednesday

Evening: bread, cheese or treacle, or bread and milk, sometimes there would be seedcake or broth.

The Committee approved this menu on August 17th 1820, but added in the following stipulations. Beer, cider or wine was to be served ‘when required’, and dinners were to vary, with fish to be given ‘occasionally’. There was to be a good supply of seasonal vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and turnips, with sweetened peppermint and other herb teas to be given to the women for their supper with seedcake. There was also to be a sick diet, ‘to such as require it, all in such quantities as to improve the general health’. Tea and coffee, however, were too expensive, and did not form part of the patients’ diet.


 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved. All ward kitchens had a pig bin, with the swill picked up regularly by truck.

The initial furnishing orders for the old Cornwall County Asylum in 1820 reveals the following for the kitchen:

2 dozen wooden plates, bowls and spoons, Bethlem pattern of sycamore, and 8 trays

2 dozen knives and forks,12 iron spoons and a soup ladle

24 ewers, 8 pewter dishes from 20 – 26″ in diameter and 12 pewter plates

a digester

a 5 gallon boiler and a 2 gallon copper tea kettle

a fish kettle, a frying pan and 4 iron saucepans of different sizes

2 pepper boxes, a coffee and pepper mill

2 flour dredgers, 2 collanders, a cleaver, meat saw and chopping block

2 morestone salting vats, 2 buckets and a time piece

a gridiron.

The latter – a gridiron – is of some significance, being associated with the martyrdom of St Lawrence himself.


St Laurence, or Lawrence, with gridiron.

Ranworth Rood Screen, c. 1430, St Helen’s Church, Norfolk.

Photograph: Martin Harris


Badge depicting St Lawrence holding a gridiron. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

And for a picture of dining in Foster Hall from the 1950s/60s – see:

With sincere thanks to M. Hodgson, Steve Davies RMN (Registered Mental Nurse) and the St Lawrence’s Facebook Page.

Please check out



C.T. Andrews, The Dark Awakening: A History of St. Lawrence’s Hospital (1978)

Cornwall Lunatic Asylum Minutes, August 17th 1820


Documenting the Decline


With the shocking and unwarranted demolition of the Foster Buildings continuing at a pace more befitting of a post-war concrete tower block than a building of such historical and cultural significance, there is not really a lot to say at the moment. Rather, these beautiful and haunting images, reproduced here with the kind permission of the photographer, M. Hodgson, can speak for themselves.

foster hall (2)

Foster Hall. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Foster hall

 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

ward sign

 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Valency ward

Valency Ward.  © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.


 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.


 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Norman Ward Day Centre

Norman Ward Day Centre. © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Foster complex Oct 2013

 © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

More of these beautiful photographs will be shared soon. If anyone has any memories brought back by these photographs please let us know and they can be included as captions and quotes underneath the images.

And finally…..


Carnage.  © M. Hodgson 2013. All rights reserved.

Please check out


With sincere thanks to M. Hodgson, Steve Davies RMN (Registered Mental Nurse) and St Lawrence’s Hospital Facebook Page.

Please click on images to enlarge.

William Robert Hicks: Man of Bodmin.


William Robert Hicks, Mayor (1865). Artist unknown

Born in 1808 in Bodmin, William Robert Hicks was a musician and wit, famed for his stories written in the Cornish and Devonian dialects, he was once described as ‘the most amusing person to be found in the West of England’. But his fame spread throughout the country; he was also regarded as the best storyteller of his day and was a regular guest in London society. He was also on ‘intimate terms’ with men and women of ‘humbler classes’ which may help explain why this convivial socialite took the appointment of Governor of St. Lawrence’s Asylum in 1840, where he remained for twenty years, instigating many reforms in the treatment of the patients.

There is little doubt that when Hicks took over as governor, the treatment of those in the asylum was in need of improvement. Local writer Sabine Baring-Gould described Hicks’ disgust at the existing regime at St. Lawrence’s, claiming he “found the old barbarous system of treatment of the insane in full swing”. By contrast, Hicks took a more compassionate view: “He at once adopted gentle methods and in a short while radically changed the entire mode of treatment, with markedly good results”. Baring-Gould relates a story of the success of these newly employed methods: “One poor fellow, whom he found chained in a dark cell on a bed of straw as a dangerous lunatic, he nearly cured by kindly treatment. As the fellow showed indications of great shrewdness and wit, Hicks released him and made much of him”. The man in question is probably ‘Daniel’, who, through Hicks’ narratives, would become something of a celebrity.


Hicks pictured in The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin.

Daniel appears repeatedly in the book by Hicks’ friend W. F. Collier, The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin:

‘One of the great characters in the asylum (many great characters were there in Hicks’s time, as you may suppose), whom I will call Daniel, on the principle that no real names shall be used, he found on a bed of straw, chained, in a dark cell, and treated as a dangerous lunatic. He discovered that this person was a very clever man, though possessed with some mischievous delusions, a great wit, and a philosopher in his way. Hicks released him; found him safe; employed him in the asylum to take care of the pigs, and do other useful work; and made so much of him and his sayings that he became a well-known personage in the county’.

In his later years, ‘Daniel’ was even considered safe enough to be sent home to his friends, but continued to be the subject of monologues by Hicks and such became his notoriety that some of Daniel’s sayings ended up being published in Punch magazine.

As a friend and guest of Hicks in the asylum, Collier offers us an interesting insight into his methods of reform, noting that ‘When Hicks first took charge of the asylum he gave a supper to those of the inmates whom he considered safe’. He even went to far as to undergo a treatment then practiced on patients himself to gauge just how cruel it was: ‘One of the methods for quieting a refractory patient, I believe still in vogue, is a douche bath applied to the head; and as Hicks thought it a very severe remedy, he tried it on himself that he might know what it really was. He told me it was very severe’.

On December 31 1860, after 20 years of service and sweeping changes, Hicks resigned his connection with the lunatic asylum, retiring on a full pension.

In 1865, he became mayor of his home town of Bodmin and revived the ancient tradition of Beating the Bounds, a custom in which the locals walk the parish boundaries of the town. Although not a uniquely Cornish tradition, Hicks gave it a distinctly Cornish twist by concluding the ceremony with a game of Hurling. It is a tradition that still survives to this day and is performed every 5 years or so.

In 2010, when the ceremony was most recently performed, local resident Vic Legg explained its historic roots: “The beat the bounds event was important in the 19th century because it was important for people to know where the boundary stones were, because if anyone moved outside the borough of Bodmin and they fell ill, they were not entitled to receive relief’.’ This question of community care was one that was obviously of importance to Hicks.

The ceremony was revived in several Cornish towns, this painting is of the event in Penzance:

1853 “Beating the Borough Bounds” at Alverton Penzance – oil painting by J T Blight.

Hicks died in 1868 and is buried, fittingly, in the town that was his home and employment for so much of his life, his contribution to Bodmin commemorated in a stained glass portrait in the local church.


W. F. Collier, The Tales and Sayings of William Robert Hicks of Bodmin 

Joseph Pollard, Truro, 1903

Demolition imminent….


We had the privilege today of spending some time with Cathy, and the lovely people at St Lawrence’s Social Club, where we received a very warm welcome indeed. This was a fantastic opportunity to meet some of the staff who have worked at the hospital over the years, and we would like to say thank you to all involved.

Sadly, this did mean we saw the latest step in the demolition of the Foster complex of buildings, including Foster Hall. It would appear nothing more can be done to protect or save this beautiful, and historically important, building. [Although the Cornish Buildings Group have an update on this, please see comments on this post].

We feel the photographs speak for themselves. However, if anyone more photographically skilled than we are manages to go and capture the forlorn feeling coming from behind those new barriers, or wishes to record the demolition of this historic site, please contact us.








Photos: © Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall 2013. All rights reserved.

Strong Clothing: ‘Held’

From ‘A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects’, part of the BBC ‘A History of the World’ project. These items are on display in Bodmin Museum.

According to the article accompanying this image, ‘once the mere whisper of Bodmin’s lunatic asylum, St Lawrence’s, was enough to put the fear of God into Cornish men and women’ and the dark dress on the right, which would have been worn by women from the 1890s onwards, was ‘a poignant reminder of the uniform stigma of lunacy.’

An exhibition at Plymouth Arts Centre offers a new perspective on the subject of clothing, specifically, ‘Strong Clothing’, used in late nineteenth and early twentieth century asylums like St. Lawrences. Often regarded as inhumane forms of controlling patients, ‘Held’ by Jane Fradgley (currently showing until 16 June 2013) is a series of photographs that seek to show how “dignity and comfort for the wearer” are also part of the story of these “well-constructed garments”.

© Jane Fradgley 2013.

Fradgley was initially inspired by photographs taken by Henry Hering of patients in Bethlam in 1856. One shows a young woman, Emma Riches, in a thickly quilted garment with the hand of another person, possibly a nurse, seemingly offering comfort.

© The Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum

The BBC piece suggests that a culture of fear was prevalent around asylums like St. Lawrence’s and conforms to accepted representations of the historic ill-treatment of vulnerable mentally ill people. By contrast, Jane’s work offers us an alternative perspective on attitudes to both patients and those who provided care and clothing for them. It is well worth a visit to Plymouth Arts Centre to see the photos for yourself.

For more information on this fascinating exhibition, visit:

Jane’s work also forms part of a further event: ‘held: a symposium on restraint and strong clothing’, taking place on Wednesday July 31st, 5pm – 8pm, at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, as part of the ‘Damaging the Body’ series. Entry is free, and all are welcome. The symposium aims to offer a variety of perspectives on restraint in the care of the mentally ill, both past and present. More details can be found here:


The Foster Building, St Lawrence’s Hospital


© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2013). All rights reserved. (1907).

At this present time the unused remains of St Lawrence’s Hospital – a complex known collectively as the Foster Building – is a contested site. Destined for demolition, the views, experiences and memories of this collection of buildings inevitably differ.

For some, the buildings signify the historic St Lawrence’s Hospital as a whole, for others the most important building within the complex is Foster Hall.


© Whatever’s Left 2006-2013. All rights reserved.

Is this a site of cultural or historical significance – a unique part of Cornish heritage, or just another example of an early 20th century hospital building, many examples of which exist across England? Is this a building which contains important memories, also serving as a physical reminder of changing attitudes towards mental illness – memories worthy of preservation? Can this site serve as a focus for recording a history of mental health in Cornwall, or is it a derelict eyesore, marked by stigma and a drain on precious resources, whose value lies in demolition and redevelopment? Should it be saved, protected and turned into a community resource, in a way which preserves its heritage for future generations?

Despite the Foster Building not being recommended for listed status by English Heritage, it is an important part of the Duchy’s heritage, as part of the old St Lawrence’s Hospital (known previously as the Cornwall County Asylum) and as a site in its own right.


© Examining Mental Illness in Cornwall 2013. All rights reserved.

Built in the early part of the 20th century, to alleviate the main hospital’s problem with overcrowding, the Foster Building was named after Henry Durett Foster, in recognition of his work for the institution. The renowned Cornish architect Silvanus Trevail was chosen to design the new building, opened three years after his suicide in 1903 following his own apparent struggle with mental illness.

We feel the story of St Lawrence’s Hospital has an important place within the history of Cornwall, highlighted by the imminent demise of the Foster Building. We wish to explore, collect, record and share many aspects of this history up to the present day – which means different views, experiences and memories – and we invite people to contribute, offer feedback and commentary.


C. T. Andrews, The Dark Awakening: A History of St. Lawrence’s Hospital Bodmin (1978)

Foster Hall Revival Trust

The Silvanus Trevail Society

Cornish Buildings Group

Whatever’s Left, ‘St Lawrence’s Asylum, Bodmin’

‘End of an era?’ Cornish Guardian May 1st 2013

‘Last hurdle preventing demolition of Bodmin’s Foster Hall is overcome’ Cornish Guardian May 1st 2013 [online edition]

‘Calls to save historic building’ Cornish Guardian April 17th 2013

‘No consultation on demolition plans’ Cornish Guardian March 27th 2013

‘Calls to step up and save Foster Hall’ Cornish Guardian October 12th 2012 [online edition]

‘Pasty boss steps in to save Foster Hall’ Cornish Guardian May 16th 2012 [online edition]

‘Demolition of Foster Hall ‘would be a scandal for town’ Cornish Guardian October 5th 2011 [online edition]

‘Scandal over £1.5m to rent derelict site’ Cornish Guardian June 1st 2011 [online edition]

With thanks to Bodmin Town Museum, Bodmin Tourist Information Centre, Cornwall Record Office and Whatever’s Left.