A Local Genius and the Unlikely Ballroom

In the final paragraph of my first GP article, “The Battle of Powick”, I briefly touched upon a number of local areas of interest that are, or were, here in Middle Earth not a million miles from my modest country hovel. All of them may merit further extensive exposure in their own right, however, in this article I briefly highlight where aspects of 2 of the subjects intertwine to offer a modicum of interest to those so disposed. My interest was piqued when I became aware of the connection many years ago….


The growth in the number of lunatic asylums built in Victorian era United Kingdom was largely driven by the County Asylum / Lunacy Act of 1845. Under the act, all counties were legally obliged to provide asylum for people with mental deficiencies. Worcestershire was no exception.

Powick Asylum was founded in 1847 as the Worcester and County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum and opened it’s doors in 1852. It was situated midway between Worcester and Malvern covering an area of over 550 acres and included White Chimneys Farm. The farm was an integral part of asylum life providing food and also employment to those able to perform such duties. The facility, in time, would also include a bakery, chapel, gas works and a brew house. The gently sloping location offered unspoilt views across to the Malvern Hills. Built to house 200, the Asylum was extended in 1858 to accommodate 365 patients.

b-bob, Going Postal
Powick Asylum

Admission to the new asylums was largely a reflection of life in other areas of society of that time, based on class. Upper and middle classes could admit family members as private patients. The poor would be admitted as paupers. Once admitted, there would be no procedures for patients to appeal their detention. Reasons for admission were varied and not restricted to patients with mental health issues. I think all of us here would qualify on a number of issues using the guidelines here, albeit from a US establishment, the UK operated in a similar way:

b-bob, Going Postal
Reasons for admission – The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

Powick Asylum suffered a blow after just 18 months when the first Medical Superintendent committed suicide. On a brighter note, the facility had been built housing a ballroom and, in time and under the orders of the then forward thinking asylum physician, Dr Sherlock, an orchestra was formed with the view to providing patient therapy. This orchestra was mainly made up of Asylum attendants and performed at the regular Friday dances that were laid on for the patients. The maximum 19 piece orchestra was made up of flute, piccolo, oboe, clarinet, 2 cornets, euphonium, 8 violins, viola, cello, double bass and a piano.

Local Recruit

In 1877, a 20 year old local budding musician from Lower Broadheath was given the opportunity to join the orchestra violin section. In January 1879, that young violinist would take the next step to greatness when Bandmaster Fred May stood down and he succeeded him. His name was Edward William Elgar.

b-bob, Going Postal
Edward Elgar

His new position entailed training and conducting the orchestra and, probably more importantly, composing music for the asylum Friday night dances. His annual salary was just £32, (£4 less than his predecessor), plus 5 shillings for each polka and quadrillei he composed. He would also receive 1s 6d for accompaniments to the Christy Minstrelii ditty of the day. (In new money, 5 shillings = 25 pence; 1s 6d = 7½ pence). Not having the financial means to study at one of Europe’s renowned conservatoires, this position would prove invaluable to the young Elgar.

He would though eventually travel to Europe. He visited his friend, grocer and hop merchant Charlie Pipe, in Paris in 1880. Charlie would marry Elgar’s sister Lucy the following year. In 1882 he visited his fiancée Helen Weaver in Leipzig where she was studying. During his tenure at the Asylum, he went on to compose many pieces that collectively became known as “The Powick Asylum Music“. Edward Elgar left this position in the autumn of 1884 in order to concentrate on his growing aspirations as a composer. Those later years will provide material for future discussion, maybe….

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide

By 1902, the asylum had re-branded as the Powick Lunatic Hospital. A further name change came post World War II when it became known as the Powick Mental Hospital. Political correctness was still some way off…..

By the 1950’s, the extended hospital housed over 1,000 patients and had become a centre for major research and experimentation into the treatment of depression and schizophrenia. In 1952, after visiting Dr Albert Hoffmaniii, a leading chemist of Sandoziv Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland, Dr Ronald Sandisonv, a UK renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist, moved to Powick Hospital in order to continue experimentation into the psychiatric use of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide – LSD, devising a program called “Psycholytic Therapy”.

Despite the appalling conditions he witnessed at Powick Hospital that he described as being like a “medieval” institution, Dr Sandison stayed on and in 1958 established a new LSD treatment unit. He continued to practise until he left the hospital in 1964, his work being continued by the Medical Superintendent, Dr Arthur Spencer. In 1966, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals withdrew the supply of LSD stating their horror at the alarming rise in the use of LSD as a recreational drug, as the reason. LSD treatments continued, however, until 1970. Records have shown that a total of 683 patients had undergone the hospital’s LSD treatment programme.

* In 2002 the NHS paid out £195,000 in an out of court settlement to 43 former patients.

World in Action

In 1968, Powick Hospital was the subject of a damning World in Action documentary aired on ITV. The Hospital Superintendent, Dr Spencer, explained that financial constraints had forced the hospital policy of prioritising treatment that would benefit short term acute case admissions. Long term chronic patients were left to endure much hardship in the notorious and overcrowded Ward F13. Exposure of the sub-standard conditions endured and the degrading treatments meted out within the nation’s mental health institutions had been achieved. Widespread condemnation of the care and treatments of all mental health patients at that time followed. Change was on it’s way.

Admissions to Powick Hospital ceased in 1978 and the facility was finally closed in 1989. Almost 30,000 patients had passed through it’s doors during it‘s lifetime.

There are contrary reports concerning conditions that existed at the hospital in the years around when the World In Action documentary was made. I have included links below to a few YouTube items concerning life at the hospital.

In the early 1990’s, the site was bulldozed, except for the main building and the Superintendents office, and is now a rather pleasant housing estate. A rarity in these parts. (Further developments have since been built adjacent to this site. They are not so quaint!). The main building was converted into flats and townhouses while the Superintendent’s house became offices. A commemoration Plaque at the adjacent Crown public house at the end of Hospital Lane is the only physical reference to the previous existence of the facility.

b-bob, Going Postal
Powick Hospital main building post conversion
b-bob, Going Postal
Commemoration Plaque at the Crown

Back to Sir Edward Elgar…..

The “Powick Asylum Music” manuscripts were never published and would gather dust, hidden at Elgar’s Birthplace Museum at nearby Lower Broadheath, until 1988 when they were found by musical conductor and Director of Music at Rutland College, Barry Collett.

He asked the museum trustees if he could perform the newly found collection. They were shocked into responding: “My dear boy, you can’t do that! We can’t have the composer of Gerontius and the symphonies being seen to have written this juvenile rubbish!”

The trustees eventually relented however, and in 1989, the year the now infamous Powick Asylum closed, Barry Collett and his Rutland Ensemble performed Elgar’s “Powick Asylum Music” in the old Asylum, the place for which it was intended.

In 2013, Elgar’s Powick Asylum Music was recorded professionally for the first time by Barry Collett and the Innovation Chamber Ensemble. This group was made up of musicians from the Birmingham City Symphony Orchestra.

Music scholars now acknowledge the importance of Elgar’s early compositions and the benefits of his time spent with the Powick Asylum orchestra. Some material has been identified as being re-cycled in his later masterpieces.


In old age, Sir Edward Elgar liked to deflate affectation on the part of sycophantic visitors by starting a conversation with the words “When I was at the Lunatic Asylum…..” – Percy M Young 1973


The Powick Asylum Music

Here is the list of official compositions made by Sir Edward Elgar during his tenure:

1. La Brunette (Quadrilles) Dedicated to Geo Jenkins Esq. Asylum Clerk. 1879
2. Die Junge Kokette (Quadrilles) Dedicated to Miss J Holloway. Band pianist. 1879
3. L’Assomoir (Quadrilles) From the novel L’Assomoir by Emile Zola. 1879
4. The Valentine (Lancers) To celebrate St Valentine’s Day. 1880
5. Maud (Polka) Elgar’s first Polka. 1880
6. Paris (Quadrilles) Dedicated to Miss J Holloway. Band pianist. 1880
7. Nelly (Polka) Pet name of his then fiancée Helen Weaver. 1881 – Dedicated to his brother Frank.
8. La Blonde (Polka) Dedicated to Helen Weaver, studying in Leipzig. 1882
9. Helcia (Polka) Dedicated to the Powick Asylum 1883
10. Blumine (Polka) His final Asylum composition. 1884 – Inscribed “von Eduard Wilhelm”



World In Action – The controversial documentary can be found here in 2 parts:

Other YouTube articles about life at Powick Hospital:

The Powick Asylum Music – The extensive portfolio can be previewed and purchased here: Somm Recordings

It appears that the CD is no longer available at The Elgar Birthplace Museum (now a National Trust enterprise).


(i) Quadrilles – A popular dance in the 17th and 18th century Europe and their colonies. Performed by 4 couples in rectangular formation and related to American square dancing, a quadrille had military origins. There were usually 5 parts to a quadrille: Le Pantalon (Trousers); L’ete (Summer); La Poule (The Hen); La Pastourelle (The Shepherd Girl); The Finale.

(ii) The Christy Minstrels – A singing group formed by Edwin Pierce Christy in Buffalo, New York in 1843. They perfected the 3 act minstrel show and would perform with blacked-up faces. The act spread to Europe in the mid 19th century. They would be a pre-curser to the Black and White Minstrels. Also, does anyone remember the New Christy Minstrels formed in the USA in the early 1960’s? They took their name from the original Christy Minstrels and were a folk/country band but they didn’t black-up! I remember hearing them on the radio a lot. They had many future stars go through their ranks, including Kim Carnes and Kenny Rogers, and the band is still touring.

(iii) Dr Albert Hoffman – He was a leading Swiss chemist who pioneered the synthesisation of LSD. He would ingest the drug and be the first to learn the psychedelic effects of LSD use.

(iv) Sandoz – This was a Swiss pharmaceutical company founded in 1886. In 1996 Sandoz merged with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, a global player……. The Sandoz brand re-appeared in 2003 when Novartis consolidated their generic drugs business under that name.

(v) Dr Ronald Sandison – He was a leading British psychiatrist and psychotherapist. After qualifying in 1940, he joined the Royal Air Force where, at RAF Farnborough, he researched the medical effects of flying. Part of his remit was to lecture pilots about coping with oxygen deficiency whilst flying at high altitude. He was de-mobbed in 1946 at the rank of Wing Commander and would become a renowned pioneer of psychiatric care and treatment. His move to Powick Hospital offered him his first consultancy at the age of just 35.


1. Wikipedia
2. Somm Recordings
3. Worcester News 11 November 2008
4. YouTube
5. Asylumprojects.org
6. valmcbeath.com

© b-bob deluxov 2019

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