Fireman’s lift

The former administration block of Runwell Hospital

Runwell Hospital, which closed in 2010, opened in 1937 as a mental hospital for the boroughs of Southend-on-Sea and East Ham, both then in the county of Essex. It was state-of-the-art, being built on the colony plan, with ward blocks widely spaced out on the 509-acre site. Since the closure of the hospital most of the original buildings (designed by architects Elcock & Sutcliffe) have been demolished; prominent survivals are the administration block (shown here) and the chapel, the latter in rather a sorry state and awaiting alternative use. Otherwise the site is being developed for housing (‘St Luke’s Park’, named after the chapel).

Brockfield House, entrance, showing some of the pictorial panels by Jacqueline Seifert.

One part of the site was retained for a secure hospital: Brockfield House, which opened in 2009 and was in its own very different way equally state-of-the-art. It provides forensic mental health services for people detained under the Mental Health Act or Court Order, in conditions of low and medium security (Broadmoor Hospital, to make the obvious comparison, provides treatment and care in condition of high security). When it opened it was compared, not unkindly, with a hotel, so sensitively was it designed and so well is it equipped. There are high security fences, but the layout of the building is such that they are kept to a minimum.

Lucy and I went there last week for a Firebreak pass-out. Firebreak is a five-day course run by Essex County Fire & Rescue Service that aims to improve the lives and increase the confidence and self-esteem of a wide range of people of all ages (but mostly young people) and in all situations. The Service runs dozens of courses each year, and the one in Brockfield House must be one of the more complex to organise. Normally they take place at fire stations, but in this case all the equipment (including a fire engine) must be brought to the site each day. A regular component of the course is working with ladders, but that is clearly not an option in secure hospital. It is not always possible to find enough suitable candidates, so on this occasion there was a team of eight, rather than the usual twelve, meaning they had to work that bit harder.

After passing through security and being issued with personal alarms (which we never came close to wanting to use) we met the lead instructor, Mark Crouch, and his colleagues in the hospital gym, and then trooped out to an area at the back of the hospital where seating was set up for the spectators – ourselves, a few patients’ family members, hospital staff, and quite few graduates of previous Firebreak courses who were still at the hospital. The team of eight were put through their paces, deploying hoses, performing CPR on a dummy, and generally going through the drill. At the end they lined up (by this time in quite a prolonged shower of rain) and I presented them with their certificates (dummies, actually, the real thing being more like a log book that was inside in the dry). Then we all returned to the gym for much-needed tea and biscuits.

I wish: I wish more people could witness an event like this and see what wonderful work Mark and his colleagues are doing to improve the lives of the people they work with. The positive effect, on the current team and older graduates, was plain to see. I wish more people knew of the dedication of the staff at Brockfield House, who provide a very high level of care. I wish I could include some photographs of the drill, and of the individual team members, all of whom were delightful to talk to. I wish more of their families had been there to support them and be proud of what they had achieved in just five days. I wish them the best of luck for the future, and hope that this experience has helped speed them along the road to recovery.

It was a joyful occasion, and one for celebration, but we felt sad as we drove out through the high gates, not knowing what lay ahead for the people we had met, nor indeed what had brought them there in the first place.

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