Larbert’s pioneering hospital funded by our pennies

Patients and staff at the RSNH
Patients and staff at the RSNH
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Pennies from working class people and a £100 cheque from Queen Victoria all helped fund one of Falkirk district’s most well known institutions.

The Royal Scottish National Hospital at Larbert opened 150 years ago and was intended to care and educate ‘imbecile’ children aged between six and 12 years, but very quickly older and younger children were admitted.

The former RSNH facility

The former RSNH facility

Now photographs and papers from its earliest days – which provide a rare insight into a facility which was once world renowned – have been recognised as of outstanding historical importance by the United Nations’ cultural body, UNESCO.

The hospital records, now in the care of Stirling University’s archives, have been added to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register – an online catalogue which promote’s the UK’s documentary heritage across the world.

The archives include over 3000 application forms for admission to the RSNH, including patients from England and across the British Empire, and provide a comprehensive record of the management and operation of the hospital.

Professor Fiona Mackenzie, NHS Forth Valley’s chief executive, welcomed the news, adding: “There is no doubt that the hospital was a trailblazer and its legacy one of care and compassion.”

Much of the development of the institution mirrors the country’s social history. Where once those with mental handicaps were shut away and considered ‘out of sight, out of mind’, in the mid-19th century attitudes began to change and a desire to help unfortunates grew.

However, conditions in asylums were still poor and in 1857 the Lunacy (Scotland) Act was introduced in an attempt to lay down standards for further mental health legislation.

The Society for Education of Imbecile Youth in Scotland hoped to set up a school in Edinburgh but was unable to secure premises and instead obtained a five-acre site on Stenhouse Estate, Larbert.

Buildings to house 200 children were planned and funds, mainly from a penny subscription, were gathered to pay for the first phase of work – a dormitory block to hold up to 30 pupils which was completed in May 1863.

Only nine youngsters initially moved in and, because there was no provision for state-aided pupils, it led to a complicated admission criteria being applied.

By 1879 there were 70 pupils living in the home which now had more dormitories, classrooms and service facilities.

Money to pay for this increasing expansion continued to come from charitable donations, including £100 from Queen Victoria.

Children were taught to read and write, although this often proved to be a laborious process. Some also learned arithmetic, while most were taught to sew. Girls would learn to knit and boys went to the workshops to make small wooden items, doormats or mend shoes, while others would chop firewood and help the gardener.

The provision of all-life care for mentally handicapped adults was made possible by the Mental Deficiency and Lunacy (Scotland) Act 1913 which allowed existing establishments to become certified institutions.

Plans to set up an industrial colony where 300 people could work on the land and in other occupations were held up by the Great War, but in 1925 Larbert House and its 750-acre estate was purchased at a cost of £40,000.

A massive fundraising campaign began to build the five villas, each to house 50 patients, an admin block and nurses’ home.

In 1933, the 50 boys walked from the old institution to take up residence in the new building, followed two months later by 50 girls. Soon over 700 children, teenagers and young adults were living at the two sites.

The Colony was officially opened by the Countess of Mar and Kellie on September 12, 1935.

Known as the Royal Scottish National Institution, it became known as a ‘special hospital’ following the birth of the National Health Service in 1948 and its funds, grounds and buildings were transferred to the state.

As the economy began to improve in the 1950s, an ambitious plan to expand Larbert was drawn up by the NHS. The 12-year plan to spend £1 million increasing bed numbers to 1300 was eventually completed in 1967.

However, by the 1980s there was a move to change from institutional to community care and the Colony was eventually vacated at the end of 1991.

Its closure coincided with the opening of Ochil Park – six, 10-bedded bungalows for highly dependent patients, which showed that innovative care was always a priority on this site.

However, the land still remains in NHS use as it is the site of Forth Valley Royal Hospital which was officially opened by HM The Queen two years ago.

Thanks to the UNESCO status, the work which took place at the RSNH is now safeguarded.

Highlighting the importance of this recognition for the archives, Karl Magee, the university’s archivist, said: “Hopefully this endorsement by UNESCO will raise awareness of the material we hold and encourage more people to explore the archives.

“Every year only a small select group of collections are added to the UK UNESCO Register. The extensive archives of the institution which survive provide a comprehensive record of the management and operation of the hospital.”

He added they include a wealth of information about children from all over Scotland who required treatment and care, the lives of their parents and families and the figures in their local communities who supported their application.