The ghastly ghosts of Cane Hill Asylum

As you have probably read in a previous post about Bedlam, asylums frighten people out of their wits. A certain stigma surrounds these mental health hospitals: the mentally ill are to be feared. Take this and add the rumours and stories about abuse, rape, expirimentation and starvation in Victorian hospitals and the big, imposing buildings the asylums were usually housed in and you create a perfect base for ghost stories.

Another one of these stories is about Cane Hill Asylum. Built in 1882, Caine Hill opened in 1883 as a mental asylum. With at its peak, the hospital held over 3.500 patients, even some semi-famous ones:

  • Terry Burns, David Bowies step-brother was a patient during the 1980’s after attempting to kill himself on several occasions.
  • A secret half-brother of Michael Caine: He suffered from epilepsy when he was young and in those days they used to lock him in the cellar, with a stone floor. And of course he’s bouncing about on that, and he was probably quite intelligent, but he’d bashed himself into a bloody brain abnormality. (Michael Caine, Parkinson 30 November 2002)
  • Charlie Chaplin’s Mother: Hannah Chaplin was admitted with an undiagnosed mental illness to Cane Hill Asylum from 1903 to 1912. Chaplin wrote about visiting his mother at the asylum: Sydney (Charlie’s brother) saw her, but I had not the courage, so I waited. He came back upset, and said that she had been given shock treatment of icy cold showers and that her face was quite blue. That made us decide to put her into a private institution – we could afford it now.  

But it is not the famous people who were incarcerated in the asylum, who brings me to write this story, but the patients who have lived, suffered and died in the asylum, unnoticed and hidden from sight. Are they still wandering around the halls?

Keith Bouther, project director of the documentary ‘Cane Hill: From the Inside”, talked about some of these ghost stories in his interview with the Guardian on 11th May 2006.

“There are ghost stories,” Keith added. “We heard a strange one from the security team. One night one of them was patrolling the grounds and the guard dog, which was quite vicious, was let off the lead but ran off in the opposite direction whimpering. “It was then the figure of a man was seen wandering around the trees. “When we visited the spot, we found the grave of the hospital’s first superintendent Sir James Moody, virtually hidden by undergrowth. “Wé had a spooky experience at the site a couple of months ago. My wife thought she saw a figure cross the corridor ahead of us while we checked out filming locations.

It has been derelict since the main part of the building closed in 1992 and has now become a popular site for ghost hunters and urban explorers. The building was partly demolished in 2008 and a fire demolished another big part in 2010.

The website below documented the asylum in a series of photos. It gives a good impression of the asylum and might even give us a reason for the many ghost stories surrounding the place.

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