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Northfield Hospital

The Northfield Hospital was a psychiatric hospital located at Tessal Lane, Northfield in Birmingham, England, and is famous primarily for the work on group psychotherapy that took place there in the years of the Second World War. Northfield Hospital was formed by the Rubery Hill and Hollymoor Hospitals, and closed in 1995.

Northfield Hospital
Water Tower, Hollymoor Hospital, Northfield, Birmingham - - 52194.jpg
The Water Tower, Hollymoor Hospital, Northfield, Birmingham
Northfield Hospital is located in West Midlands county
Northfield Hospital
Location within West Midlands
LocationNorthfield, West Midlands, England, United Kingdom
Coordinates52°24′16″N 1°59′48″W / 52.4044°N 1.9968°W / 52.4044; -1.9968Coordinates: 52°24′16″N 1°59′48″W / 52.4044°N 1.9968°W / 52.4044; -1.9968
Care systemNHS England
Hospital typeMental health
ListsHospitals in England



Construction and expansionEdit

Northfield hospital refers to both the Rubery Hill and Hollymoor Hospitals in Northfield. Dr Thomas Lyle oversaw the building of Rubery Hill Hospital which opened in 1882[1] and he was appointed as its first Medical Superintendent. Hollymoor Hospital was built as an annexe to Rubery Lunatic Asylum by Birmingham Corporation and opened 6 May 1905. During the First World War, Rubery Hill was commandeered and became known as the 1st Birmingham War Hospital.[2][3]

The Northfield experimentsEdit

During the Second World War, the hospital was again converted to a military hospital in 1940. In April 1942 it became a military psychiatric hospital and became known as Northfield Military Hospital.[3] In 1942, while Northfield was serving as a military hospital, psychoanalysts Wilfred Bion and John Rickman set up the first Northfield experiment. Bion and Rickman were in charge of the training and rehabilitation wing of Northfield, and ran the unit along the principles of group dynamics. Their aim was to improve morale by creating a "good group spirit" (esprit de corps). Though he sounded like a traditional army officer Bion's means were very unconventional. He was in charge of around one hundred men. He told them that they had to do an hour’s exercise every day and that each had to join a group: "handicrafts, Army courses, carpentry, map-reading, sand-tabling etc.… or form a fresh group if he wanted to do so".[4] While this may have looked like traditional occupational therapy, the real therapy was the struggle to manage the interpersonal strain of organising things together, rather than simply weaving baskets. Those unable to join a group would have to go to the rest-room, where a nursing orderly would supervise a quiet regime of "reading, writing or games such as draughts... any men who felt unfit for any activity whatever could lie down".[4] The focus of every day was a meeting of all the men, referred to as a parade.

".. a parade would be held every day at 12.10 p.m. for making announcements and conducting other business of the training wing. Unknown to the patients, it was intended that this meeting, strictly limited to 30 minutes, should provide an occasion for the men to step outside their framework and look upon its working with the detachment of spectators. In short it was intended to be the first step towards the elaboration of therapeutic seminars. For the first few days little happened; but it was evident that amongst patients a great deal of discussion and thinking was taking place"[4]

The experiment had to close after six weeks as the military authorities did not approve of it and ordered the transfer of Bion and Rickman (who were members of the Royal Army Medical Corps).[5] The second Northfield experiment, which was based on the ideas of Bion and Rickman and used group psychotherapy, was started the following year by Siegfried Foulkes, who was more successful at gaining the support of the military authorities.[6] The experiments were important in the development of therapeutic communities.[5]

Decline and closureEdit

Poet Vernon Scannell was a patient at the hospital in 1947.[7] By 1949 the Hollymoor Hospital was recognisably distinct from Rubery Hill Hospital. It held 590 patients, falling slowly to 490 by 1984, and then dropping rapidly to 139 by 1994. The hospital closed in 1995 and was largely demolished.[3][8]

Northfield Military Hospital was the setting for Sheila Llewellyn's novel Walking Wounded, published in 2018.[9]


  1. ^ "Rubery Hill Hospital, Birmingham". National Archives. Retrieved 9 October 2018.
  2. ^ The Old "Doctors House" Headway, Retrieved 1 September 2010
  3. ^ a b c Hollymoor Hospital Birmingham History, Retrieved 1 September 2010
  4. ^ a b c Bion, W. (1961). Experiences in Groups. London: Tavistock. p. 16. ISBN 978-0465021741.
  5. ^ a b P Campling 2001 Therapeutic communities. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 7: 365-372
  6. ^ Waller, Diane (1993). Group Interactive Art Therapy: its use in training and treatment. London: Routledge. p. 5. ISBN 978-0415048446.
  7. ^ "Scannell, Vernon (Oral history)". Imperial war Museum. Retrieved 9 October 2018.
  8. ^ "Details: Hollymoor Hospital, Birmingham". Hospital records database. The National Archives. Retrieved 13 September 2010.
  9. ^ "Walking wounded by Sheila Llewellyn review - beautiful and humane debut". The Guardian. 1 February 2018. Retrieved 9 October 2018.

External linksEdit