Looking back at the Ida Darwin

Ida Darwin siteThese are the last days of the Ida Darwin site, next to Fulbourn Hospital a few miles south of Cambridge. I went to have a look around there recently. It was a cold Sunday afternoon, and the wintry sun was just setting, throwing long, soft-edged shadows across the frosty grass and lighting up the low redbrick buildings dotted about the complex. A small plane glinted silver as it buzzed overhead, and the branches of the tall trees glowed apricot against the bright blue sky. At my feet, tiny red and green flags on the lawns showed the way for the bulldozers that will soon be arriving.

The original hospital was built in the 1960s, commissioned as a series of inpatient wards for the care of 250 children and adults with learning disabilities and named after Ida Darwin in recognition of her pioneering, but little known, work in mental welfare. She died in 1946, the year that the NHS was formed, and years before mental health services  became the national organization known as Mind today. “Reform of the legislation around mental illness had to wait until the Mental Health Act of 1959” as one informative website puts it. In 1965 the Ida Darwin was hailed as a progressive establishment, but by the 1980s the model of institutional care that it provided had become outdated. Residents moved in increasing numbers to supervised domestic housing in the community, and it was decommissioned as a hospital. Over the past twenty-five years the site has continued to operate, instead, as a collection of separate clinics, day-care centres and community services.

There are still three NHS mental health inpatient units for children and young people based there: the Darwin Centre for Young People, the Phoenix Centre and the Croft Child and Family Unit. On my walk that Sunday I could see a faint curl of smoke from a chimney from the Darwin Centre, one of the larger and more recently renovated buildings on the complex, and cars parked outside. The rest of the site looks as if it was abandoned long ago. High fences protect empty buildings from vandals and intruders, and weeds are already twining green strands through the metal bars.

I followed the path towards Block 10, the former home of Headway Cambridgeshire, the charity for brain-injured adults that moved to the Ida Darwin in 2012. It was never likely to be their permanent home, because that was the year that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT) sold the entire site to Homes England. The 1960s redbrick buildings were no longer considered ‘fit for purpose’ and were too expensive to renovate, and it was argued that the money raised by selling the estate would be used more usefully to develop NHS services elsewhere. Outline planning permission has now been granted for two hundred new houses to be built there, and the services based on the Ida Darwin site are one by one moving to new locations.

During the six years it was based at the Ida Darwin, Headway Cambridgeshire made Block 10 a pleasant and comfortable space, with a much-loved garden, small gym and bright day rooms with large windows giving views of the changing colours of the many trees on the site. In 2017 I spent an afternoon there, invited to give a talk to a group of service-users and staff who had been researching a project about the life of Ida Darwin and why the site was named after her. Along one wall was a brightly coloured mural marking the stages of Ida’s life, up to and after she co-founded the Cambridgeshire Mental Welfare Association in 1908, one of the first organizations of its kind. It formed part of the research group’s exhibition and timeline presentation, and the excellent short film ‘Looking Back at Making Headway’ (2017).

‘We’ve made this amazing project’, as Nick says. ‘So look.’

The Headway Cambs research group’s work will continue in 2019 with a centenary project, aided by National Lottery funding, exploring and interpreting the history of people with brain injuries in Cambridgeshire as a result of the First World War. It will focus on the untold history of the soldiers of the Cambridgeshire Regiment who received brain injuries, and the hospitals in Cambridge where they were treated. The work will be presented in an exhibition and book and all progress will be reported in a podcast run by Cambridge 105 Radio Station. I wish Headway Cambs all the best for their new research project, and their new home.

7 thoughts on “Looking back at the Ida Darwin

  1. Elizabeth Stratton says:

    Hi Ann,

    It is sad about the condition of the Ida Darwin site at the moment. We’ve lived in Fulbourn for over 11 years and were told when we moved there that the Ida Darwin site would be the site of new housing but this still hasn’t happened. Both our boys went to the nursery that was there and we have attended open days at Headway as well as medical appointments at other buildings. But it just seems to get more and more empty and sad as departments and organisations move away. Thanks for bringing it to people’s attention.

    Best wishes,


    Liked by 1 person

    • akennedysmith says:

      Thank you so much, Elizabeth, that is fascinating to hear. It is indeed sad to see such a beautiful site fall into neglect, and I very much hope that Headway & the other brilliant family organisations there find new homes that are as good. I also hope Ida Darwin’s legacy can be honoured in some way, as this site did for over fifty years. With all good wishes, Ann


  2. Ian Gates says:

    I spent a happy year ( 1971/72) working at the Ida Darwin as an unpaid “Assistant Voluntary Services Coordinator “, living in the Nurses accommodation. My memory of it is that it was, for its time, an enlightened and humane establishment, caring mostly for adults with quite severe learning disabilities ( “severely subnormal” in the terminology of the period), many of whom would probably have previously been in harsh institutional environments. The small units were homely in their way, and the staff caring and dedicated- a few of them were older Nurses who possibly found the relative informality of the regime difficult to adjust to, but overall the atmosphere was kindly and supportive, including the on-site Occupational Therapy unit. My main function was to support volunteers ( mostly University students) in befriending and undertaking activities with the residents, but I also worked directly with the residents/patients myself, and I have fond memories of how responsive some of them.were to simply being shown kindness and attention. The experience played a large part in my decision to become a social worker, which I was for nearly 50 years. No doubt later models of care provision were more enlightened, but in its time the Ida Darwin was a fine establishment whose memory should be cherished.

    Liked by 1 person

    • akennedysmith says:

      Dear Ian, this is fascinating to read – thank you for letting me know about your experience of volunteering at the Ida Darwin Hospital. I am very glad to hear that it was such a kindly place and I will add your comments to my research notes. Best wishes, Ann


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