Spotlight on the Herrison Hospital collection - family history know-how


23 March 2020
Sophie Smith, archives service officer at Dorset History Centre, introduces the records of the former Dorset Asylum, that provided accommodation for thousands of patients over the decades.

Dorset History Centre (DHC) in Dorchester was founded in 1955 and in 1991 moved to a purpose-built building with environmentally-controlled strong rooms. We hold the archives of Dorset, ranging from council and parish records to personal, business and estate collections.

 In 2018 DHC secured funding from the Wellcome Trust for the conservation and cataloguing of the Herrison Hospital (Dorset Asylum) collection. 

History of Herrison Hospital 

In 1832, the country home Forston House was converted into the Dorset County Asylum, and in 1863 another wing of the hospital was built to allow for more patients. In 1904, Herrison House, a purpose-built asylum for private patients was created and by 1913 there were 957 patients at Herrison. 

By 1932 Herrison had become a self-supporting community with its own farm, laundry, ballroom, cinema, operating theatre and dental room. The 1970s saw efforts to move patients back into society and by 1979 there were 200 long stay patients left at Herrison. The 1980s saw community-based care increase, leaving the building as the headquarters to the Dorset Health Authority, before Herrison House was officially closed in 1992.

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A record collection to learn about

The Herrison Hospital records cover everything from administrative records to rounders score books and consist of approximately 300 boxes of archival material. The most complete series of records is the Patient Order papers, which were created by a medical professional to assess the mental health of each patient upon their admission to the Asylum. They were also used to give each patient an identifying patient number which could be used on other records produced throughout their stay at the hospital. (Dorset History Centre reference: NG-HH/CMR/4/32/patient number) 

The Order Papers span over 100 years of patients from 1832 to 1940 and comprise approximately 12,000 items. Details include: 

  • Personal information of the patient including name, age, residence etc. 
  • Description of temperament/previous treatment
  • Medical professional statement regarding observations
  • Family/friend statement regarding recent behaviours

These records are an excellent starting point for family research as the patient number can be used to track a patient’s paper trail through the records. 

Hospital patient records are subject to certain restrictions under the Data Protection Act. Access to records containing information less than 100 years old is restricted. For more information visit our website or search for records of your ancestors on our online catalogue. For enquires about access to original documents e-mail.

(image copyright Dorset History Centre)

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