Wellness windows that shed light on a hospital museum

Victorian ideas about improving mental health inspired an unusual chapel. My piece for October 2021 edition of Fishponds Voice. Pix: Stella Man

Nestling behind the high wall that protects UWE’s Glenside Campus form the traffic on Blackberry Hill is one of Bristol’s hidden gems. A 140-year-old chapel, built especially for the patients of the region’s biggest psychiatric hospital, is now home to one of the most unique museums in Britain. 

The Glenside Hospital Museum, run by volunteers, tells the story of the myriad ways in which mental health has been diagnosed and treated over centuries.

The chapel itself bears witness to Victorian ideas about how to improve the lives of those suffering mental stress. 

Henry Margetson’s upbeat reredos

An altar-piece carved in Bath stone illustrates a joyous nativity scene with the visit of the Magi rather than the harrowing depiction of a crucifixion common to so many churches. Chlldren of the hospital’s eccentric Medical Superintendent Dr George Thompson provided the models for Mary and the baby Jesus.

They are the work of local sculptor Henry Thomas Margetson who also supervised the stonework of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Born in St Pauls he returned to live out his days in Combe Villa, Stapleton. His reredos sets a positive tone for the chapel which is reflected in the stained glass windows. 

Writing about the chapel in 2001, local historian John Bartlett emphasised its strong Bristol connections. Constructed of locally quarried pennant stone with Bath stone dressings, it is one of the few surviving churches buildings by architect E. Henry Edwards, who also designed the old County Fire Offices adjacent to his offices in Clare Street. The chapel was constructed by the firm of H. A. Forse of Charles Street also in the heart of the city.

Mr Forse attended the opening service on Sunday 14 August 1881, along with the imperious Dr Thomas and his wife, the housekeeper Julia Crook, and head attendants Miss. Stroud and Mr. Lawrence. The service was conducted by the hospital chaplain the Rev. James Fountaine with a Mr Mutter on the organ.

The chapel could seat up to 400 patients. Only those deemed fit enough would attend, accompanied by members of staff. At the time most of the the windows were plain, making the interior bright. Over the years stained glass windows were commissioned to add colour and further optimism to the surroundings.

A total of 13 were eventually installed but by the time Glenside Hospital closed in 1994 they were in poor state of repair. When the hospital’s consultant psychiatrist Dr Donal Early took over the church to house the Museum, Bristol Stained Glass Ltd. restored them to their former glory. 

On the north side the windows show the Good Samaritan and sundry scenes of healing including the resurrection of Lazarus. The rose window at the west end of chapel is also devoted to the theme of healing. It was donated by local worthy Sir Joseph Dodge Weston, an iron and shipping merchant and Liberal MP for Bristol East, who sponsored the opening of Bristol’s first public library in St Philips, and served as the city’s Mayor from 1880 to 1884.

His successor, Irish-born wool merchant Sir Charles Wathen, who served as Mayor six times, provided a window on the south side depicting a landscape with birds witnessing rebirth through the sowing of seeds. Wathen was a member of the Bristol’s Grateful Society which in those days looked after women recuperating after childbirth. He joined forces with clothing manufacturer Henry Gardiner to form Wathen Gardiner & Co, which became one of the world’s leading uniform makers. Now known as Bristol Uniforms these days they supply safety workwear worldwide.

“The stained glass windows are one example of where the museum would benefit from some local insight,” says Stella Man who co-ordinates activities for the charity that runs the Museum. “It is likely that there is a Biblical verse appropriate to each of them and we’d love to hear from anyone who can match them up. 

“Many of our visitors have connections with the hospital and are able to fill in gaps in our knowledge. Some of the former staff drop into see us, and relatives of former patients too. We have come across family connections going back to its earliest days.”

After a year long shutdown the Museum is now open on Wednesday mornings and all day on Saturdays. 

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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