Introduction & Architect


Use of site

Extensions to hospital

World wars


National Health Service

Closure & video clips


Sale of site to Developer

Grade II listing




Introduction & Architect               Index


 Devington Park started life as the Devon County Lunatic Asylum. The asylum was designed by architect Charles Fowler, built during 1842-1845 and commenced taking in patients during mid 1845. Thus, the buildings are over 169 years old. Fowler (1792-1867) was a local Devon architect from Cullompton, who went on to become a founder member of the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), later becoming vice president.


 His early works included the River Dart bridge at Totnes and the court of bankruptcy in Basinghall Street, London.


 Later buildings prior to the Devon County Asylum was the market in the Piazza at Covent Garden, where he used granite from Haytor, Devon, followed by Hungerford market, the market at Tavistock and the Lower Market at Exeter. He was associated with the design and building of many churches in London and Devon including St. Andrews church in Charmouth, West Dorset. A later hospital work was the London Fever hospital in Islington, London. He was also responsible for considerable additions and alterations to Powderham Castle for the Courteney family.


 In about 1842, following the winning of a competition, Fowler commenced the building of the Devon County Pauper Lunatic Asylum. His design to produce a ‘model’ example of a hospital for the mental care of patients was based upon the radial plan of the type pioneered at Millbank Prison, London. The design concept was for a single person to observe all of the inmates of the institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. Although not of course possible it nevertheless meant that the inmates must act as though they were being watched all the time, which had the effect of controlling their behaviour at all times. The concept was known as ‘Panopticon’, and the design was later abandoned for such buildings. The asylum eventually had a capacity of over eight hundred beds.


 It must be understood that at the time in which such asylums were being built, the care and treatment of ‘insanity’, this being the broad description of mental illness at that time, was in relative infancy. The novel, ‘Human Traces’, by author Sebastian Faulks, describes in brilliant detail the grim reality of life in such an institution as the Devon Asylum, particularly as the buildings became overcrowded towards the end of the 19th. century.



Design               Index


 Fowler designed the asylum with classical architectural features and beautifully landscaped gardens with views of the Devon countryside in order to provide a therapeutic environment in which to house the patients. The building even had a ballroom (now known as ‘The Orangery’) in order to effect curative treatment away from society at large. Although there was a custodial element to the buildings, it was intended that the asylum would provide social care in addition to the treatment of the mental conditions from which many of the patients suffered.


 His design took the form of a central semi circular link block (now known as 'The Cloisters') with six radial arms like the spokes of a wheel (these are now the current ‘Walks’). At the ends of each radial arm stood service areas, or day rooms which were used depending on the gender of the patients. Near to the central area stood a large kitchen, an octagonal building which is now the site of 'The Priory', one of the private dwellings on the Park. Near to the kitchen was a very large building used as an administrative block, known at that time as the ‘Centre House’. That magnificent building is, today, known as ‘The Mansion House’ and is the centre piece of the modern housing development conversion.


Use of site               Index


 The areas in between the radials were used for exercise, a feature very important to the day to day running of the asylum. They were known as airing courts and, for each court there was a shelter provided in the event of inclement weather. Only one of these shelters survives and is now used partly as a shelter for bicycles and also houses our laundry drying room. The airing courts are now landscaped and generally used as car parking areas.


 To the west of the hospital stood a farm which provided much for the food needs of the patients and staff. The farm houses are now private dwellings.


 Although not always mentally ill, many patients, particularly elderly, were transferred from other institutions and women escaping from violent husbands would be admitted as, indeed would young women, pregnant ‘out of wedlock’, often to be institutionalised by the process.


 Many records still exist today of inmates who lived and died in the Devon asylum and there are many Devon families with relatives who spent time there.


Extensions to hospital               Index


 As the population of the hospital grew, it became necessary to extend the buildings. The resulting extensions damaged the radial design of the blocks and the original building plan became changed in a negative manner.



 During the last quarter of the 19th. century a chapel was erected on the main driveway leading from the lodge gates to the main entrance of the asylum. The chapel, designed by architect Joseph Neale is still in use today albeit now as a private school. Near to the Devington Park development is the old Asylum cemetery, complete with lychgate. Following this, in 1888 an annexe was built on ground near to the existing farm. This was subsequently extended and linked to one of the main radials ('Buckland Walk') and was known as the West Wing.


 The subsequent building of extensions at the beginning of the 20th. century resulted in the original plan being significantly altered by additions not in keeping with the original design. A very large laundry and engine house was developed and much of the main building was added to, including the building of bay windows to many of the radial blocks. In 1925 the property, known as ‘Glenlyn’ was built near to the lodge houses at the bottom of Hospital Drive, the tree lined avenue leading up to the main entrance, in order to house the Clerk of works. This gives some indication as to the amount of building work being carried out on the site. ‘Glenlyn’ is now beautifully converted and modernised and is used as a  residence in order to  accommodate and give support to people with learning disabilities, mental health problems and complex needs, thus continuing to give support in the community. Other buildings constructed at the bottom of Hospital Avenue, originally used for residences of superintendents and other functionaries, are still used today by private businesses.


World wars               Index


 During WWI the Hospital was used to accommodate shell shocked soldiers and it was during this period that the hospital name was changed to Exminster Mental Hospital.


 There is a recent BBC research item relating to the history and treatment of mental patients at the Exminster Hospital (now Devington Park), which was produced during December 2014 as part of the BBC World War I at home history. This excellent piece entitled "Devington Park, Exminster: Silent Suffering" can be accessed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02fbgy4 and is well worth a look.


 During the 1930’s a large nurses home was built near to the burial ground of the asylum. This building has survived and up to recent times was used as offices by the Department of the Environment (now sold and to be converted into rented apartments). At the same time the house known as ‘Merthyr’ was built adjacent to the chapel on Hospital drive in order to to house staff from the hospital. This fine house is now a privately owned residence.


 The second World War did not leave the hospital unscathed as it was bombed with the loss of 9 patients and over 30 patients were injured. At the same time, five wards were destroyed.


Development               Index


 Throughout the development of the life of the asylum, many additional buildings were built to the side and rear of the perimeter road which surrounded the estate. Old photos of the area show how out of keeping such buildings were, which detracted from the main architectural elegance prevalent in Charles Fowlers original construction.


 Contemporary photography of the time prior to 1985 gives an indication as to how the site had changed from the original Fowler design. Many extensions were built around the site, particularly to the west, behind the West Wing and to the south east where buildings were attached to the end of what is now known as Knighthayes Walk. Link corridors were built to connect what is now known as ‘The Orangery’ to the ends now known as Dartington Walk and Buckland Walk. A further large block was constructed on the end of what is now known as Lawrence Walk and a very large collection of buildings spanned the area parallel to Woodbury Walk and connecting Killerton Walk to Woodbury via a further link corridor.


 The effect of all the sprawl of extensions was to create a huge hospital in comparison to the original Charles Fowler design and much of the original elegance was disguised by the ‘modern’ additions. Notably, in 1890 there were 240 beds, rising to 1700 beds in 1974.



National Health Service               Index


 Following World War II, the National Health Service was created and this was to have a significant effect on the Exminster site. There were other mental hospitals in and around Exeter at that time, namely Digby Hospital and Wonford, The three sites were integrated to become collectively known as Exe Vale Hospital. The Exminster site was mainly used to house elderly and chronic cases of patients with mental illness, as was the Digby site, known at the time as Exeter Mental Hospital, becoming Digby Hospital in 1949. The Wonford site is still used as the psychiatric unit of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, which stands on the site formerly belonging to the Wonford unit. Digby Hospital closed in 1989 and was converted to a housing development similar to Devington Park.



 Between the commencement of the NHS and mid 1985, the Exminster hospital was used to treat patients with mental conditions. It was probably the largest employer in the Exminster area and there would be few families in the old part of the existing village who would not have one or more family members who worked on the hospital site.


Closure & video clips               Index


 The Exminster site finally closed in July 1985 and remained empty for many years. The west wing and indeed almost all of the subsequent additions to the Fowler design were demolished to leave the original design, by and large, still standing. During this period the buildings were designated as Grade II listed and became under the protection of English Heritage. During a period of approx. ten years the building structure fabric fell into disrepair and despite injections of money the buildings were vandalised and neglected. The Main (Mansion) House floors became very unsafe due to partial collapse, and the site in general was in a sorry state. Not much is known of the extent of the deterioration of the site and buildings over this period, however a trawl of the internet will reveal images of the sad state to which the buildings succumbed. One item in particular shows a video which reveals some of the interiors on the buildings and, of particular interest shows a short piece revealing the condition of part of the front elevation of what is now known as ‘The Cloisters’. This piece may be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAnJde8G7VQ. The video was shot close to the start of the conversion, is quite scary and is in stark contrast to the beautiful place which is Devington Park today.


 Another highly significant and historical video piece can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oswUssXzFlY. This colour video is a full length BBC production called ‘BBC Mental A History of the Madhouse'. It is a sad film, and it may be considered to be somewhat upsetting to some. However it gives a very good insight into the closure of the mental hospitals of the time. Although the Exminster hospital is not mentioned by name throughout the entire piece, there are three short clips which are clearly of the Exminster site before  closure. All the clips are of good quality and show the site prior to any deterioration. They are to be seen at the following times into the film. Blink, and you will miss at least two of them:


Clip 1. Time - 45.42 mins to 45.47. Shows approx. 5 secs of a view within either the ground or first floor of what is now known as ‘The Cloisters’.



Clip 2. Time - 46.05 mins to 46.09. Shows approx. 5 secs of a view taken from either the top floor of what is now known as ‘The Mansion House’, or from the clock tower balcony above. The clip shows part of 'Woodbury Walk’ to the left, buildings to the right (now demolished), which were connected to ‘Killerton Walk’ and in the background shows the chimney of the Laundry engine house (now demolished), and the nurses home (which still exists but is now not part of Devington Park).


Clip 3. Time - 46.50 mins to 47.07. Shows approx. 17 secs of a view taken from either the top floor of what is now known as ‘The Mansion House’, or from the clock tower balcony above. The roof of South Wing and Knighthayes Walk is visible as are buildings connected to the far end of Knighthayes. Also clearly shown is the ‘Cloisters’, the roof and extract ducts of the original Kitchen (now ‘The Priory’), the original Ballroom (now ‘The Orangery') and, to the right is the full length of what is now known as 'Buckland Walk’). To the rear of and attached to the end of ‘Buckland Walk’ can clearly be seen part of The West Wing, which was added after 1888 (now demolished). Also shown in clips 2 and 3 are many other buildings which were additions to the original design, and since demolished. Some of these buildings can be seen on the photograph attached to this article below. It is interesting to note that this clip shows the entire elevation of the ground and first floor of ‘The Cloisters’ as being clad with full height windows and separated by granite columns. None of these windows exist today and the elevations are exposed to the weather, with the recent problems associated with the walkway between Lower and Upper Cloisters, possibly being a result of such exposure.



These clips are considered to be the only good quality unique video images of the Exminster hospital to be found in the public domain, prior to the conversion to the Devington Park of today.


Photo               Index



 Exminster Hospital prior to closure

  (Copyright Acknowledged as http://www.countyasylums.com/mentalasylums/airexminster.htm)


Sale of site to Developer              Index


  The site was eventually sold to a developer, Devington Homes Limited with the intention that the buildings would be converted to become residential units and the whole 11 acre site be landscaped to the satisfaction of English Heritage and the local planning authority and, in 2001, using a large team of builders, structural consultant and engineers, architect and landscape consultants, the site was successfully developed over a period of seven to eight years, into what is known today as Devington Park. The conversion was not easy by any means and a considerable risk must have been taken by the developer in order to tackle the challenges facing such a conversion. Prior to conversion, much of the buildings were boarded up and the developer needed to deal piecemeal with each challenge as it was uncovered. The end of the radial known as Knighthayes Walk was in such poor condition that it was required to be demolished and was completely rebuilt to the original exterior design using modern building materials, such that it looks little different in external design to any other similar building on the site. Cellars were uncovered, some of which contained rings bolted to the walls, one can only imagine for what use or reason. In all cases, such cellars were filled with concrete. A huge amount of underpinning work to the structures was carried out throughout the conversion with many of the radials and end units benefitting from a comprehensive system of reinforced concrete foundations all supported on new steel and concrete piles, some of which were driven to a depth of up to 11 metres deep under some of the end units. This work was carried out by a specialist contractor and gives some indication of the attention given by the developers to the long term stability of the buildings. In addition to the extensive underpinning, many new concrete floors were laid and tied in to the load bearing walls with steel bars in order to greatly strengthen the related structures. Elsewhere, old floors were replaced by new treated timber floors which were bolted to the load bearing walls to improve stability. Old cracks which had been apparent in the load bearing walls had originally resulted from differential movements of the structure caused by settlement many years ago, needed repair. This work varied from the cutting out and replacement of individual cracked bricks and re-pointing for minor cracks using lime mortar similar to the type of mortar used in the original construction. For more major cracks, repairs were made by stitching across with concealed stainless steel bars. These were all specialist procedures and this work was undertaken by an international specialist that carried out this type of work all over the world.


 The effect of all this incredible structural work when completed was to make those buildings thus treated significantly stronger and more robust than when originally constructed.


Devington Park was visited by HRH The Prince of Wales. Prince Charles visited in his capacity of patron of The Phoenix Trust during November 2004.



Grade II listing               Index


 The Grade II listing by and large prevented the alteration of the external elevations of the buildings but allowed internal construction to be undertaken in order to successfully achieve a modern contemporary conversion to produce 118 dwellings with modern interiors and facilities. A small gymnasium was included in the conversion and the exterior grounds were beautifully landscaped to provide for both formal and informal areas. To the west of the site, the area is a partial nature reserve, whilst the remaining areas are more formal. Up to recent times (c.2004) it was thought that the area to the west of the park was the habitat of the cirl bunting, a rare bird known to exist in this part of Devon. However, it was subsequently found that 'the bird had flown' and restrictions on the care of that part of the park were lifted to allow some landscaping of the area. To the left of the main entrance to the park there is a small but beautifully tended pond complete with a family of ducks who visit from time to time, a well stocked ornamental fish stock and a seating area complete with gazebo. An activity trail surrounds part of the park. The site is ‘gated’ in that there are electrically operated wrought iron double gates situated to the front centre of the development opposite the Mansion House, with two further double gates situated at the north and south entrances. The main central gate is open generally during daylight hours, the other gate being restricted to resident operation control. It will be noted that the original site did not include entrance gates, other than the very large gates by the lodge houses at the bottom of Hospital Avenue. Although Reddaway Drive now bisects the avenue between the park and the entrance lodge gates, the avenue leading from the lodge gates gives a magnificent view of what the drive up to the Park must have been all those years ago. The old chapel built in 1877 and other buildings built during the early 20th. century can be seen on the right from the lodge gates entrance direction, whilst the south side of the Avenue is planted with magnificent trees (mainly Lime trees), all of which have a preservation order attached.


 We hope that this short history has been informative to you. It was researched using various local sources including the internet. We gratefully acknowledge any and all such sources including any copyright associated with the attached image.




 We hope to be able to add to the history in future.


 Thanks for looking!


From The Team at devingtonpark.com   


Jump to top of page