The 13th Floor

The Strange and Infamous History of Britain’s Holloway Sanitarium

The English hamlet of Virginia Water is tucked away in a quiet corner of Surrey. It is home to the grand Wentworth Estate, where the first Ryder Cup golf tournament was held. Nearby lies the leafy and serene Windsor Great Park. And until 1980, it was home to the Holloway Sanitarium — one of the most intriguing locations in the country.

Established in 1885, the Holloway Sanitarium served “the insane of the middle class.” A spacious establishment filled with grandly furnished rooms overlooking sweeping lawns, it was a beautiful place to be treated. Its reputation was quite fine, but it has been haunted by misfortune since the laying of its foundation stone in 1873. Shortly after that fateful date, architect John Philpot Jones died, leaving the work to his partner William Henry Crossland. This stroke of bad luck was but the first of a series of eerie occurrences throughout the sanitarium’s long, bizarre history.

In 1903, lightning struck the roof of the building, causing a fire that was quickly put out. It wouldn’t be so lucky the next time…

Image Credit: Illustrated London News

Before we push on, let’s spend some time on the Sanitarium grounds and get acquainted.

Holloway was well appointed, with a badminton court, a swimming pool, a chapel, a cinema, a hairdresser, and a wide variety of facilities providing the patients with rest and leisure between doses of strychnine. What the Sanitarium didn’t have on hand, Virginia Water happily supplied. Long-term residents frequented the town — wandering through the streets, quietly talking to themselves, crouching in corners, and dropping sugar cubes into their soup as they went about their business.

Into this environment came Harry, a patient with a talent for dates. As documented by travel author Bill Bryson (who was an orderly in the Tuke Ward in the early 1970s) in his book NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND, Harry had the uncanny ability to tell you the day of the week of any date in history with lightning speed. December 21, 1935? Saturday. The second Wednesday of July 2017? The 12th. Inside his head was a sharply accurate calendar spanning all time… but one date in particular consumed his mind.

From the day he was admitted in 1950, Harry began to fret, asking staff members multiple times a day — in a strained, desperate voice — if the Sanitarium was going to close in 1980. They calmly and confidently reassured him that no, the hospital wasn’t going anywhere.

They were wrong.

On a dark and stormy evening in 1980, Harry was particularly restless. That night, lightning struck once more, igniting a blaze that consumed three wards and the electroshock therapy department. Says Bryson:

It would make an even better story if poor Harry had been held to his bed by leather straps and perished in the blaze. Unfortunately for purposes of exciting narrative, all the patients were safely evacuated into the stormy night, though I like to imagine Harry with his lips contorted in a strange rapturous smile as he stood on the lawn, a blanket around his shoulders, his face lit by dancing flames, and watched the conflagration that he has so patiently awaited for thirty years.

Now, historical documentation does vary on the details of this fire: Some sources say it took place in 1978 and began in the Sanitarium’s on-site cinema, leading the property on a two-year decline as renovation costs skyrocketed. But whichever source you choose to believe, Harry was right — in 1980, the gutted Sanitarium closed its doors permanently.

But if you thought that was the end of the story, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.

Holloway fell into a state of disrepair, abandoned to its gloomy memories… but it would soon hit the global stage in an entirely unexpected way: Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” music video.

That’s right, the Sanitarium was immortalized as the ethereal structure that housed Tyler and her bright-eyed schoolchildren. This isn’t just some long-forgotten relic — it’s a living, breathing piece of pop culture that you can revisit right now:

The Sanitarium quickly became a popular location for music videos, including (appropriately) Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon” and The Cure’s “Charlotte Sometimes.”

Holloway’s grim atmosphere also attracted the Michael Caine miniseries JACK THE RIPPER, the detective series INSPECTOR MORSE, and the 1986 reunion slasher SLAUGHTER HIGH. The latter film has even developed a macabre history of its own: Simon Scuddamore, who played the jester-masked killer, committed suicide mere days after the film’s release.

SLAUGHTER HIGH

Today, the site has become a gated community, but echoes of its original purpose remain: a chamber orchestra performs in the remodeled cinema; a pool is inlaid in what was once the grand Gothic badminton hall. The original Sanitarium is lost to time, captured in fleeting glimpses of immortal celluloid.

It’s a place that was haunted not by a spirit or a poltergeist, but by a long-standing melancholy that soaked the ground, seeded by broken minds and bad luck. It wasn’t evil, it was just off-kilter… and that’s exactly why its story is so interesting.

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