A BOY'S OWN BROADMOOR

Not far from London is a high-security psychiatric hospital that has held some of Britain's most violent criminals. The novelist Patrick McGrath grew up there—and loved it...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

IN 1957 MY FATHER, Dr Pat McGrath, was appointed the tenth and last medical superintendent of what was then called Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum. The place was in bad shape. It was in many respects obsolete, and chronically overcrowded: 800 mentally ill men and women confined in a top-security institution designed for 500. Patients slept in corridors and day rooms. Security was paramount. The staff comprised a corps of custodial attendants in black uniforms and peaked caps and, according to Pat McGrath, just one-and-a-half psychiatrists.    

I remember being with him once, at dusk, crossing a yard inside the hospital. I was eight or nine years old at the time. A scream came from a high window in Block Six. Even now, more than half a century later, the words "block six" arouse an echo of the dreadful fascination I once felt with that building. It was where the most disturbed male patients were housed. New admissions went into Block Six, if they presented any risk—men who had in most cases committed grievous acts of violence while psychotic. But it wasn't a scream of demented fury that I heard that evening; it was a scream of the most wretched misery. I turned to my father. "Poor John," he murmured, and I understood that he understood what his patient was suffering; and the fact that he understood it robbed the scream of much of its terror for me. 

My father was then 40. A robust, forceful man, broad-shouldered and stocky, he had a fine high forehead, thick black hair and a nose like a hawk's. When he took his glasses off you saw how pale, almost icily blue his eyes were. He had a strong personality and a quick clear mind. He'd graduated in medicine from Glasgow University in September 1939, at the age of 22, and immediately joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Within days he was in uniform. He broke his back in a fall on the Rock of Gibraltar, but he once told me that the damage war did to a man's mind was greater by far than any physical injury he might suffer, and it was this recognition of the effects of psychological trauma that led him to specialise in psychiatry. He'd come to Broadmoor to see what the forensic end of it looked like. On the death of the previous incumbent he accepted the job of superintendent, and set about dragging this unwieldy, overburdened institution into the 20th century. 

On our arrival we'd moved into a large, drafty, red-brick Victorian villa just 100 yards from the Main Gate. My parents named it Kentigern, after the patron saint of Glasgow where they'd grown up. Helen and Pat met at a wedding in 1948 and were married a year later. I was born a year after that.

The running of Broadmoor is no job for the faint of heart. My father would come home from work with his face black with tension, and I'd keep out of his path till he'd had a Scotch or two. My sister Judy, who worked in Broadmoor for a spell, remembers this dramatic story. A patient took another patient hostage in his room. He had a knife and was threatening to cut the other man's throat unless his demands were met. "Everyone moves in," writes Judy, "and negotiations begin. Nothing seems to work until the deputy super offers to take the place of the hostage. Dad wasn't having it. If anyone was going in it had to be him. So McGrath it is. Dad went in. Don't know what he did in there, but he lived to tell the tale."

Later, in his 50s, he suffered from acute psoriasis, almost certainly the effect of stress. He was an able and fearless administrator, but his heart was always in clinical work. I think he decided to take on Broadmoor because he saw what needed doing, and because he could. Sometimes, however, it became too much for him and he'd speak wistfully of the life of a country GP. More than once he applied to a practice in some remote corner of Scotland, or the Borders. The rest of the family was appalled at the prospect of leaving Broadmoor, and fortunately the Home Office always persuaded him to stay.

The problem he faced, at least in the early days, was that in his efforts to institute reform he had to deal not only with a conservative old guard within Broadmoor itself, but with political masters in Whitehall no less resistant to change. One exception, curiously, was Enoch Powell. Not known for his sympathy for the outsider, he was in fact a man of the hard right who could also see the point of social reform. Powell became minister of health in Harold Macmillan's government in 1960. He had strong views about the Victorian psychiatric institutions. In 1961 he made his famous "Water Tower" speech: "There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water tower…" He was talking about decrepit asylums like Broadmoor, and the urgent need to open them up so as to bring the patients into the light, give them the care they required in the community. 

I remember Powell and his wife coming to Kentigern for dinner. My father had a guarded respect for this able, clever man, and certainly admired his ability to recite classical poetry from memory. The two of them competed that night over some obscure verses—Pat McGrath was nothing if not competitive, but he was out of his depth. Powell, a Classics professor at 25, won easily. Earlier, the minister was amused to discover that the superintendent's eldest son was an avid Wolves fan, Wolverhampton being part of his West Midlands constituency. A week after his visit there arrived in the post a team photograph signed by all the players, including Norman Deeley, scorer of two decisive goals in the 1960 Cup Final.

Photograph: A patient at Broadmoor (Getty)

BY THE TIME I shook Enoch Powell's hand the family had settled happily into Broadmoor life. The superintendent's kids—there were four of us eventually—were well pleased with their lot. Kentigern had sculleries, pantries, a meat safe, servants’ quarters, and various sheds and outhouses, including a conservatory where the patients grew tomatoes. The garden was a sprawling expanse of trees and lawns, a goldfish pond with a fountain, a vegetable garden and, best of all, areas of dense rhododendron bushes where you could hide out from the authorities and build a campfire. It was a good place to grow up.

A working party of parole patients helped to look after the garden, and these men were our first friends in Broadmoor. The parole system was a fairly recent innovation; it allowed trusted patients to go outside the Wall, where they performed the tasks of the grounds staff of a great country manor, and in retrospect the Broadmoor of my childhood does seem like a large, sleepy, feudal estate. It had opened its doors in 1863, during the great progressive era of Victorian social engineering, when the asylum was regarded by many as "the most blessed manifestation of true civilisation that the world can present". 

Its imposing buildings are of red brick with slender round-arched windows and shallow slate roofs, and they stand—"majestic, imperious"—on a broad, lofty ridge with a deep prospect of the Berkshire countryside beyond, woods and fields as far as the eye can see. A long, terraced slope sweeps down to the valley below, and buildings and grounds, all 53 acres, are surrounded by a 16-foot-high perimeter wall, also of red brick, softened and faded by weather and time. There is a small bump or blister close to the Main Gate where a dangerous patient called Frank Mitchell, a member of the Kray gang, escaped in the summer of 1958. Leaving a dummy in his bed, he had cut through the bars of his room with a hacksaw, got over an internal wall, then scaled the Wall at this vulnerable spot, a classic getaway. 

Much excitement for a small boy, although to my disgust I wasn't allowed out of the house. There were policemen and dogs everywhere. Then soldiers arrived, tumbling out of jeeps and lorries, but before they could join the search parties Pat McGrath insisted they be disarmed. How impressive this seems to me now. I picture the officer, a brisk young man, his orders perfectly clear: there's a homicidal maniac on the loose and it's his job to recapture him with all due dispatch. But here he is faced with some bloody civilian telling him his men can't have their weapons. There was no question, however, as to who was in charge. Pat McGrath had served in the Far East and was no stranger to firearms, but he wasn't having men with guns in the grounds of his hospital.    

When Frank Mitchell was brought back a few days later I was among the Broadmoor children lining the road to the Main Gate to watch the Black Maria go by. He'd terrorised a Wokingham family with an axe during the few days he'd been out, but thankfully had done no actual physical harm. Some years earlier, before we came to Broadmoor, the child-killer John Straffen had escaped. He was quickly recaptured, but not before he had murdered a little girl. This of course did the hospital no good at all.

I WAS OFTEN inside Broadmoor as a boy, usually when my mother took me to visit Dad in his office. We'd walk up to the Main Gate where we'd be met by a male nurse with a large bunch of keys attached to his trouser pocket. He'd lead us through a double-locked door and along a flagstoned corridor, then through a barred gate and down an echoing cloister. We crossed a courtyard and, after a second double-locked door, entered the Administration Building. Then on down a long corridor until we arrived at my father's office. 

A huge room this, with an enormous desk, glass-fronted bookcases, and high windows with deep vistas of terraced gardens, and patients strolling in the sunshine. The sheer sweep of the prospect dwarfed the Wall below, and almost made you forget where you were. In the office hung drawings and watercolours by the distinguished Victorian artist Richard Dadd, who in 1843 murdered his father, believing him to be the devil. He then fled to France intending to kill the pope. He was captured while trying to cut a man's throat in a coach. After a spell in Bedlam he was transferred to Broadmoor and there, in tranquil surroundings, he resumed painting, controlled, he believed, by the god Osiris. He died of consumption in 1886 and is buried at Broadmoor.

Beyond the Wall there are 170 acres of farmland, the farm having at one time provided most of the hospital's supplies. There's staff housing, a sports field, a staff club, a primary school, the Siren (a soaring, spindly, metal structure faintly resembling the Eiffel Tower), two cemeteries and a library of forensic psychiatry named after my father and opened by him in 1992. The hospital's closest fellow institutions are Wellington College and the Military Academy at Sandhurst, and it used to be said that a gentleman could be educated at Wellington, become an officer at Sandhurst, and end his days in Broadmoor, without travelling more than a mile or two in any direction. It was a stratified, structured and very orderly community under the firm hand of a benevolent despot, Pat McGrath. As for the patients on the working party, the salutary effect of a steady job in the fresh air was a feature of "milieu therapy" which, as far as I could ever discover, meant giving people something to do and expecting them to be punctual about it. It was seen as good preparation for an eventual return to the community. 

For many of those men the wait would be a long one. I once asked one of the parole patients, a kindly man who was like an uncle to me, and who'd built me a swing, what it was he'd actually "done". With some sadness he told me it was "very bad", and with that I had to be satisfied. I never asked the question again. My father gently told me it was none of my business, and in fact he never told me what any of his patients had "done", although with the more infamous of them there wasn't much need to ask. When Graham Young, the "Teacup Poisoner", arrived at Broadmoor in 1962, for example, it had been all over the newspapers that he had poisoned several members of his family, one of whom, his stepmother, had died. After his release in 1971 he poisoned around 70 more people, of whom two died, and he was sent to Parkhurst Prison where he himself died of natural causes in 1990. There was much criticism of Broadmoor, naturally, for having let Young out. But dangerousness is a notoriously tricky thing to assess. Release a patient too early and the results can be disastrous. Keep him in, and he may rot. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered 13 women, was sent to Broadmoor in 1984, after my father's time. He's still there.

There was one Broadmoor patient whom my father regarded as not sick but evil, one of the only two evil men he'd ever met, he told me. On his retirement he advised that this man, diagnosed a psychopath, should never be released. By then my parents had moved off the estate and were living nearby in Crowthorne. The patient escaped soon after. On hearing of this, my father promptly applied to the Home Office for a revolver. Fortunately he never had to use it. The man fled to Holland, where he shot dead a security guard and was imprisoned for ten years. He was later readmitted to Broadmoor.  

The only other evil man Pat McGrath knew, and whom he refused to admit to Broadmoor, was Ian Brady. Brady's partner in the Moors Murders was Myra Hindley; together they murdered five children. They were sentenced to life in 1966, and Brady was later transferred to Ashworth, another top-security hospital. He's been there ever since. My father wasn't alone in believing that Brady dominated Myra Hindley and effectively extinguished her personality.

Ronnie Kray, the east London gangster and murderer, was a patient in Broadmoor, having been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in prison. My father described the mayhem that resulted after any visit from Ronnie's East End friends. These men handed out liberal tips to patients left and right, and hopelessly disrupted the hospital's delicate internal economy. After they left, the staff would make the rounds of the wards, relieving disappointed patients of large quantities of cash. 

 

Photograph: Policemen gather at the Main Gate after the escape of "Mad Axeman" Frank Mitchell in 1958. Pat McGrath insisted search parties were disarmed (Alamy)

DESPITE OUR PROXIMITY to a great many very disturbed men and women, I found Broadmoor an idyllic place to grow up. I attended Broadmoor Primary School with the other staff children. The classes were large, and when I was there the school was feeding children into Edgbarrow, the local secondary modern, and Forest Grammar. I took my 11-Plus in Broadmoor Primary, and played football on the cricket field nearby, the "cricky", with its Gothic pavilion, since demolished. A frequent refrain in those years: "I'm just off up the cricky, Mum." In the summer holidays we roamed the estate in happy ignorance of the oddity of it all, and not until I was much older did I understand that it was considered strange to have grown up in the grounds of a secure mental hospital. I'd moved to New York by then, and had my first book published. The New York Times sent a reporter downtown to interview me. I told him about my childhood, and to my astonishment he led with this in the piece. Since then I've never been interviewed about my work without Broadmoor coming up; but as a small boy you tend not to think about whether you're having an unusual childhood. You have far more pressing matters to attend to. 

But I did learn some forensic psychiatry at a young age, for my father enjoyed talking about his work, and I was of course eager to listen. He told me of his frustration at public attitudes towards his patients, and of the difficulty he faced in his attempts to discharge men and women who, in his judgment, no longer posed a risk to the public. He hated the stigma attached to mental illness, and was furious whenever he heard Broadmoor described as a prison, or his patients as criminals, or himself as the warden of a fearsome jail inhabited by howling legions of homicidal maniacs. All this I absorbed, plus some rudimentary knowledge of schizophrenia and psychopathy. After my father retired I once said in his hearing that by the age of five I understood the insanity defence, by which I meant the legal defence in which it's argued that the accused, being unable to understand the moral nature of his actions, cannot therefore be held responsible for them. Pat McGrath wasn't amused. "I don't understand it myself," he said.

There was much else I clearly didn't understand. I remember once coming into a roomful of grown-ups, and silence suddenly descending. This is catnip to a curious boy. I never did get the whole story, but it seems a doctor's wife had been "compromised" by one of the men on a working party. The patient lost all his privileges; what happened to the wayward wife I don't know—the family moved away soon after. But I did know enough that when, years later, I was groping around for an idea for a book, I thought of it, and wrote a novel called "Asylum" on the basis of it, using my imagination to fill in the blanks.

My parents tried to ensure that we grew up unscathed by the various grim dramas unfolding inside the hospital. But at the same time they wanted us to participate in Broadmoor life, and I think they struck a nice balance. On Sundays the family attended Mass in the hospital chapel. My abiding memory is of patients shuffling up the aisle in baggy flannel trousers and ill-fitting jackets, all made in the Broadmoor tailor's shop, and their shoes—from the Broadmoor cobbler—squeaking loudly as they approached the altar for Holy Communion. My father used to say that, shortly after our arrival, when it was discovered that the new super and his family were Catholic, many patients realised that they too belonged to the Church of Rome. He was amused by this; he regarded his patients with what he called "benign cynicism". 

BROADMOOR BOASTED MORE than a tailor's and a shoemaker's shop. A large kitchen garden inside the walls supplied fresh vegetables. There was a tinsmith's workshop, also a carpenter's and an upholsterer's, which helped not only to make Broadmoor an almost self-supporting community, but provided patients with employment. Pat McGrath encouraged all such activities. It was part of his mission, as he saw it, to create conditions inside the hospital that resembled as far as they could conditions in the world beyond the Wall.

My mother, meanwhile, was, in Judy's words, my father's "rock, his wise owl, his comfort and strength". Not yet 30 when we moved to Broadmoor, she was a spirited woman with a fine singing voice and a love of literature. Like us, she was happy at Broadmoor, and fond of the patients. She'd emerge from the house every afternoon carrying a large tray laden with teapot, mugs, milk bottle and biscuits. "Smoko!" she'd cry, and the cry was taken up from voice to voice until it was heard in the very farthest reaches of the garden. Then "the men" came tramping up towards the house in their yellow corduroy trousers and donkey jackets, and settled down on wooden crates in the barn-like garage behind the house. There they drank their tea and smoked their roll-ups and kicked a plastic football around the yard. Joe Artless (Mr Artless to me) was the nurse in charge of the working party, and when time was up he knocked the ashes out of his pipe and rose to his feet, and the men went back to work.

AGAINST ALL CUSTOM and regulation my mother allowed one or two of the patients into the kitchen to lend a hand with making the tea, washing up and so on. There was one man I remember well— I'll call him Denis. Late one afternoon we heard the awful blaring sing-song drone of the siren. Unless it was ten o'clock on a Monday morning, when the siren was tested, this meant an escape. 

My father lived in constant dread of the siren. Escapes were uncommon, but when they happened the press bayed for his blood, and the painfully slow work of institutional reform was set back years. I remember once going through a drawer in his study and finding a copy of the News of the World with two photos on the front page, one of my father, one of a patient, and the headline WHAT FOOL LET OUT THIS FIEND? There was no caption to indicate who was the fool and who was the fiend. He hated the tabloid press with a passion, and trusted only theTimes, although the Daily Express also came into the house, and on Sundays the Observer. My mother was devoted to Katharine Whitehorn.

The day our friend Denis wandered away from the working party it was assumed that he'd forgotten what time it was, then panicked on hearing the siren, and gone to ground. He spent several days holed up in a hayloft by the chaplain's house, a few hundred yards from our own. My mother left bread and milk on the sill of the open kitchen window each night he was out, and in the mornings it was gone. Soon enough Denis gave himself up. That, apparently, was the end of it.

But in fact it wasn't the end of it. Just three years ago I learned that while Denis was on the loose he'd raped a child. It was hushed up. Was my mother told about it? I suspect not. 

Photograph: The author, far left, at home in Kentigern with his parents, his sister Judy and brother Steve (Patrick McGrath)

THE PATIENTS HAD a dramatic society, the Broadhumoorists, founded in 1939 by the then superintendent, Stanley Hopwood. Patients played all the parts, designed and sewed the costumes, built the scenery and made up a large part of the orchestra. It's extraordinary to think that the general public was sold tickets to these shows, performed twice weekly from March to May in the hospital's Central Hall, seating 300. There was never an empty seat. 

I enjoyed these nights immensely. The best jokes were always of the in-house variety, for example, the appearance of a huge cardboard carving knife, or a giant dummy revolver being carried out onto the stage. It was a form of humour best appreciated by Broadmoor folk, who found the jokes irresistible, while the visitors were apparently left aghast. Ralph Partridge, husband of the Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington, was also a historian of Broadmoor, and wrote this about the Broadhumoorists: "The funny spectacle of a homicidal maniac impersonating a homicidal maniac can probably only be appreciated to the full by other homicidal maniacs."

What I remember most vividly from these magical outings, my first exposure to theatre, is the night a man with a false beard and black hat strode across the stage every ten minutes for no apparent reason. The sheer anarchic absurdity of his appearance greatly amused the ten-year-old I then was, arousing a first faint comprehension of the joy to be had from making things up. I trace to that night my ambition to write fiction. I later learned that in every Broadhumoorist production it was mandatory to feature an escaped lunatic, regardless of the plot. The man in the false beard was that lunatic. 

The patients also had a parole dance four times a year, and though I didn't ever attend I remember my parents getting ready. Judy McGrath writes: "Mum took great care over her wardrobe, and they both looked forward to it. One year she had a dress made that was golden – it was awful but I loved it." There'd be intense excitement in the female wing beforehand. Tins of make-up were passed around, romances feverishly discussed, hems pinned up, hair fussed over; the ladies had few opportunities to mingle with the men. Afterwards there was great despondency, a flatness, a feeling of anti-climax. The staff was watchful. The staff of a mental hospital is always acutely sensitive to any shift in mood.

IT WAS A deliberate policy of my father's to get his wife and children inside the hospital whenever he could. He wanted the outside world inside the Wall, and the patients outside it, as often as possible. Work experience, cultural excursions, family visits, the Friends of Broadmoor (a group of good souls who regularly visited the patients): he was convinced that whatever helped break down institutional isolation contributed to rehabilitation. The event might be a Broadhumoorists evening, or a sports event—often Patients versus Staff, cricket, soccer or tug-of-war, at which the staff excelled. It was said that the Broadmoor tug-of-war team once represented Great Britain at the Olympics. 

I remember vividly Christmas at Broadmoor, and Pat McGrath making a morning tour of the male wards, a task he hated. He said he felt like the governor of the workhouse telling his chaps to eat up their Christmas pud. Some men appreciated the visit, others turned bitterly away, disdaining what they saw as false bonhomie on the part of the man who refused to release them back into the world they so missed—and missed most acutely, perhaps, on Christmas Day. It wasn't thought proper that the rest of the family enter these wards; with the more disturbed men there was always a risk. So we met my father in the female wing. The wards were decorated, and there were cakes and biscuits, but I disliked these Christmas visits. The women gushed and fussed and simpered over us, and I think now that we must have reminded them of their own children, whose destruction, in not a few cases, had brought them to Broadmoor in the first place. 

On Christmas afternoon we used to have tea with the chaplain, a vast man called Basil James. He could hit a cricket ball clear over the Wall, but was so fat that he required someone to run between the wickets for him. My father remembered the Reverend James pondering his memories of the first world war and sorrowfully recounting how, while laying telephone lines in no-man's-land, he had had to kill a German soldier with a telephone headset.

I remember too those strange days in the autumn of 1962 when my father became preoccupied with the BBC news, and the radio was always on. I'd never known his mood so bleak. The Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, and I imagine families the world over were in a similar state of acute tension. If there was a time in my childhood when I was truly alarmed, it wasn't Broadmoor that caused it.  

After I went off to boarding school in 1963 my links with Broadmoor weakened considerably; but ten years later I spent several weeks working in the psychology department. Pat McGrath, now in his late 50s, had grown a beard and looked rather magisterial, a kind of Hibernian Freud. Broadmoor had changed. There were new problems, fierce interdisciplinary squabbles, and the air was thick with innovative clinical paradigms spawned variously of behaviourism, the human potential movement (with its stress on the free expression of feelings within a supportive environment), and the anti-psychiatry of David Cooper and R.D. Laing. 

The place had been modernised and liberalised, and even Block Six had changed: it was now Monmouth House. The 1970s was a combative period in British life. Broadmoor's nursing staff had unionised, and joined not a nursing organisation but the Prison Officers Association, a more militant outfit. Pat McGrath now spent much of his time on arbitration and labour disputes, and also on human-rights issues and heightened security concerns. He didn't have enough time for his patients and this depressed him. But what I saw during those few weeks, when our paths crossed on the wards, was a dynamic man, briskly decisive, at the height of his powers, indisputably in control of the large, complicated institution he'd been running for as long as anyone could remember.

Having been vocal in his criticism of Margaret Thatcher, not least for the Falklands war, which he bitterly opposed, but also because Tory policies did little for the overcrowding of Broadmoor—or for the welfare of his patients in general—he was not knighted for his services after retiring in 1981. He shrugged this off, saying he was indifferent to gongs. The Home Office persuaded him to accept a CB instead, to go with his CBE. The job of medical superintendent was then divided up between a medical director and various administrators, and decisions about patient care devolved to a multidisciplinary clinical team under the leadership of a consultant psychiatrist. Pat McGrath died in 1994, and Helen ten years later.

Photograph: Both Wellington College, at Crowthorne, and the Military Academy at Sandhurst are within a few miles of Broadmoor (Getty)

A FEW YEARS ago I returned to Broadmoor with Judy and my brothers, Steve and Simon. Kentigern, our happy childhood home, seemed far smaller than we remembered it. Nobody lived there any more; it had been converted into offices. The wild garden was tamed, the hedges had gone, and the rhododendrons, so handy for boys hiding out from the law, had been replaced by flat dull lawns good for nothing. As for the garage, site of a thousand smokos – people parked their cars there. "They paved paradise…"

Cautiously we entered. We found that the large, drafty, impossible-to-heat rooms, where the dramas of our childhoods had been played out, no longer existed. The ceilings had been lowered and the rooms themselves partitioned into workstations, each with its typewriter and filing cabinet. Slowly we moved through the empty house. I imagined the ghosts of superintendents past wringing their hands, murmuring lamentations. Simon's bedroom was now a storage room for stationery. The servants' wing, Granny's domain, was a lunchroom with a hotplate and a coffee-maker. Sic transit…

Since that visit I've often driven up to Broadmoor just to have a look. Nobody much remembers me; few enough remember my dad. Strangers are regarded with suspicion. I like to visit the Patrick McGrath Library, in which a few of my own books sit alongside all kinds of fascinating works of forensic psychiatry. Occasionally, I've been inside the hospital again. What's apparent at once is the serious investment that's been made in security. New walls and fences have been erected, floodlighting installed, and the old Main Gate replaced by a state-of-the-art security lobby featuring sophisticated electronic doors opening into containment chambers, and a control room behind reinforced glass with banks of surveillance screens. I've met Broadmoor staff who say they wished some of the millions spent on new fences had gone on patient care.  

My father once told me about a woman in the female wing who one night, under her bedclothes, noiselessly took out her eyes with a teaspoon. We'd been talking about the schizophrenic's ability to pervert bodily experience in the service of some dominant delusional theme. This woman felt no pain, and was found the next morning among her bloody bedclothes, wide awake. I had instigated the conversation: at the time I was trying to render schizophrenia in a novel, later published as "Spider". Much of my fiction has drawn on my early life on the Broadmoor estate. Psychological dysfunction and the treatment of the mentally ill have been my themes since I started writing. I never planned it that way; but my childhood in Broadmoor created a tendency of the imagination that has infiltrated all my creative work. Pat McGrath was largely responsible. He'd have liked me to become a doctor, but what growing up in Broadmoor gave me, that glimpse of the limits to which men and women could be driven by mental illness, has stimulated instead the writing of fiction. 

Broadmoor celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2013. It continues to serve society, and its patients, in its ill-matched twin functions as both a custodial and a therapeutic institution. Long may it continue to do so. Often forgotten in the periodic clamour to do away with the Victorian bins is the idea that we bear a responsibility to protect the mentally ill from their own vulnerability. For all its failings Broadmoor continues to offer safe harbour to the lost and bewildered psychotic souls who fetch up there. Care in the community has never been an adequate option for the seriously mentally ill. Broadmoor remains a place of asylum in the best sense of the word. 

Patrick McGrath is a British novelist, now living in New York. His novels include "Trauma" and "Ghost Town"

Photograph: An inmate gets ready for the staff/patient dance, the source of feverish excitement beforehand and despondency afterwards (Getty)