A strange KFC building, a clue to Exeter’s dark past


If you’ve ever visited one of the modern chains located at Rydon Lane Retail Park, you’ve almost certainly come across a strange historic building, perhaps even without realizing it. Over 200 years ago, the nearby grounds – which now consist of KFC, Hobbycraft and Tesco – once housed the former Exeter City Asylum (Digby Hospital).

According to Memories of Exeter, Exeter City Asylum opened on 29 September 1886 and within days the hospital was occupied by patients brought in from the private asylum at Fisherton House, Salisbury, as the town lacked adequate facilities. Attached to the hospital grounds is a brick water tower which remains in place to this day.

According to historic England, the water tower – next to KFC – is a Grade II listed building. At its height, the water tower would have served the hospital before it closed in 1987.

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What was the old Exeter City Asylum (Digby Hospital)?

In 2018, Devon Live reported that the former Exeter City Asylum (Digby Hospital) opened in 1886. The hospital was taken over by the NHS in 1948, but closed in 1987. Shortly thereafter, the site was divided to allow the construction of new houses, a commercial park and a supermarket and the main buildings were also converted to residential use.

Memories of Exeter reports that the site chosen for the new asylum was about 200 yards from the Exeter to Topsham railway line on land that formed part of Digby Farm, to treat and care for people with mental illness.

The large building was divided into the more utilitarian northwest range containing the service, administration and laundry rooms, as well as accommodation for the laundresses. Southeast Beach was a series of male and female “inmate” areas separated by a recreation room.

Exeter City Asylum – also known as Digby Hospital

At one end of each row was a large tower, of a different design. There was also a farm for the asylum, southeast of the main block, which provided work for male patients.

Tenders went out in November 1883 and the chosen contractor was Mr. Henry Phillips. The Company had already negotiated with the railway to open a siding on the Exmouth railway line to bring building materials to the site. Although a 50-foot well was dug, specifically for the asylum in 1885, it was questioned whether it would provide enough water for 400 people. In the few months before it opened, consideration was given to running a pipe from Wonford House to Digby to supply the town with water. In this case, improvements have been made, including a filter. When it first opened, newspapers often referred to the institution as the non-PC “Lunaville”, though it soon became the city’s asylum, and by locals, “Digbys”.

In 1897, the asylum held 342 patients, 158 men and 188 women. The dining halls were converted into dormitories for an additional 40 patients, while in 1907 new, more modern machinery was introduced into the laundry.

As early as 1914, Digby Asylum was included in the list of hospitals in Devon to be commandeered as a war hospital. Rather than transfer it to the army, the hospital remained open and took in patients from Bristol City Asylum, Fishponds, when it became Beaufort War Hospital. In May 1918 plans were put in place to use it for up to 800 casualties. The proposal was the subject of much discussion, but it went no further, probably because the need diminished due to the signing of the armistice in November 1918.

A strike broke out on April 30, 1919, when a carpenter named Glanville, who had worked in Digby for thirty years, was put on notice in December 1918. In 1920 it was decided to increase the cost of caring for a patient by 24 at 26 shillings per week. The same report had the unfortunate comment at the end “Member: It’s a shame that these unfortunates can’t be got rid of: smothered or something – (laughs).”

The hospital would provide Christmas entertainment for patients, and in December 1926, at a cost of £246, a cinema projector was purchased. This was probably used for training films for staff, as well as entertainment for patients.

Just when the country needed more food production in 1940, the City Mental Hospital, as it was then known, had a herd of 100 pigs on the farm. He also had a prodigious crop of potatoes and was self-sufficient in oats and barley for animal feed. Digby Hospital was taken over by the National Health Service when it was founded in July 1948. It became part of the Devon Mental Hospital Group, eventually becoming Exe Vale Hospital with Exminster and Wonford House.

Learn more about Exeter memorabilia here.

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