Monday, 25 April 2016

Under the Clock

Recently I read Robert Fraser’s biography of the poet David Gascoyne. It isn’t a terribly satisfactory book, for reasons related to Surrealism and poetry rather than to folklore. Fraser’s other work, however, is directly connected to folklore – he has written extensively on James Frazer and The Golden Bough, and one of my more interesting discoveries in the Gascoyne book was that Enitharmon, Gascoyne’s later publisher, was founded by Alan Clodd, grandson of the hugely important Folklore Society President Edward Clodd – so I might well find myself coming back to him. (I have tried to avoid J.G. Frazer as far as possible but he keeps cropping up: he might ultimately prove to be unavoidable).

What did catch my attention as a folklorist was a passing reference in Chapter 29, dealing with Gascoyne’s period of hospitalisation in Whitecroft Hospital, also known as the Isle of Wight Mental Hospital or the Isle of Wight County Asylum. Construction on Whitecroft began in 1894. Like other mental hospitals of the period its outbuildings centred on a clock-/watchtower. The phrase that caught my attention was Fraser’s comment that ‘The local expression for admission to this monument to Victorian philanthropy, or for simply losing one’s mind, was to go “under the clock”’ (p.352).

Fraser cites no source for this statement, and it sounds (particularly given the tenor of the rest of the book) like an unattributed reference from a local history pamphlet. The hospital closed in 1992, and I wondered how far (if at all) the phrase remained in current usage. I’ve noted previously how older usages hang on (and die out), and I was curious about this one.

A brief and unsystematic look online revealed that the phrase is still in use locally on the Isle of Wight, but how widespread that is remains to be seen. One reason I was interested was because I was in the process of moving to the Island myself: as if I hadn’t had enough going on in my life lately I was moving house. This may also have triggered my interest in the phrase (and concept) of being ‘under the clock’. We arrived about a month ago, and I am slowly beginning to get my eye and ear in. I’m hoping that the move will see me easing gently back into fieldwork after the disruptions of the last two years.

One other area of interest has already begun to make itself apparent. Whitecroft Hospital has now been converted into accommodation, with Fraser noting tartly that the developers’ ‘glossy introductory brochure makes no references to its original function as a mental institution’. Maybe not, but one should never underestimate the capacity to generate legends of place, particularly around former hospital sites.

A 2014 tourist article by Jo Macaulay noted Whitecroft as ‘another huge haunted site’, where ‘former inmates are thought to inhabit its walls, screaming in mental or physical pain’. She remarked that ‘Perhaps unsurprisingly the flats are not selling particularly well and the development has had a few starts and stops in the past ten years’.

Of course one might expect a proliferation of such stories around defunct hospital sites, and there is evident enthusiasm for them across the Island. The site of the former Chest Hospital (now the car park for Ventnor Botanic Garden) is another site regularly identified as haunted. Macaulay, in passing, also manages to highlight how local publications become part of legend negotiation. Pointing to local author Gay Baldwin’s series of books on the Island’s ghosts, begun in the 1970s, Macaulay writes that ‘Everyone knew the old stories that had been passed down by oral tradition, but nobody laid claim to having seen a ghost in print until Gay started to prompt them. But once the gates were open, stories began to flood in …’ Macaulay used Baldwin’s books as the basis for her own tourist piece.

It began as a moment of curiosity and minor irritation at an unsourced comment. That's how research starts.

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