Cane Hill 2007: Observing The Disintegration Of The Titanic

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Sep 21, 2005
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The wreck of the Titanic was discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard in 1985. His initial photographs were limited (only offering a bird’s eye view of the wreck) so he returned in 1986 with more advanced submersibles and produced a far more detailed photographic record of the remains.

Each subsequent trip, either by Ballard or others, resulted in more of the wreck being explored, whilst the slow deterioration of the more popular areas was noted. It was a sombre account of the slow erosion of the liner: decks were starting to collapse, artefacts were going missing and the erosion of the superstructure was accelerating.

Was there any real reason behind these expensive and dangerous visits? The Titanic’s plans were available, archival pictures and films adequately documented the liner, and yet people kept returning.

It would seem this same spirit was alive and flourishing at Cane Hill.

The asylum was under siege. In its last years, Cane Hill was the focus of pitched battles between security (who wanted everyone to keep out) and the curious (who wanted to get in). By the year's end, over nine hundred people were caught within the perimeter fence (which averages at about three per day).

Security was stepped up. An extra post was added at the back of the hospital near the modern boiler house, whilst patrols were increased. Yet that did little to deter the urban explorers.

This explains why Marlon’s first pictures are so dark. The only way to enter Cane Hill during those final days was under the cover of darkness. Explorers would creep in between patrols at night and wait in the darkened wards for the first glimmers of dawn. After a day’s fretful exploring (spent avoiding the various patrols through the hospital’s interior) the explorers would sneak out again when darkness fell.


This is Marlon’s story, not mine. I’d long given up on Cane Hill as being far too much of a risk. Whilst other explorers were relatively immune (depending on their attitude), I knew the security at Cane Hill had been after "Simon Cornwell" for a while; in fact, I knew they were after me since 2003.

To be caught there would’ve been a personal disaster. So, I did the intelligent thing: I stayed well away from the place.


My self-imposed exile coincided with a growing desire to photograph more of the interiors. Whilst my first internal foray, "Ground Tour", had photographed many of the hospital’s iconic decaying interiors for the first time since closure, I’d repeated myself for "Syringes On Sunday" and hadn’t really taken any photographs of anything new.

So I was extremely pleased when Marlon offered these photographs of one of his explorations taken in late 2007. Not only did he stay clear of the clichéd core of the hospital but his group methodically explored the male and female wards either side of the main complex.

This is what I wanted to see.


Dawn. South London. After creeping into the dark, cold interiors of Cane Hill under the cover of darkness, Marlon and his two companions were ready to explore the interiors.

Getting inside was only half the battle. Security regularly patrolled the ruined corridors so it was a matter of moving cautiously, silently and keeping wits about you at all times. The sound of dogs barking in the distance was a constant companion and reminder.

The blasted remains of Administration now sported two additional fences. Whilst the building looked stable, huge cracks spread through the mortar, the back wall had been blown out and all the floors had collapsed.


The group had camped down in Male Ward A (Olave Ward) before making their way to the Chapel as dawn broke. After snatching some photographs, they decided the light was still poor, so they returned to Male Ward A to wait another half an hour before starting their explorations proper.

Their route took them to Male Ward B (Pugin). The day room and dormitory was now used as a store for furniture and equipment as the more northerly wards were completely cleared. Some of the equipment was piled high against the windows, now used as temporary barricades against intruders.


The day was bleak and grey. It would’ve been freezing in the cold, damp buildings.


The group made their way upstairs and found Male Ward B (Pugin) completely cleared. Nothing remained in the dormitory and most of the doors to the single rooms at its north-western end were shut.

This ward was originally designed for male epileptics and so only included a relatively small number of single rooms. In the past, one or two of the single rooms would’ve been padded.


They were able to look out over the complex roof tops of Cane Hill towards the Main Hall and the Chapel. The building roofs gave the impression of a complex, dense village rather than a coherent whole structure.


Male Ward B did not connect back into the corridor complex so the group had to retrace their steps back to the corridor leading to Male Ward A (Queens/Olave). Their route took them past one of the most iconic, yet anonymous, rooms in the entire complex.

This room was variously known as the "chair room" or the "phone room." It featured on several urban exploration websites before becoming immortalised on the cover of Left London. Yet the function of this room will probably never been known: it was a former coal store before being converted into this large office.

Yet it epitomised Cane Hill by the almost casual way the furniture and fittings were simply left as if the former occupant popped out for five minutes and never returned.


As they were near the Chapel and the light had improved, the group decided (almost recklessly) to return to the spiritual core of the complex.

Such a move was extremely risky. Security knew most urban explorers would make their way to either the Chapel or mortuary and had ensured both areas could function as traps. The mortuary was a natural dead-end but security also barricaded most of the entrances to the chapel only leaving one or two open; it then became easy to corner careless urban explorers in there.

Luckily Marlon and his group managed to get some extra pictures before leaving one of the most dangerous areas of the buildings.


The group made their way up through the litter strewn main corridor before taking a right turn into the eastern side of the "horseshoe" corridor.

They entered the first ward, a small two-storey building straddling the corridor. This was Male Ward C (Ruskin/Rossetti) originally designed for suicidal patients. Like the epileptic ward, the ratio of single rooms to dormitory space was small.

They didn’t linger long. The ward was cleared so they moved back out into the corridor.


The corridor wasn’t perfectly rounded but was angled in a series of steps. This gave the group some protection: an approaching security patrol could be heard allowing explorers to quickly scuttle into one of the adjoining wards to hide. The long linear corridors traversing the centre of the building weren’t so safe.


Some of the doors from the corridor opened out into many of the internal courtyards. So the group briefly wondered outside into the grey December day. The back of Male Ward D (Shaftesbury/Salter) towered above them.


As so often happens, an open door beckoned and the group found themselves doubling back on themselves and returning to Male Ward C. This time they took the stairs to the back dormitory of Ruskin ward. It was probably one of the plainest wards in the hospital, stripped completely bare and coloured completely white.


They pushed on, taking the stairs back to the ground floor, and walking onto Male Ward D (Shaftesbury/Salter). Originally designed for acute patients, it catered for the violent and unpredictable. The ward was little more than a row of single rooms accessed via a narrow corridor with hardly any day rooms. This ward, and its architecture, was about confinement and control.


The design of Cane Hill wasn’t kind to doctors who had to make rounds of each ward. Upon completing a ward, the doctor had to walk back along it to return to the corridor network before being able to access the next ward.

So, at some point, the wards were connected by elevated walkways. Not only did these allow doctors and nurses a short-cut between wards, but they acted as fire escapes in the event of fire. (Although Howell did allow for this in his plans by providing stairs at the either end of all his wards).

These walkways were situated near the corridor network where the wards were close together. To prevent patients from jumping, the walkways were totally enclosed.

Despite the large hole in the floor, the group gingerly made their way out, across the walkway, and into the first floor dormitory of Male Ward E (Turner).


The first floor dormitory of Male Ward E (Turner) was one of the safest in the hospital. The floor had already collapsed and I doubt anyone would consider even walking on the remaining perimeter.

It felt like viewing photographs of the wreck of the Titanic. Once the submersible had gained its bearings, the list of missing, collapsed and newly exposed areas would begin: "Crow's Nest; Gone, Captain's Quarters: Collapsed; Promenade Deck 'A': Collapsing." It was the same at Cane Hill: "Male Ward E; Dayroom floor gone, Administration; Records removed, Vincent; Destroyed by fire."

The group gingerly made their way back across the elevated walkway which, despite the large hole in its floor, probably felt a hundred times safer now.


The third storey of Male Ward D (Shaftesbury) offered a unique viewpoint across Male Ward C and towards the water tower.

Often these vistas offered views of some rarely photographed parts of the complex. The three storey building in the background was almost never captured photographically; it's part of the Sub Officer's quarters.


This elevated position also offered a view across the intact looking Male Ward E (Turner) towards the wrecked remains of Male Ward F (Vanbrugh/Vincent). The ward had been set on fire and looked a sorry state.


The group pushed on and entered the fire-damaged ward. Internally the first day room and the two dormitories above it were completely gutted. The fire was obviously started in this day room and spread upwards before taking out the entire roof.


And yet if the curious ventured further eastwards into the ruined ward then they would’ve found the end day rooms and dormitories completely untouched by the fire.

The floor was absolutely sodden through (not surprising given the state of the roof) and mould and ferns were starting to grow in the rubble.


The group moved outside again, and crossed Number Four Garden, to the unique octagonal tower appended to the side of Male Ward "G" (Zachary/Unwin). They took the winding staircase up to survey the main dormitory of Zachary and found the ward empty and the floor noticeably sagging.

After viewing the destruction of Male Ward "E" and what could potentially happen, it was wisely decided to retreat down the steps and return to the safety of the ground below.


The narrow space in "Number Four Garden" where the three wards came together was noticeably dark in the winter's light. The lift tower (a later extension) towered over the explorers as they picked their way across the shattered slates and broken glass towards the tip of the "Horseshoe" corridor.


The view across the internal courtyard at the tip of the "horseshoe" offered a view of one of Cane Hill’s oddest extensions. A room had been erected over the corridor giving the impression of one storey perched above the other.


Male Ward H (Wren/Wesley) had continued to deteriorate. A whole section of the roof had now collapsed.
I vividly recalled this precarious area from one of my earliest explorations. In "Grand Tour", we each took a small staircase into Male Ward G separately as the whole structure started to sink and bend under our feet. It now looks like the entire floor finally collapsed into the passageway of Male Ward H below.


The team moved north into the former ground-floor dormitory of Male Ward G (York). It was one of the first wards to be closed and had been left in a semi-derelict state for several years before the hospital actually closed.

Most of the plaster had fallen away and daylight streamed through holes in the ceiling above. The urban explorers took pictures and then quietly returned to the corridor network and started moving south-west along the next corridor.


This part of the hospital comprised a collection of workshops and quarters. All had been stripped bare and gave little clue of their former use.

The first room encountered by the group was the Upholsters, now just an empty shell.


Various gaps in the original layout had been filled in by ad-hoc extensions. One of the most interesting (from its design) was the room which was perched over the corridor. Again, nothing remained to reveal the room's purpose.


The Sub Officer’s quarters (and possibly the quarters for the male staff) were located in a three storey building further along the corridor. The floors were treacherous and the team made slow progress picking cautiously from room to room.

This was also the home of the infamous train painting.


At the end of the corridor, most teams of explorers would’ve continued onto the Water Tower, the engineering courtyard, the mortuary or perhaps the laundry.

Instead Marlon and his friends moved south and into one of the least photographed wards of the entire complex. Male Ward J (Nightingale) was often overlooked; primarily as explorers always passed it en-route to somewhere else.

It was completely stripped like the other northern wards.


The team had now exploded all the wards on the male side of the hospital so they quietly moved across the central core of Cane Hill and made their way to Female Ward B (Andrewes). The first floor dormitory was also mostly empty but some curtain rails for the beds still remained.

Designed for epileptic patients, the design of the ward was a mirror of Male Ward B.


Now moving along the other side of the "horseshoe" corridor, the team skipped Female Ward C (Cruden/Chaucer) as it was assumed to be a burnt-out shell. Whilst the upper floor was entirely open to the elements, the ground floor was still intact, but the explorers didn’t realise this.

Instead the group moved into Female Ward D (Donne/Dickens) and took the stairs to the upper floors. The views from the windows looked out over the sprawling complex.

In this rare shot, Marlon captured another of the missed parts of Cane Hill. The small single storey building was Matron’s Quarters, positioned closed to Female Ward A (Sick And Infirm) so Matron was close by if there was any medical emergency.


Female Ward D was one of the hospital’s acute wards (the other was on the male side). The ratio of single rooms was high. They opened out into a wide corridor which also acted as the day room.

It felt cramped and claustrophobic. Startled pigeons flew overhead and banged against the windows.


The view from the third floor window over the entire Cane Hill complex was impressive. From here you could see all the way over to the female side of the hospital.


The elevated position also gave unexpected views of the other female wards which could only be seen in profile from the footpath. Female Ward E was a short ward for chronic patients whilst the three storey Female Ward F towered over it.

Female Ward F was unique at Cane Hill; no analog appeared on the male side of the hospital.


The three urban explorers left Female Ward D and skipped Female Ward E (perhaps assuming the small ward wouldn’t be worth their time). Or perhaps they were intrigued by the huge Female Ward F (Faraday) which they’d just spied from their high position in Ward D.

The large open-plan ward was an ideal dumping ground and lots of hospital furniture and equipment was piled into the ground floor room.


Like the male half of the hospital, the wards were linked by enclosed metal walkways as the buildings came towards each other at the hub of the "horseshoe" corridor.


The upper floors of Female Ward F were mostly empty. A few tables and chairs littered the floors, and the former dormitory partitions were still extant, but little less remained.

The ward doubled up as the hospital’s teaching rooms. Medical books, teaching equipment and a plastic skeleton were still in-situ after the hospital closed. The skeleton (or pieces of it) subsequently found its way around most of the hospital, the bones used to frighten and bemuse other explorers.


More evidence of the gradual disintegration of Cane Hill was shortly found after the team returned to the "horseshoe" corridor. A large segment had collapsed on itself.
Luckily it left enough of a gap for the explorers to make their way further north and back into an undamaged section.

Again, it felt like a return trip to the Titanic. Every new dive discovered more structural failure, more buckling of the joints, and more collapsing decks. And every new exploration of Cane Hill revealed yet more arson, water damage, and the disintegration of the corridor network.


Female Ward G bisected the corridor and this section formed the collection of single rooms which stood behind the corridor network in one of Cane Hill’s courtyards.


The group could’ve continued onto the next group of Female Wards (which formed the 1888 extension) but instead elected to clamber over the mountain of clothes, suitcases and furniture blocking the corridor to the north-east.

This corridor led back to the hospital’s core. Buildings erected alongside it were originally intended as the Servant’s Bedroom but were now the hospital’s art rooms.

The patient’s art was still mostly stored in large drawers but some had spilled onto the floor after being looked through. Some of it was impressive, some competent, some childish and some downright disturbing.

It was rumoured that some hospital visitors drew their own gruesome pictures and secreted it in the piles of patient’s work.


The view outside was still bleak and cold. During their exploration of the female wards, the team were undoubtedly reminded that security was never far away, as they could see the patrols on the footpath outside. Being closer to the hospital’s core and away from the edge always felt safer. But you could always hear dogs barking. Cane Hill was never really quiet.

This was the view outside the art rooms. Female Ward ‘M’ (Mapother) stood to the left and was one of the least photographed wards in the hospital. Buried in the complex, this unassuming ward was oft ignored as explorers were always on the way to somewhere more interesting.

The burnt shell of Female Ward ‘C’ was also ignored but the ground floor was still intact as we’d discover the next year.


The other side of the corridor featured the Association Rooms for Female Attendants. The room was obviously now an office which had never been cleared. Vandals had since discovered it and rearranged all the furniture.


The group moved outside into the courtyard between the corridor and the Female Ward "L" (Lidgett/Lettsom).

Since the grounds were cleared the previous year, it was now possible to move through the courtyards relatively easily and see new parts of the complex. In this rare shot, the empty shell of the Head Attendant’s Quarters can be seen.


Female Ward "L" had also been mostly cleared but was most famous for the piano (which stood in the downstairs day room) and the pool table (which could be found on the first floor).

The group also explored the other first floor dormitory area of ward, finding the wooden dividers and bed lights still in-situ.


By now they’d reached the north-western end of the hospital buildings and could look back across the complex to the areas they’d previously been exploring.

In this shot, Marlon captured the modern kitchen extension which was erected in the former drying grounds of the laundry. (The original kitchens were simply described as a "Plate Wash" on the final versions of the Cane Hill Schematic).


By now the group decided to return to the southern parts of the hospital which meant either retracting their route through the “horseshoe” corridor or snaking down the central core corridors.
They accessed the later route by crossing the former drying ground and entering the buildings via the laundry. They then moved quickly south before entering Female Ward ‘A’ (Browning/Blake) in the south-western corner of the complex.


A security guard shouted. “Oi, you! Out! Get out of there now. GET OUT.” Sheepishly the team decided their luck had run out and they’d been caught. The plan of waiting for darkness and then sneaking out discretely was dashed.

They shuffled out of the building by taking the fire escape down to the ground level. The guard was absolutely astonished. Not by the team’s honesty and by their prompt surrender; but because he’d been shouting at his dog to come out of the buildings and was rather surprised when his shouts netted him three urban explorers instead.

The group endured the lectures and threats and waiting for the (now) wearisome police to turn up to deal with yet more trespassers in Cane Hill. Yet the team’s daring was not all for nothing: many previously unphotographed parts of the building were now captured.

Yet Cane Hill was about to change for the last time. Little did I know that I would brave the guards just under a year later, breaking my own exile, in one last mad dash around Cane Hill. A Cane Hill which would be very different to the one Marlon and his friends had just photographed.

Because I had to see for myself the final disintegration of our Titanic.

All the best,

Text: Simon Cornwell Copyright 2009 (first published on urbex|uk)
All photographs: Marlon Bones Copyright 2007


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Dec 11, 2007
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wow................... that was very detailed! very good. really enjoyed the read as this place fascinated me! well done!!!!!! :mrgreen::mrgreen:


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Jul 15, 2009
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South Cumbria
Thanks, obviously alot of work has gone into that atmospheric report. Great photos.

Can anyone explain why these wonderful buildings are left to rot? Security must cost a fortune. If the NHS doesn't have a use for the many former asylums couldn't they raise much needed revenue by selling them off for development? With careful clauses and conditions to ensure that the buildings were converted retaining their intergrity, rather than demolished of course.

Richard Davies

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Apr 6, 2007
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There were plans to turn Cane Hill into a business park, but the amount of work & money needed to convert the existing buildings but any potential investors off.

I'm sure some others hear know better.

There was also problems with only being allowed to build on areas already built on, as the area was now in the green belt.


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May 30, 2008
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Great to see such a good report, you've obviously put a lot of pre and post work into it. It read like a story book with lovely pictures to accompany it :)


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Feb 16, 2008
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stunning report and pictures
thanks for putting it all together
brings back some good memories :)


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Sep 21, 2005
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Thanks to everyone for their kind comments.

Can anyone explain why these wonderful buildings are left to rot? Security must cost a fortune. If the NHS doesn't have a use for the many former asylums couldn't they raise much needed revenue by selling them off for development? With careful clauses and conditions to ensure that the buildings were converted retaining their intergrity, rather than demolished of course.

Redundant hospitals were transferred to “NHS Estates” who then marketed and attempted to sell them. However, the NHS is not an estate agent, and the number of sales was tiny; I believe they only managed to sell High Royds and Rauceby to private developers.

The Cane Hill site was problematic as it stood within London’s green belt, so any development would be doubly weighed down with extensive red tape. This scared off the developers (although there were tentative proposals for a business park which would’ve seen the demolition of the entire site with the exception of Admin and Chapel).

The entire portfolio was then transferred to English Partnerships, a government quango charged with the rejuvenation of brown field sites. They proposed four separate development options for the site, all linked with the improvement of Coulsdon’s town centre. I believe they still haven’t made up their minds about what they’re going to do, but they demolished most of Cane Hill anyway.

English Partnerships only saw Cane Hill as brown-field footprint measured in acres, giving them several options for bartering a new development of the same size either close to Coulsdon or on the old hospital site. History, architectural merit, imaginative and energy-saving conversions of the existing buildings didn’t matter, nor even occur to them.

It is interesting to compare the fate of Cane Hill (owned by a government quango) and Netherne (owned by a property development company). The outcomes were very, very different.

Alll the best,


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Sep 21, 2005
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Excellent write-up as always, Simon...iconic stuff. And thanks to Marlon for his pics.
I hope you're going to do a sequel. :mrgreen:
Cheers. :)

Thanks. And the sequel has already been written... it will be published here soon.

All the best,


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Apr 13, 2009
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Thanks Simon - that was an epic adventure. I'm very sad I never saw this - even sadder it got destroyed


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Sep 8, 2009
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truly amazing report. Only ever got to see it from the outside, after a fair bit had been demolished:(


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Feltham - West London
Fantastic report, never got to see Cane hill before demo and the fact demo has taken much of the site puts me off going as im not to keen to see it in a sorry state like that. Good write up to go with the pictures which really gives as insight into the hospital for those of us who are unlucky to have never been


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Great stuff, Simon. I've recently heard/read that admin is now under threat from the demo ball due to structrial problems (bomb damage) that wasn't originally detailed in the local listing :confused:

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