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The Normansfield Hospital in the early 1900's. Reference: Collage 161974

​Assistant Conservator, Rachael Smither, describes a project to make accessible the archives of Normansfield Hospital, a progressive institution for people with learning difficulties, through conservation and repackaging, and describes how London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) Interpretation team is making use of this significant archive.

Normansfield Hospital

Normansfield Hospital was founded in 1868 by Dr John Langdon-Down and his wife Mary as a private home for people with learning disabilities. It was a progressive institution, years ahead of its time, with purpose built facilities including a theatre. Dr John Langdon-Down was the first to identify a group of patients with distinctive characteristics now known as Down's Syndrome. The hospital continued to be run by the family as a private home until 1951, when it was sold to the Government and became part of the Staines Group Hospital Management Committee. In 2000 it finally closed and the site was redeveloped for housing. The theatre still remains on the site and houses a small archive collection.

The remainder of the archive from the hospital, now stored at LMA, is over 103.5 linear feet in shelf length and includes correspondence, patient, staff and financial records from 1855 to 1983. It contains a wide variety of materials, including glass plate negatives, photographs, books and files. Prior to treatment, the collection varied widely in condition with much of it being unavailable for the public to view usually due to poor packaging. The main aim of the project was therefore to improve the overall packaging of the collection with conservation constituting only a small proportion of the work.​

Image showing some archive material prior to conservation work

Box files prior to conservation treatment

Grant Project

The project at LMA to conserve and promote the collection was funded by a Research Resources in Medical History grant of £37,000 from the Wellcome Trust, of which £7,650 paid for new packaging and conservation materials and the remainder funded an Assistant Conservator for 1 year and an Interpretation Officer for 3 months.

Conservation work

Over the year-long conservation project, every item in the collection was assessed and, where necessary, treated and packaged making it more easily accessible and available for long-term use. Here are some of the more noteworthy aspects of the project.

Box files

A large proportion of the year allocated for the project was spent repackaging 409 box files of correspondence (H29/NF/A/01/001-390, H29/NF/A/02/001-014 and H29/NF/A/03/001-004). With the exception of 19 files in the first series which had been previously repackaged, there were 390 files of correspondence papers in original indexed boxes (Amberg’s Patent Indexes). These original boxes were acidic, falling apart and in a number of cases mouldy, due to poor storage conditions prior to arriving at LMA. The mould was often superficial and just affected the outside of the box. However, there were eight extreme cases in which the mould had reached the documents within and caused damage to the items themselves.

All the original packaging of the box files was discarded. The items from the extremely mouldy boxes were surface cleaned with latex sponges on a Bassaire workstation, which is used to draw in and hold on to mould spores so that they are not inhaled by the conservator. The individual items were then flattened and repaired where necessary, and pins/ paperclips were removed before being re-housed in 'L-velopes' (an envelope open on two sides), acid free folders and made-to-measure boxes.

Image showing some mould damage to Normansfield Hospital records

Example of a mouldy damaged volume from the Normansfield hospital

It was extremely important to maintain the exact alphabetical order in the new packaging system, therefore each section was allocated a separate L-velope (usually about 25 per box). Frequently it was found that items had ended up in the wrong section and needed putting back in order. The time required to re-locate these items had not been included in the original project plan as the problem was only identified when the project was underway and so this task was carried out by a cataloguing volunteer.

Pharmaceutical Records

Another interesting part of the project was the work carried out on a series of eight small account bindings containing pharmaceutical records (H29/NF/B/14/001-008). All were quarter bound in black leather with cloth facings. The first book (001) was severely water and mould damaged with the back board missing, four books (002, 004, 007, 008) had structural and board damage, and 3 (003, 005, 006) were scruffy, but in sound condition.

Treatment of 001 consisted firstly of removing the remaining front board, spine and endpapers, all of which were unsalvageable. The text block could then be cleaned on a Bassaire workstation, the pages resized and repaired, and new endpapers attached. The text block was then cased in a new cover made to match the original as closely as possible.

For the other four damaged books, treatment mainly consisted of repair work to the boards and covers and infilling missing areas of board and cloth. Also, with 004, 007 and 008 warping of the boards was affecting the opening of the books, which was rectified by inserting thin adhesive between the layers within the board and then pressing until flat.

Image showing a conserved Normansfield Hospital register

A treated register

​The box files and pharmacy journals represent the two extremes of the repackaging and conservation requirements of the project, from mass repackaging to skilful conservation tailored to each item. In addition to this a further 437 items were treated varying widely in the extent of the repackaging and conservation required.

All the glass plate negatives of patients, staff and buildings were digitised by LMA staff and indexed and re-housed in conservation grade materials by a supervised volunteer. The images have been converted to positives and linked to the descriptions on LMA’s catalogue with the intention of making these images freely viewable online once we resolve some technical issues. In the meantime, the whole Normansfield Hospital collection catalogue is now available online without the images.


Last, but not least, the Interpretation Officer working on the project, Paul Sherreard, used the project time between October 2010 and January 2011 to develop in-house activities centred on the Normansfield material. These include talks aimed at the general public and researchers, a conference and a schools pack. LMA delivered a public talk on 3 February, attracting 24 people, including researchers. LMA held a learning disabilities conference 'A Place in Mind’ on 7 May 2011, bringing together a number of projects, including the Normansfield project.  Interest has been expressed by the Open University Social History of Learning Disability (SHLD) Team and the Camden Society, a London-wide organisation which supports adults with learning disabilities.

Many thanks to the Wellcome Trust for their support of this project.

Links and Resources


LMA Research Guides

16 May 2012
Last Modified:
02 December 2019