Patients went missing every day from Lancaster mental hospital says ex-cop

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A former Lancaster cop speaks about his intense patrols at Lancaster Moor Hospital.

A retired police officer has used his experiences of patrolling a former mental hospital as the setting for his new novel.

Lancaster author Barry Lees who has based his latest novel in a former mental hospital in the city, Moor Hospital. Picture by Neil Cross.

Lancaster author Barry Lees who has based his latest novel in a former mental hospital in the city, Moor Hospital. Picture by Neil Cross.

Barry Lees worked for Lancashire Constabulary for more than 30 years and was often called out to Lancaster Moor Hospital to deal with missing patients.

After retiring from the force Barry turned to creative writing and his latest novel, Wasps Among The Ivy, reflects on his career in the 1980s and 90s.

Although the story and characters are fictional, the setting is heavily influenced by the characters, colour, humour and tragedy of the hospital which had been the county asylum.

“It was our most frequent source of work at the time because of the variety of people treated there, sometimes I would spend all day there,” said Barry, who lives in Lancaster.

Barry Lees with one of his previous books.

Barry Lees with one of his previous books.

“Patients would go missing everyday and we would have to find them, everyday was a challenge.

“The place was home to very disturbing and violent people but there was also a lot of good people and good acts going on.”

Lancaster Moor Hospital was opened in 1816 and served as a treatment facility for the mentally ill.

It was a huge employer for the city and was also home to a church, laundry facilities, and a sports club.

“It wasn’t just a mental hospital, it was a big part of the community,” said the dad-of-two.

The site did not have its own police unit, like the hospital in Barry’s new book does, but was often patrolled by officers at almost all hours of the day.

“People sometimes got on the roof intending to harm themselves, for those of you who didn’t enjoy heights that was pretty scary,” said Barry.

“People were there who were severely handicapped, suffering mental health problems, sometimes dealing with people capable of extreme violence.”

Some nurses and staff on duty would dress in plain clothing at the hospital to keep patients calm, this caused a problem for the young officer at the time.

“I remember talking to one person for a really long time about all sorts of things, thinking she was a member of staff but it turns out she was a patient, I quickly learnt not to do that again,” he said.

There is a sight that is never far from Barry’s mind, one he describes “like a movie.”

“The hospital walls were a dull pale green, the corridors for instance, the portion of movement en masse for meal time going from a ward to dining room, was a sight to behold,” said the 55-year-old.

“It was like a slow shuffle, it looked like zombies, a lot of people dosed up.

“It was quite an alarming site to see, so low in life, it was like a movie, but not in a good nature, it is like nothing you’ll see elsewhere.

“But that is the initial reaction, if you spend time and find out who these people are your opinions change, and it is like the characters in the book.”

Barry joined the police force as a 16-year-old cadet in Morecambe and was transferred to Lancaster at 18.

His career involved work as a detective, trainer for new police recruits and a uniform patrol officer.

In 1992 Barry was involved in the Blackburn riots and his first murder case took him to the former prison at Lancaster Castle where an inmate murdered another.

Experiences of working on murder cases and meeting criminals in prison have helped him to develop his writing and the book’s plot.

Wasps Among The Ivy involves a sting operation to catch Manchester’s most notorious drug dealer which goes wrong with fatal consequences.

The character, detective Russell Warren, gets the blame and is sent back to uniform in disgrace to work a beat that nobody wants. Stretched to its limits and dangerously under-resourced, Heavem Hospital is home to the mentally ill, the handicapped, the addicted, the troubled, the vulnerable, the suicidal and the criminally insane.

It is described to Warren as “a disaster waiting to happen.”

When it does, and with devastating consequences, it is up to Warren to keep the innocent safe from the murderous.

Barry graduated in 2013 in creative writing at the University of Cumbria, Lancaster Campus, where he now lectures on policing and criminology courses.

He divides his time between writing crime novels and lecturing.

Barry has produced four other novels, all currently available on Kindle Books but this is the first one which has been set locally. Three of these are a series, This City of Lies’ The Governor’s Man’ and By Sword and Feather.

His fourth, a stand alone book, is titled Exiles From A Torn Province.

Wasps Among The Ivy inspired by the setting of Lancaster Moor Hospital is available to buy at www.barrylees.net or www.amazon.co.uk/kindlebooks.