St Lawrence's Hospital was originally built as the Cornwall County Asylum in 1818 to the design of architect John Foulston in the form of a star-shaped building with a central block and radiating wings. Now a Grade II* listed building, it was designed to deal with the problem of housing the insane poor and inmate conditions were notoriously bad. It was extended in 1844 by the construction of the three-storey "High Building" (demolished in 1964) and again in 1849 by the construction of Williams House (converted into apartments in 2004). A third extension built in 1860 was known as the Carew building after the Rt Hon Reginald Pole Carew, a local politician. A fourth extension built in 1870 was known as the Long Building (later the Kendall Building) and was also demolished after it burned down in 1905.

A completely new building to stand to the west of the first was designed in 1901 by Silvanus Trevail (1851–1903), one of Cornwall's best-known architects. The building was not completed until 1906, three years after the architect's death. Described by Trevail's biographer as "one of his finest achievements", it was built in the Edwardian Baroque style. The new building was named the Foster building after the chairman of the Asylum Committee.

The whole complex was renamed the Hospital of St Lawrence when taken over by the National Health Service. In 1999 the original listed radial building was converted into residential apartments.

William Robert Hicks, asylum superintendent

In 1840 William Robert Hicks was appointed domestic superintendent of the Cornwall county lunatic asylum, clerk of the asylum, and clerk to the committee of visitors at Bodmin, and soon after was also named clerk to the highway board. The Earl of Devon afterwards procured for him the additional situation of auditor of the metropolitan district asylums. When Hicks became connected with the Bodmin asylum he found the old system of management prevailing, and in conjunction with the medical superintendent introduced more humane modern methods. One patient who was chained in a dark cell as a dangerous lunatic turned out to be a wit and a philosopher. He was found to be harmless, and employed to take care of the pigs and do other useful work. He was—according to the Dictionary of National Biography—a very good man of business. He printed Statistics respecting the Food supplied to Paupers in the Western Unions of Cornwall

Operation

This was one of the hospitals investigated in 1967 as a result of the publication of Barbara Robb's book "Sans Everything". Evidence was given by a nursing assistant: "When I was new on my ward, and not been issued with a uniform, one old lady said to me ‘ You aren’t a nurse, dear; you can’t be. You don’t hit us or shout at us’. Another said ‘No-one smiles here. We are no good in here; useless, bloody wets’".

Closure and demolition

The hospital finally closed in 2002 and the former hospital's owners, Community First Cornwall, wished to demolish the Foster building in order to clear the site. Despite local support for its preservation, English Heritage declined a request to list the building on the grounds of insufficient reason. In May 2013 Cornwall Council decided that the demolition of the building did not require an environmental impact assessment, removing one of the last remaining obstacles to its removal. Although the Foster Hall Revival Trust began a campaign aimed at preserving the building and proposing alternatives to demolition, demolition started in September 2013.

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