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Alton House, Ailsa Hospital

A Category C Listed Building in Maybole, North Carrick and Coylton, South Ayrshire

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Latitude: 55.4338 / 55°26'1"N

Longitude: -4.5992 / 4°35'56"W

OS Eastings: 235647

OS Northings: 618621

OS Grid: NS356186

Mapcode National: GBR 3B.ZRK9

Mapcode Global: WH3R1.BP56

Plus Code: 9C7QCCM2+G8

Entry Name: Alton House, Ailsa Hospital

Listing Name: Alton House, Ailsa Hospital, Dalmellington Road, Ayr

Listing Date: 29 March 2019

Category: C

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 407089

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB52499

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Ayr

County: South Ayrshire

Electoral Ward: Maybole, North Carrick and Coylton

Parish: Ayr

Traditional County: Ayrshire


Alton House is a large villa, designed and built in 1897 by Thomas McGill Cassels as patient accommodation for the former Ayrshire District Asylum (Ailsa Hospital). The hospital is located on a site of around 70 acres and consists of the 1869 main building and various ancillary hospital buildings and former ward blocks from the late 19th century up to the later 20th century. Alton House is set apart from the other buildings on the hospital in a wooded area on high ground to the west.

Alton House is an extensive almost square-plan, gabled, three storey villa with a 4-bay symmetrical principal entrance elevation which faces southeast. There is a glazed canopy on cast iron columns and brackets over the front door. The house is built in ashlar with a deep angled base course and a first floor string course enclosing downpipes. There are paired mullioned windows on the advanced outer bays of the principal elevation and a large canted ground floor windows to each of the side elevations. The gables' apexes have a timber framed detail infilled with render. There are lower two-storey service sections to the rear and a large metal escape stair. There is a former entrance porch (door infilled) on the two-storey section of the south elevation.

There is a multi-pitch slate roof with overhanging timber bracketed eaves. The windows are timber sash and case with a six over two gazing pattern to the main part of the house and four over two pattern to the two-storey section to the rear. The rainwater goods are predominantly cast iron with decorative conical vent caps.

The interior of the building was seen in 2018. While the bedroom accommodation was refurbished for modern use in the early 21st century, a number of fixtures and fittings contemporary with the original date of the building remain, primarily in the public rooms. The main rooms have fielded panelling to dado height, large chimneypieces with fluted columns, picture rails and a dentil cornice. The ground floor corridor has fielded timber panelling with an integral recessed bench. The staircase is enclosed with bespoke timber handrails fixed to the walls and decorative consoled brackets.

Statement of Interest

Alton House is an early and rare surviving example of a villa which was built to provide a residential rather than an institutional care experience for mentally ill patients in the late 19th century. While it is stylistically representative of standard villa architecture of its date, it has a high degree of craftsmanship and there has been little alteration to its exterior form. Alton House was specifically sited apart from the main asylum building as the relative seclusion of the building provided a non-institutional setting for the patients which was important to their recovery. This arrangement was in line with the new ethos of the village system of patient care which had emerged at the end of the 19th century.

Age and Rarity

The Ayrshire District Asylum (main hospital building) was built in 1869 by the Dundee based architects Charles Edward and T S Robertson. The main building was quickly outgrown and the asylum was then extended on numerous occasions over the latter half of the 19th century. A substantial amount of new buildings were added to the site from 1894 to 1897 by the architect Allan Stevenson and his practice. Late 19th to early 20th century expansion of the hospital included a fever isolation hospital of 1894 (known as Brunston House and demolished in 2018), Glengall House for the asylum's superintendent of 1894 (known later as Loudon House and demolished in 2018); Alton House and Afton House for male and female residents of 1897 (Afton House was demolished in 2018). In 1904-6 a new pavilion plan hospital block was built to the northeast corner of the site (see separate assessment ref: 300032880).

Alton House and Albany House first appear on the Third Edition Ordnance Survey Map (surveyed 1908, published 1910). Photographs on Canmore record that Alton House was the subject of a threatened buildings survey in 2005. The building was recently refurbished (2017-18) to modernise its facilities and it remains in multiple occupancy use for hospital staff.

The hospital site continued to operate as a mental healthcare facility throughout the first half of the 20th century will little change to the overall site layout. From 1968 to 1974 there was considerable investment in the infrastructure of the hospital. The largest addition was the large, single-storey Clonbieth, Dunure, Jura, Iona and Lewis Ward Blocks to the west of the site. The large workshop blocks were also introduced to the north of the site to provide vocational training for patient residents.

The history and phased developments at the former Ayrshire District Asylum were concurrent with national developments in the provision of mental healthcare facilities in the mid-19th and early 20th century.

The majority of the provision for mentally ill patients in Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th century was in separate mental health (asylum) wards incorporated within local area poorhouses or prisons. The first purpose built asylum is Scotland was built in Montrose in 1781. It was the first of around seven that were built by public subscription and Royal Charter, the last of which was in Dumfries in 1839. The majority of these early asylums have been demolished or replaced.

By the mid-19th century the Royal Asylums were stretched to capacity and there was further pressure to supply more mental health accommodation for the paupers. The Lunacy (Scotland) Act was passed in 1857 and an amendment to the Act 1862 allowed parochial boards to look after the insane poor as well as the sane poor. This resulted in lunatic wards attached to poorhouses but in some cases separate parochial asylums were built. Ayr is one of only eight known asylums to have been built as a result of the 1862 Act. The first district asylum was built in Lochgilphead in 1863, followed by Perth and Inverness in 1864, Banff in 1865, Haddington and Fife in 1866 and Ayr and Stirlingshire in 1868.

In the later 19th century, with the development of the science of mental healthcare, it was recognised that provision for the mentally ill needed to reflect different types of mental illness and this had a direct effect on asylum building design. The need for more classification led to separate medical and non-medical areas as well as separate buildings within hospital grounds.

The village system of patient care, exemplified by the 1870s Alt-Scherbitz hospital near Leipzig in Germany, encouraged psychiatric patients to be cared for within their own community setting, where there were few physical restrictions and where village style self-sufficiency was encouraged. Dr John Sibbauld, Commissioner of the Board for Lunacy, was impressed by the German model and published a paper in 1897 on 'The Plans of Modern Asylums for the Insane Poor'. The German model of village style asylums was adopted and in the late 19th century and individual villas began to be introduced to asylum grounds to separately house men and woman. This allowed relatively independent living within the hospital grounds. The first separate villas in Scotland were built in Perth Asylum in 1894. Because the villas at Ayr were built shortly after in 1897 they can be seen as early examples of the building type.

Alton House is an early example of a separate villa to be built on a district asylum site. There had been a shift towards separating mental health patients into smaller groups to be cared for in a more home like environment since the village system of patient care began in Germany in the 1870s. This provision had been available for wealthy paying patients for some time however it was not usually available to patients in the publically funded system. The villas at Ayr were built in 1897 the same year that the Commissioner for the Board of Lunacy published a paper supporting the German model of village style asylums. As such they were early and important examples of freestanding villas of this type to be built in a Scottish asylums.

Alton House is a rare surviving example of only a small number of residential villas that were introduced to mid-19th century district asylums in the late 19th century. Only six former asylum sites survive (2018) and four of these sites have been converted to housing. Ayr is one of only two that remain in hospital use and Alton House is the only known former villa on an asylum site to be in continued use as a residential facility.

Architectural or Historic Interest


The interior of Alton House retains a significant amount of surviving bespoke architectural details that continue to demonstrate the building's use a residential care home. The interior design is in an institutional domestic style with spacious public rooms and circulation areas that catered for the large number of residents. They are finished to a high standard of craftsmanship. The decorative design of the interiors reflects the new ethos to provide a 'home environment' for the care of patients in residence in contrast to large impersonal wards of previous decades.

The original main recreational space to the ground floor has a small later subdivision to form a kitchen area however its former use as a public room remains readable. The main staircase was not built as an open stairwell and instead as an enclosed stair to protect the vulnerable people that were cared for within the building.

Plan form

Alton House's square plan with the rear section designed for the service areas is not unusual for a large villa of its date. However there are some aspects of the plan that illustrate its institutional use such as the large front veranda and former sun room to the side elevation. These outdoor spaces were an important part of patient care at the time.

The plan form of the building is largely unaltered which adds to the interest of the building.

Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality

Alton House was designed in 1897 as a large villa for single gender resident patients. Its architectural style is typical of houses of the late 19th century across Scotland but both its plan and massing are on a large scale to cater to its institutional use.

The stone detailing and construction is good quality craftsmanship and there are some distinctive elements such as the cast iron and glazed canopy to provide a protected outside space for patients to recover. The building has had no significant additions or alterations which is unusual for an asylum building which has remained in continue use over 120 years after it was built.

Both Alton House and Afton House (Alton House's counterpart now demolished) are attributed to Thomas McGill Cassels (1869-1945) who studied at Ayr Academy and was articled to Allan Stevenson from 1885 to 1890. He gained experience elsewhere and then returned Stevenson's office as an assistant in 1895, later becoming partner around 1923. His body of work was varied in buildings styles and almost exclusively in in Ayrshire. The Dictionary of Scottish Architects credits the villas to the architect T M Cassels as managing assistant to Allan Stevenson. The villas appear to have the same plan and elevational form as two paired villas built at the former Perth Asylum (Murthly Hospital) in 1894.


Alton House was set apart on high ground separate from the main asylum building in line with the changing ethos of care for the mentally ill in the later 19th century. The relative seclusion of the building provided a non-institutional setting for the patients which was important to their recovery. The setting is still separate from the main hospital block and the landscape has matured making it more secluded.

There have been significant changes to the setting of the majority of buildings on the wider hospital site however the setting of Alton House is still readable as it was always separated.

Regional variations

There are no known regional variations.

Close Historical Associations

There are no known associations with a person or event of national importance at present (2018).

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