Romance in Broadmoor

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It’s odd to feel nostalgia for a place you’ve never set foot in, but that’s what I feel for Broadmoor. In my imagination, I can pass through the main gate into the maze of red-brick Victorian buildings, cross the courtyard and walk down the long corridors of the men’s and women’s wings. I can turn the heavy brass doorknob and step into the office of the chief medical superintendent, with its huge desk and its watercolours by Richard Dadd, the gifted artist who, in 1843, murdered his father, believing him to be the Devil. And in my memory I can still hear the siren – plangent, baleful – whining through the Home Counties mist.

Since its foundation in 1863, Broadmoor has been home to the most dangerous criminal lunatics in Britain – Ronnie Kray and Peter Sutcliffe, for example – and many assume that it must therefore be situated on some blasted heath, miles from civilization. In fact, it’s in Berkshire, a stone’s throw from several institutions of rather different kinds. It used to be said that you could be educated at Wellington College, pass out of the military college at Sandhurst and end your days in Broadmoor without travelling more than a mile or so in any direction. I grew up and went to school in Ascot, and Broadmoor was a looming though invisible presence for my siblings and me, lending a thrilling frisson to the safe monotony of our suburban childhood.

The siren was tested weekly, so when we heard it on a Monday morning it was, despite its mournful tone, reassuring: ‘10 o’clock, and all’s well’. But very occasionally the banshee wail struck up at another time of the day or week, and then we knew that some crazed villain was on the loose. And of course we half-hoped that he or she was heading straight for us. I first remember this happening during evening study in the autumn term, just after I started at my secondary school. Tradition had it that an escaped Broadmoor patient had once made a beeline for St Mary’s Con

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About the contributor

Maggie Fergusson is Director of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of a prize-winning biography of George Mackay Brown. On the publication of the latter her daughters made her swear she would never write another book.

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