Through work to health: A history of Bristol's Industrial Therapy Organisation

May 07 2022
Through work to health: A history of Bristol's Industrial Therapy Organisation

MIKE Jempson traces the history of the Industrial Therapy Organisation, Bristol’s contribution to World Mental Health Year 1960.

IT all began by happenstance, when GP Owen Sampson, who chaired Glenside’s Hospital’s League of Friends and Bedminster’s Rotary Club, sold his house to businessman John Turley.

Turley believed that “employment is nature’s best physician and is essential to human happiness”. Introduced to Glenside’s consultant psychiatrist Dr Donal Early and the occupational therapy department, he offered to supply a supervisor and components for the Tallon Pen Company’s ballpoints.

It was 1957, and patients could earn ten shillings (50p) a week on menial tasks. Those working on the new scheme could earn as much in a day. Red tape capped earnings, but the health benefits to the 380 patients soon involved were self-evident.

Supported by worthies from industry, the churches and the city council, Early and Turley registered the Industrial Therapy Organisation Ltd (ITO) as a charity to provide patients with a route back into mainstream employment and life outside the institution.

There were difficulties. Bristol Trades Council was concerned about the risk of exploitation, despite the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) having a seat on the board. And the Inland Revenue blocked a £1,000 donation from packaging firm Robinsons, saying ITO was not charitable. It took a year and minor changes to ITO’s constitution before the cheque could be cashed.

By then Turley had leased the disused St Silas School in York Street, St Philip's and, with the help of local residents, converted it into a finishing and packaging factory. It opened in March 1960 with a workforce of 70, and TGWU General Secretary Frank Cousins visited soon after. 

Later that year the ITO took charge of a forecourt near Temple Meads and ran a successful car wash for 15 years, providing work for 14 patients. The ITO Labour Loan Scheme would enable patients to work alongside staff in other factories. 

ITO’s success in supporting psychiatric patients and those with intellectual impairments encouraged the creation of similar initiatives across the UK, and brought visitors from abroad.

To provide accommodation, ITO formed a Housing Association (BITHA) and took over the Vale Private Hotel in Clifton. Refurbished with gifts from Imperial Tobacco, the health service and the Rotary Club, and with central heating and hot water installed courtesy of a £10,000 loan from TGWU Region 3, it was opened by Cousins, now Labour’s Technology Minister, in March 1965.

Later that year BITHA rented six council houses near Glenside for 10 men and 14 women. After Labour’s Health and Social Services Secretary intervened in 1970 to allow the leasing of Belgrave House, a former nurse training school on the Downs, and BITHA had rented the house next door to the Vale Hotel, they had 89 tenants. 

In 1969, when Princess Anne opened their new factory at Lystep Terrace in Dean Lane, Southville, ITO was producing the bulk of files and folders for the local health service. Having unwittingly revealed their charges, they would lose these contracts to WH Smith under centralised NHS purchasing.

By 1984, with a record turnover of £325,000, its services ranged from weighing, filling and labelling birdseed and exotic spices to finishing and packing fridge magnets and foil containers. When Labour leader Michael Foot had visited in 1983 he warned of “the danger that whenever there is a slump people forget the less fortunate because they have problems of their own,” and indeed ITO would fare less well in the economic downturn.

Presenting his 37th and last medical report to the ITO AGM, Dr Early said it had lost links with the health service, and few of the current workers had suffered psychiatric illness. He added, somewhat tersely, that the board had “promised to install a nursing and occupational therapy social work presence in the factory, but this has not materialised”. 

By then ITO was a shadow of its former self and went into liquidation in 2003. BITHA’s financial assets funded the John Turley Memorial Trust, which continues to house vulnerable people. 

ITO's heyday came at a time of significant change in mental health policies and practice, with ‘care in the community’ gaining ground over institutional care.

It had been ahead of its time, providing dignity and new horizons for many people.

* There is a permanent ITO exhibition at Glenside Hospital Museum, which is open on Wednesday mornings and all day Saturdays. Book online at