In 1841, Exminster, with a 17 acre site, was chosen out of 3 favourable sites for the new Devon Mental Hospital to be built on. It was to be situated approximately 5 miles south on the outskirts of Exeter. The buildings were to house 440 patients.
It was designed by the architect Charles Fowler who estimated the buildings to cost £40,000 to which he would be paid 5% - £2,000. His plan was for a semi-circular building with ‘radiating galleries’. The galleries were to be 150 feet long with single rooms on one side. At the centre of the building was a large three-storied Administration Block or Centre House.
Tenders were invited and the lowest submitted was by a Mr Harvey, a tender of £33,163. Various other works were necessary, for example, an ‘approach road’ and the building of sandstone walls and two entrance lodges – known as North and South Lodge.
The work began on 20th March 1842.
It was decided to have a turret and a bell. The bell was to weigh 6 cwt and to cost no more than £40.
The Hospital was to be lit by gas so a special plant was designed and built.
The Hospital was officially opened on 22nd July 1845.
The summer of 1856 saw plans drawn up for a new female block and a Farm. These were completed in 1858. From which it became necessary to build a new male block – this work began in 1859 and was completed in 1861. Now making the average number of patients 650.
With the increasing number of patients and overcrowding, it was decided to raise the wings on either side of Centre House by one storey.
From 1872 and 1873 the Committee bought 27 acres of land from a Major Brent for £3,150 and 3 fields from Mr Trood for £800.
1873 saw the beginning of extension works carried out on the female blocks along with the new Church and Sanatorium.
The part of the building that had been the Church was turned into a Recreation Room, where many concerts and other entertainments were held. This room was enlarged and better provision of exit doors added following a serious fire in the Exeter Theatre which brought attention to the safety of other buildings.
In 1883, a new ward for 45 females was built with a dining hall to seat 400.
Up to 1888, the total cost of land and buildings was £156,000, averaging £165 per patient. The Hospital estate consisted of 121 acres, 21 acres for buildings, roads and cemetery, 8 acres for kitchen garden and 92 acres for farm.
In 1890, another male block and extension of the female block was carried out.
1893 saw a comprehensive review of the Hospital carried out by the Commissioners and considerable additions were recommended, such as, an increase in accommodation (or a new asylum be built for Devon). Also, included was a new laundry, buildings for 450 patients, enlargement of kitchen and stores, an extension of the recreation hall and a nurses' quarters block and new workshops. To make room for some of these buildings, the gas works had to be removed to the lower part of the Hospital. The architect for this further work was Mr E H Harbottle.
Two of the new wards were equipped to be 'Infirmary Wards' for better treatment of the sick and infirm patients. Also at this time, the lighting was reviewed. It was decided to remove the gas lighting and replace it with electricity. This work took two years and was finally completed in 1896 at a cost of £6,000. Also at this time, The Commissioners purchased a further 75 acres of land for £3,000. A well was built on this new land at Pierce's Hill and this was completed in 1899 and now supplied 100,000 gallons in 24 hours. Which led to a new reservoir being built and with this success came the permission of the Commissioners to build the remaining buildings and wards which were put on hold until an adequate water supply was provided.
In 1901, a house was built for the Medical Superintendent. This was located approximately halfway up the drive, on the right hand side, just past the Church and was named Merthyr.
1903 saw more male and female blocks built along with a male infirmary. This work was completed in 1906. This now brought accommodation up to 1,352. But there was still a shortage of male beds.
In 1905, the Committee decided to build six cottages on ground adjoining the Chaplin's house in the village. These were for married, male attendants. Due to the success of these houses, six more were built in 1908, known as Holley Cottages, and the cost of these 12 houses was £3,100.
In 1907, with the increase in the size of the Hospital, it was decided that the Workshops were inadequate and a new block for the Clerk of the Works staff was built. This building was on the North side of the Hospital. Other hospital services were enlarged, such as, the Stores and also the Laundry was again enlarged and improved.
Due to there being a varying amount of infectious diseases in the Hospital, it was decided in 1912 to build a Laboratory above the Dispensary in order to help with the diagnosis and treatment of these diseases.
Due to the First World War, no further buildings were carried out, but in 1920 it was decided to build 24 cottages in blocks of six. For unknown reasons, however, only six cottages were built.
Over the next few years, there were a few small changes and improvements, such as, modernisation of sanitary annexes, building of verandas and decorating wards that had all been put on hold because of the War.
In 1924, an Operating Theatre, x-ray department and dental room were built and equipped.
A house was built near the South Lodge for the Clerk, at a cost of £1,400.
During the Second World War years, building work was limited. The Ministry of Health had suggested that the Hospital set aside wards for the treatment of service and civilian casualties. This was carried out and the Emergency Medical Service (EMS) was introduced. Part of the E.M.S. hospital was opened on 1st January 1940 for the accommodation of sick German interns. In order that this part of the Hospital should function fully, The Ministry of Health supplied an x-ray unit and dark room and installed apparatus for physiotherapy treatment due to there being a number of Orthopaedic patients. Another Operating Theatre was provided by converting a bathroom and an enclosed veranda was made into a decontamination centre. On 23rd April 1942, the Hospital was bombed. Three mental wards and two E.M.S. wards were destroyed.
Post World War 2, in 1949, the Hospital was in a 'run-down' condition in buildings, furnishing and equipment. The Management Committee quickly identified certain pressing needs, such as, an admission unit and upgrading of many wards. Particular improvement in the sanitary annexes and the reorganisation of the Stores. In 1950, a further 6 cottages for Farm workers were built along with further staff houses. Also an improved water supply. The War also saw extensive damage to the Occupational Therapy (O.T.) building and although much improvement had been made by 1948, it was felt in 1953 that there was a need for better premises. It took 2 years to secure approval and a further year before the building work began. The new centre which was situated near the Belvedere Clinic was opened in January 1958, having cost £33,000 for the building itself and £2,600 for the equipment.
In 1962, a substantial improvement plan for the Nurses' Home was put into place and by 1974 it was not only a home for nurses but other staff too. Royal Western Counties Hospital nurses also lived there. A large part of the building was also used for other purposes, such as a staff cafeteria, and offices for the Group Engineer and Group Building Supervisor.
The early 70's saw the availability of the former Medical Superintendent's house, which became known as Deepway House, become a rehabilitation centre and then an alcoholics' unit.
The Laundry was to undergo a modernisation and enlargement in 1966 after the Committee agreed for it to become a centralised unit for Exeter Hospitals. In 1972, the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital (Heavitree) formally the City Hospital (Heavitree) transferred its services to the new Central Laundry attached to the newly built Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital (Wonford) and once again the Exminster Laundry was remodelled.
With the imminent closure of Exminster Hospital in 1987, building work was now at a minimum.