Shenley Hospital opened by Middlesex County Council in 1934 built on a long tradition in the county of enlightened care for people with mental illness. This began with the bluntly titled Madhouse Act of 1828 which provided for the first publicly funded purpose built asylums, resulting in the opening in May 1831 of the Middlesex County Asylum in Hanwell. Here the first resident physician Dr John Conolly was a pioneer in abandoning physical restraints for patients. The handsome asylum building, soon to be overlooked by Brunel’s equally fine Wharncliffe Viaduct, is still in use today as St Bernards Hospital. St Bernards is the headquarters of the West London Mental Healthcare NHS Trust which treats more than 20,000 people a year spread across 32 different sites including Broadmoor High Secure Hospital.
The Illustrated London News of 1848 shows a Twelfth Night party for inmates at Hanwell. The paper praised the regime there: “Seven years have elapsed since the experiment of non-restraint has been fully tried in the Hanwell Asylum; and Dr Conolly, in the spirit of a Christian philosopher, thanks God, with deep and unfeigned humility, that nothing has occurred during that period to throw discredit on the great principles for which he has so nobly battled”.
20 years after it opened Hanwell was joined by the Second Middlesex County Asylum, also known as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Colney Hatch was used by Londoners to mean any mental institution. It had 1250 beds at its opening in 1851 growing to care for 3,500 patients, living in wards arranged around the longest corridor in Europe. Unlike Hanwell Colney Hatch is no longer open; the site was redeveloped in the 1990s as luxury flats.
Colney Hatch in 1856, when a visitor wrote: ‘We were indeed gratified on finding so universal an air of homeliness and comfort pervade the establishment. The patients in general spoke in high terms of their treatment, and assured us that everything was done that could be to make them feel happy. What a difference in the condition of the lunatic at the present time, compared with what was some fifty years past!‘
The public asylums largely replaced private establishments outside London. These have become famous in literature through The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, published by Charles Dickens as a serial in 1859-60. The first of the so-called ‘sensation novels’ this is the story of a young woman who we meet in the Finchley Road having escaped from the asylum where she had been wronglyfully committed in order to steal an inheritance.
From the first edition of The Woman in White the hero, art teacher Walter Hartright, meets the mysterious woman on the outskirts of London
Here are some of the names of these establishments, as traced by this blogger. The first, for wealthy patients, may have been Irish’s, which opened in Guildford in Surrey, in 1700, and which was followed by madhouses in Chelsea in the mid 18th century, also Hoxton House just north-east of London, Normand House, Fulham, Ann Pope’s in Hanwell, Manor House, Chiswick (1833), Earls Court House in Old Brompton, and Wyke House and Inverness Lodge in Brentford. In Hanwell John Conolly opened his own private establishment called Lawn House after leaving his position at the county asylum. One of the last was Stilwell’s in Hayes in the mid 19th century.
Dr John Conolly, 1794-1866, first resident physician of Middlesex County Asylum, Hanwell, and later proprietor of a private asylum there.
Conolly also lived on in literature, according to a contributor to the British Journal of Psychiatry who argues that he is the model for a doctor in another novel dealing with the issue of wrongful commitment to asylums. This is the best selling Hard Cash (1863) by Charles Reade. Despite Conolly’s progressive regime in Hanwell, Reade represents him as his fictional alter ego, a Dr Wycherly, is happy to fall in the (sane) hero’s dishonest father and commit him to imprisonment while spouting jargon about ‘an organic affection of the brain’.