Remembering and Forgetting the Psychiatric Asylum

Psychiatric asylums were the globally-dominant form of mental health care for over a century. Generally located on the urban fringe, they were set in sites of significant size with vast grounds- and removed from the stresses of urban living.

In the latter half of the 20th Century there was a policy of mass psychiatric asylum closure in Great Britain, originating with then Health Secretary Enoch Powell’s Water Tower Speech in 1961. Powell was a driver of modernisation in the healthcare service and drove a program of hospital building. Powell’s speech made the decline of the asylum part of the government’s policy moving forward and the stance was clear, the asylum was no longer seen as an acceptable standard for mental health care in the UK. Thus, began the process of deinstitutionalisation, the question then was however, what to do with the large institutions’ buildings, grounds and landscapes which were now deemed surplus to requirements? Powell himself said in his speech:

“well, let me here declare that if we err, it is our duty to err on the side of ruthlessness. For the great majority of these establishments there is no appropriate future use, and I for my own part will resist any attempt to foist another purpose upon them unless it can be proved to me in each case that, such, or almost such, a building would have had to be erected in that, or some similar, place to serve the other purpose, if the mental hospital had never existed”.

(Photograph of the main building of St Nicholas’ Hospital in Newcastle, Joshua J Green, 2017)

However, although a number of asylums were demolished, the majority remain in some capacity. There are five common ‘fates’ which have befallen these sites:

  • ‘Retention’ – those asylum sites which have been retained within the health care profession;
  • ‘Residential’ – those sites that have been converted into housing;
  • ‘Redevelopment’ – those sites which have been reused in a separate institutional capacity;
  • ‘Dereliction’ those sites that have been abandoned; and
  • ‘Demolition’- those sites that have been destroyed.

Despite the continued presence of these sites, debates around their use and reuse were often characterised by a stigma-driven characterisation of these sites as inhumane and outdated places. Stigma has been defined by Erving Goffman as a negative gap between reality and a perception often clouded by stereotypes. There are a number of difficulties involved in redeveloping former psychiatric asylum sites, not least of which being that developers are unsure what to do with a place which has been stigmatised. Therefore where asylum sites have been redeveloped for alternative use, there has been a deliberate attempt across the board to reimagine their history and to reconstruct the identity of the sites, especially in the instances where they have been marketed for sale. This has been through what Alun Joseph, Robin Kearns and Graham Moon termed ‘selective remembrance’ and ‘strategic forgetting’- where the memory of the sites’ history is gentrified and ‘cleansed’ of its less appealing, and moreover less marketable, aspects.

The best examples of this come from those asylum sites which have been turned into residential housing, especially those which have been converted into luxury apartments. One example of this is Princess Park Manor in Friern Barnet, formerly known as Second Middlesex County Asylum, Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, and Friern Hospital. The asylum housed 2500 patients at its peak.

(Watercolour architectural elevation of the ‘Clock and Watchmaker’s Asylum, Colney Hatch’ by unknown artist, circa 1855, Wikipedia, 2021)

Princess Park Manor eventually closed in 1993 after a long decline and was sold to Colmer Homes in 1995 to be redeveloped into luxury flats, and has housed a range of celebrities and sports stars over the years including members of One Direction, JLS, and former Arsenal players Ashley Cole and Wojciech Szczęsny amongst many others. But the most interesting factor is how it markets itself:

“Princess Park Manor is an award winning, period listing [sic] building set within 30 acres of private parkland. The development has been sensitively and imaginatively converted to combine elegance and exquisite proportion of its heritage with the convenience and comfort expected in the modern age”.

(Princess Park Manor- formerly Friern Hospital, Independent, 2012)

Here we see an example of selective remembrance and strategic forgetting, with references to a ‘period’ building within 30 acres of ‘mature private parkland’. This references how the building is historical but deliberately avoids its actual history, whilst simultaneously promoting the same aspects of the asylum that were the original benefits of these sites- being set in large grounds with a separation from the outside world.

This strategic forgetting has been utilised to increase the marketability of the building, by attempting to side-step the stigma which surrounded these psychiatric asylum sites across history. As recently as 2012, the Independent released an article which ‘revealed’ the site’s “dark and secret past”, referencing it as its “sinister former life”.

Princess Park Manor is far from the only example of the residential redevelopment of former psychiatric asylums, with further examples including: Middlewood Hospital, Sheffield; Ribery Hill Hospital, Birmingham; and Lancaster Moor Hospital, Lancaster. Other redevelopments include as student accommodation (Glenside Hospital, Bristol; Carlton Hayes Hospital, Leicester), and other sites have been either partially converted or wholly destroyed, some with prisons standing on the land (All Saint’s Hospital, Birmingham; Banstead Hospital, Sutton).

(Aerial photograph of Glenside Student Accommodation, University of Bristol- formerly Glenside Hospital, Wikipedia, 2014)

Overall, though over time more and more of the old psychiatric asylums are being closed, with what is thought to be fewer than ten being largely retained for healthcare purposes, it is likely that narratives will largely attempt to erase the buildings’ histories, through the process of  strategic forgetting and selective remembrance. However, physical signs remain if you look closely enough. You can find your local asylum online (suggested starting point: https://www.countyasylums.co.uk/the-asylum-list/), and if the buildings remain, look out for a clocktower, a water tower, or long wings either side of a central building. These features remain scattered across the country, with their histories reimagined as ‘period buildings’ and ‘grand Victorian architecture’, set in ‘acres of private parkland’ providing ‘privacy and quiet’. All you have to do is look very carefully for them.

Suggested reading:

To start researching asylums in your local area, see: www.Countyasylums.co.uk/the-asylum-list

For histories and images from Urban Explorers: https://www.urbex.co.uk/

For a more general read: Mark Davies and Marina Kidd (2013). Voices from the Asylum: West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum.

And for an in-depth look at the themes discussed in this article, and other aspects of asylum history: Joshua J Green (2017). Towards a Conceptual Understanding of the Continuing Presence of the Psychiatric Asylum in Contemporary Urban Britain. (https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/411241/1/Joshua_Green_final_PhD_thesis.pdf)

By Josh Green

Josh completed his PhD at the University of Southampton in 2017. His research focused on former psychiatric asylum sites and their continued presence in the UK, looking at themes such as memory, stigma, conservation, and governance. Josh’s haphazard career has led to his contribution to the Department of Health’s advisory document “Health and Wellbeing”, serving ice-cream, dolphin conservation work, teaching at universities and secondary schools, and working in museums. As well as the history of psychiatric asylums, Josh’s interests are wide ranging and include health policy, prison hulks, and quakers, amongst seemingly endless other things.