After more than a century, Britain’s notorious asylums were no longer seen as models of enlightened psychiatry and replaced by hospital wards and community services. Where does that leave the people they actually healed?
Friern Hospital, playing musical chairs, 1980s, found photo. Image from Flickr user Alan Denney.
November 2002. I put on a skirt and jacket and head up to Friern Barnet, in the north London suburbs. Princess Park Manor is a palatial apartment complex on the south side of Friern high street. The sharp-suited woman in the sales hut by the Manor’s front gate seems excited by my visit. Maybe sales have been slow? This is not a well-heeled neighborhood; will anyone who can pay a half-million for a two-bedroom flat really want to live here? I flip through the glossy brochures, check the location of the show apartments, and head along a flower-lined path toward the main building. The wide lawn glistens in the morning light; a squirrel chatters in a cedar. When I am out of sight of the sales hut I leave the path and walk across the lawn to a door on the building’s far right. The door opens into a sunny corridor with polished wooden floors. For a moment I’m disoriented, then I walk along the corridor until a staircase appears on my left. I climb to the first floor, on to a small landing with a numbered door. I go over to the door and stand there. Sounds from within? No, nothing. No footsteps, no cries, no rattle of keys… Silence. So we have really been exorcized then? Not even the echoes of our voices trapped in the walls? Surely the stench of our cigarettes, our endless cigarettes, must still be detectable? But all I can smell is fresh paint and floor polish.
Gradually, like reassembling a picture puzzle, I begin to make out a bit of corridor here, an original ceiling there. I start to see how it’s been done—and abruptly lose interest. I go back to the sales hut, smile discouragingly at the sharp suit, and head back home.
Princess Park Manor was my loony bin, my nuthouse. In the late 1980s I spent nearly eight months there. None of the sales literature mentions the Manor’s previous incarnation as Friern Hospital, yet in its own way it was top-drawer even then. Entering it for the first time in July 1988, I found myself in what had once been England’s biggest and most advanced psychiatric institution: the Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Colney Hatch, or “Colney Hatch,” as Friern was universally known until the mid-twentieth century. Like nearly all of Britain’s old asylums, the hospital was slated for closure. A few days after my admission, my friend, the historian Raphael Samuel, had come to visit me. He looked around the vast, drab ward with undisguised fascination and embraced me. “Darling Barbara! What a privilege for you, as a historian, to be present at the demise of one of the last great Victorian institutions!” His words both annoyed and amused me, but they lodged inside me.
While I was in Friern I lost my home, and went to live in a psychiatric hostel. By then my world had contracted around my illness.
I had always been unhappy. Moving from Canada to London, aged twenty-one, I had thought to leave my unhappiness behind me. But it traveled with me, and in my late twenties it took a frightening turn. I became horribly anxious, unable to sleep, plagued by mysterious bodily symptoms. In 1981, when I was thirty-one, I broke down entirely for a time and decided to seek help. Many of my friends were in psychotherapy, so this became my route. In 1982 I began seeing a psychoanalyst. Within three years I had lost all semblance of ordinary life; three years further on I was admitted to Friern. I spent nearly four years in the mental health system, either as an inpatient or a day patient. While I was in Friern I lost my home, and went to live in a psychiatric hostel. By then my world had contracted around my illness.
My years as a mental patient coincided with a revolution in the psychiatric health system. Right across the Western world, people with mental disorders were being decanted out of the old asylums into the “community.” I was formally discharged in 1992. Friern closed the following year. By the end of the decade nearly all the mental hospitals had gone. I had lived through the twilight days of the Asylum Age.
I don’t pretend that everything happened exactly as I describe it. No historian can ever claim this, and sometimes I have felt the need to be tactful, toward myself as well as others. But I have been as truthful as possible. “You want to know the truth about yourself,” my analyst told me early on, as if this might matter a lot to me. It did, but psychological truth is a shape-shifter, and conveying it is tricky. “I hardly know how to write about myself,” the novelist Hilary Mantel says at the beginning of her memoir Giving Up the Ghost. “…I will just go for it, I think to myself, I’ll hold out my hands and say, c’est moi, get used to it.” But the moi of my story wasn’t present to me in this way. It was a self in process, a “me” who came into existence in the years I describe here. So what I have to offer the reader are backward views from the vantage point of someone who both was and was not there at the time. Accurately remembered madness is oxymoronic; if you can really remember it, you are still mad.
Waking up in a mental hospital isn’t something you plan for. My first morning in Friern, I surface on a tide of queasy amazement. It’s not what I see that astonishes me—I’ve sat through enough loony-bin films to have some idea what to expect—but who I now am. There have been moments in recent months when I have hardly recognized the desolate woman inhabiting my body and brain; but sooner or later the familiar self would always reappear, sporting her labels—historian, feminist, writer. Now I am in a place that redefines me. Now I am a loony, a nutter, one of those forlorn beings who lurk in the dark recesses of our society. My me has drained out of me; I am on the far side of the moon.
Thin cotton curtains separated my bed from those on either side. The bed facing mine across the dormitory was empty; the room was quiet. Was I alone? A sound to the right. I looked through a gap in the curtain and saw a middle-aged woman pulling a pillowslip down over her head. A young woman in a t-shirt and jeans ran up and yanked at the pillowslip; the two women tussled over the cloth for a moment until the patient let go. The younger woman, a nurse as I now saw she was, turned away scowling—and spotted me peering out. “You’re awake. You’ve slept late. Better get up.” Moira, her name tag said. “Toilets are there, bathroom’s there—the duty psychiatrist will see you later.”
Moira was in her late twenties, plump, tight jeans girdling her tummy rolls. I heaved myself out of bed and discovered I was very weak. My legs wobbled and my muscles ached from vitamin depletion. But I was sober and rested—and alive. The dormitory was a long room with a very high ceiling, eight beds on each side. My bed was third from the entrance. As I headed off toward the bathroom the pillowslip woman stepped in front of me. “Gimme a fag?” “I don’t smoke.” A disbelieving stare. “Gimme a fag!” “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” I shouldered past her. “Meanie! Meanie!” she yelled after me.
The bathroom had a row of sinks along one side and two big tubs in the center of the floor. As I ran my bath a chemical cloud rose from the water, so pungent it made my stomach heave. The door had a huge keyhole but no key so I dipped in and out of the water very fast, scrambling to dry and dress before pillowslip woman came in search of her cigarette. As I left the room I hurried past the discolored mirror hanging over the sinks, averting my eyes as I went.
Back in the dormitory, Moira was pulling the covers off a body. A hand snaked out to pull the covers back. “No lying about,” Moira said to the body—and to me, in case I had any ideas about retreating to bed. So I picked up my shoulder bag (where did people put such things?) and went out to look around.
Ward 16 proved to be a vast open space with a nursing station at its center. The front end, by the entrance, was empty except for a Ping-Pong table (no ball or paddles) and a few chairs. This was, I later discovered, the “activity area.” At the far end were the dayroom and dining room, with a kitchen to one side of the dining room. Between these were the male and female dormitories, each with a bathroom and toilets (with unlockable doors), and a half-dozen small rooms: a couple of offices, an examination room, a meds closet, and two little “seclusion” rooms, which I later discovered had once been padded cells. As I took this in, I looked around for the people who were meant to be occupying all these spaces. The communal areas were so big, I expected to see hordes of patients somewhere. But all that was visible were a few people sitting in the dayroom—where was everyone? At its peak in the early 1950s, Friern had a population of nearly 3,000; now, in the run-up to closure, it was down to about 800. This ward, designed for fifty-plus patients, now housed twenty-seven. Patients and staff rattled around like pebbles in a vacuum flask.
Ward 16 was an “acute admissions” ward, meaning it was meant for people in a highly disturbed state, needing plenty of care (and drugs) until they stabilized and could be discharged or moved to a rehab or long-stay ward. In fact, some people had been living there for years. About a third of the patients were “sectioned” (legally detained), so the door was usually locked. Getting out wasn’t always easy. You had to find a willing nurse with a key (the keys were the Victorian originals: huge iron winders straight out of a Hollywood gothic). I often spent many minutes in search of a nurse, who would then tell me to wait. “What’s your hurry? Don’t you like the company here?” Getting in wasn’t straightforward either. “Ring the bell,” I would tell my friends when they asked for directions. The bell was easy to identify as somebody had scrawled Ring Bell! next to it, along with a further instruction to Fuck Off to Hell! But visitors who rang the bell—having made their way along the interminable corridor, with its bleak graffiti and muttering specters, and clambered up the dark winding staircase to the ward landing—would often find themselves waiting for many minutes until someone came. One of my friends, upset by the long wait and overwhelmed by the weirdness of it all, burst into tears when she finally saw me.
Rajat had been a psychiatrist. “My patients drove me crazy,” he chuckled at me a few days later. “Really?” This rather alarmed me. “No, of course not.”
But for now I was just an anxious new girl. I wandered about slowly… Not too bad, not too bad… What to do next? Maybe there was somebody I could talk to? I sidled into the dayroom and sat down beside a middle-aged Indian man. He was smoking with great concentration. Eventually he glanced over at me and nodded.
“You arrived yesterday.” His accent was educated.
“Yes, last night.” His trousers were an ancient pinstripe, fastened at the waist with a safety pin; his grayed vest was heavily dusted with cigarette ash.
“Could you spare a cigarette?” “Sorry. I don’t smoke.” “Ah. Very wise.” He slumped deeper in his chair and seemed to fall asleep. But then with an effortful grunt he pulled himself back up. “So! What has brought you here? If you don’t mind my asking.” I didn’t mind, but I didn’t reply. He closed his eyes and soon I heard a light snore. Should I go? I found his proximity comforting and stayed on, listening to him breathing.
Rajat had been a psychiatrist. “My patients drove me crazy,” he chuckled at me a few days later.
“Really?” This rather alarmed me. “No, of course not. I am a late-onset manic-depressive.” “Oh.” In the two years that I knew Rajat I never saw his demeanor alter a jot. Either he sat quietly in the dayroom or he shuffled back and forth in front of the nursing station, dribbling ash along his path. Occasionally, if someone sat in his preferred chair, he would growl slightly—but this was his only sign of heightened emotion.
“You are one of Dr. D’s patients,” he said to me now when he woke.
“Yes.” “Excellent psychiatrist, excellent. She sometimes consults with me.”
I smiled at this but a week or so later I heard Dr. D talking to Rajat about a female patient who had killed herself some years earlier. Rajat had known the woman well. “She stopped taking her medication,” he said to Dr. D. “Yes, so sad. Did you think she would?” “Yes, very bad case…very bad.” He sniffed professionally.
Now, on this first day in Friern, I clung to Rajat, following him into the lunch queue, imitating him as he collected his sausage and beans from the trolley, hurrying into the seat next to him in the dining room, following him back to the dayroom after the meal. He tolerated this, but when at tea time I rose again to follow him into the dining room he turned on me: “Go away!” I had had my first lesson in asylum etiquette: don’t push it.
Friern was not just any loony bin. When my friend Raphael Samuel visited me there, what he saw with his historian’s eye was not the sad, doomed place Friern had become, but what it had once been: Colney Hatch, the emblematic institution of the Asylum Age. Entering the hospital in July 1988, I became part of a ghostly lunatic army, one of the tens of thousands of people who had resided there—some for days, some for decades—since its founding a century and a half earlier. When the hospital closed in 1993, my patient records traveled to the London Metropolitan Archives along with the rest of the hospital’s files, which today occupy more than eighty linear meters of shelving at the LMA. Perhaps one day some future chronicler of Friern will take my records down from the shelf and peruse them alongside those of my fellow Friernites, and so see for herself something of the story I tell here, about the world in which I found myself in the twilight days of this famous old asylum.
By the time I was admitted to Friern—drunk, sick, suicidal—I had lost all sense of myself as a historian. My life had imploded and I had collapsed inward; nothing outside me mattered, least of all the old dump I had landed myself in. But as I dried out my mood lifted, so that by the time Raphael came to visit me, a week or so later, I was curious enough about my surroundings to question him. “So, what was this place then?” “Barbara, darling! Colney Hatch! Don’t you know about it?”
Many people have seen inside Friern Hospital without knowing it. A B-movie image of a loony bin, its vast decaying wards were so nightmarishly atmospheric that photographers and film companies queued up to use them. Few extant interiors so faithfully mirrored the gothic inner landscapes of madness. The hospital’s most famous feature—a corridor extending over a third of a mile, the longest in Europe—could make even the stoutest spirit quail. Stretching out endlessly, its vaulted roof and dirty walls striped with light from narrow windows, empty except for an occasional figure shuffling along, muttering and gesticulating, this corridor was the very emblem of despair. Friends traversing it for the first time, en route to my ward, arrived wide-eyed with dismay.
At its founding, Colney Hatch—it didn’t become Friern until 1937—was the largest asylum in Europe. Opened with much fanfare in the Great Exhibition year of 1851, Colney Hatch was, in conception at least, no gloomy bedlam but a showcase for enlightened psychiatry. Its lovely grounds and elaborate frontage—an Italianate riot of campaniles, cupolas, rustic stone quoins, and ornamental trimmings—signaled a prestige institution designed to comfort and heal the truant mind. Madhouses were notorious for “managing” their inmates with chains and whips, but now this new asylum, in quintessentially Victorian fashion, put them to work instead. Like most of the great nineteenth-century asylums, Colney Hatch was a self-supporting community. Its 165-acre site boasted a large farm, orchards, gardens, stables, gasworks, waterworks, laundries, bakeries, and craft workshops manufacturing everything from brushes and beds to boots and clothing of all varieties. Most of the asylum’s food and, by the end of the nineteenth century, all of its clothing were produced on site by the patients. Even the beer accompanying the patients’ dinner (until a busybody subcommittee of the London County Council banned beer from the asylum in 1891, to much protest) was brewed in the asylum brewery.
Many people coming to London for the Exhibition traveled up to visit the asylum, to marvel at its size and nod appreciatively at the sight of hundreds of lunatics laboring peaceably in its fields and workshops.
Such industrious self-provision, especially in the year of the Great Exhibition, marked out Colney Hatch as a model Victorian institution. Many people coming to London for the Exhibition traveled up to Friern Barnet to visit the asylum, to marvel at its size and grandeur and to nod appreciatively at the sight of hundreds of lunatics laboring peaceably in its fields and workshops. A few years later such tourists could, if they wished, attend a “lunatic ball” (fifteen of these were held in 1868 alone, along with magic-lantern exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and plays) or the ever-popular summer fête.
So idyllic did all this appear that it left more than one mid-nineteenth-century observer convinced that Colney Hatch was a model environment for the sane as well as the insane. The only concern was that patients residing in such a cheerful and healthful place would never want to leave.
Colney Hatch Asylum—my asylum, as I still think of it—opened at the height of the moral-treatment boom. “No hand or foot” would be bound at the new asylum, the chairman of the Middlesex magistrates declared at the stone-laying ceremony, for here was no mere jail but “a curative institution…[and] we anticipate that, with the advantages which this asylum can command, it will soon acquire a European reputation.”
Yet within a few decades Colney Hatch had become a byword for neglect and misery. Studying the asylum’s history, I marveled that it lasted as long as it did. Perhaps we should see its continued existence as testimony to the degraded state of public psychiatry in the years before the “community care” revolution—certainly this is how many would interpret it. But matters are more complex than this. Friern’s history exemplifies a phase of Western psychiatry that began on a high tide of reformist optimism and then descended into troubled waters before finally foundering in a flood of anti-institutional, anti-welfarist sentiment. Whether its disappearance, along with the rest of the asylums, is a victory for improved mental health care is not clear.
I met Fiona on my third day in Friern. She was only in her twenties, but she was a veteran of asylum life. Seeing me fumbling my way around the ward, she decided to take me in hand. Our friendship, which blossomed quickly, transformed my experience of the hospital, to the point where at moments I almost found myself enjoying my peculiar new life.
I could never figure out what was wrong with Fiona. She was a freelance designer who seemed to do well at her work. But every few years she would “go funny” and end up in hospital. In these funny periods, she told me, she would sometimes go out late at night and get raped—this had happened three times. The rapes made her suicidal, she said, showing me the heavy cuts on her wrists and arms. Listening to her stories, I gradually pieced together a picture of a girl wandering the nighttime streets, confused, distraught, available for anything. Even here in hospital, Fiona exuded a vulnerability that was somehow provocative; one day she giggled noisily at something I said and I felt a sudden urge to strike her, which horrified me. The men on the ward watched her carefully, sensing trouble. Yet she was also vigorous and funny. We spent most afternoons together, chatting in the dayroom or strolling around the grounds. One day we walked to a little parade of shops near the hospital where Fiona persuaded me to buy some pretty shoes, which I wore for many years.
I told Fiona all about myself—my friends, my politics, my book. I thought that she didn’t really believe me. But later I realized that she neither believed nor disbelieved. To Fiona’s mind, everyone was entitled to her or his reality—me with my lefty ideas and my book just as much her boyfriend, the “Spaceman,” as she called him, with his ten hearts and his regular journeys to Saturn, or Fiona herself for that matter, with her terrible tales of lunatic parents who regularly beat her, the men who raped her. One day Fiona took me to meet the Spaceman, a gentle Afro-Caribbean whom she had met in Friern on a previous admission. I listened as she chatted with him about his interplanetary adventures, and I realized that I didn’t care whether the stories Fiona told me were true. For the truth of Fiona was not in her words but in her suffering, whatever its causes, and that suffering I never doubted, although I never saw her at her most wretched—that she saved for the dark streets, for the hungry, predatory men.
She did once witness me in extremis. I had just received a further ultimatum from my housemates. I must arrange the sale of my house share to them straight away, or they would put the house on the market. Fiona found me frantic with rage and fear. “Whoa, that’s rough,” she said. “Come on.” She marched me down to the hospital’s social work department and insisted that someone see me. The social worker was sympathetic and efficient and within a few weeks I had received the promise of a room in a psychiatric hostel. “You just need to know the ropes,” Fiona told me as I hugged her in gratitude.
In 1930, a new Mental Treatment Act introduced voluntary patients into the asylum system. For the first time people could enter asylums, and leave them, without compulsion. Outpatient services were also initiated, and it was assumed that asylum populations would now begin to decrease. But they did not, and in fact admissions continued to rise well into the 1950s, including admissions into Friern, which in 1954 were running at three times their 1939 rate. Nevertheless, the presence of voluntary patients presented a major challenge to the custodial ethos of the asylums, a challenge that mounted steadily toward a crisis in the wake of the integration of the asylums into the National Health Service in 1948.
Initial plans for the NHS excluded psychiatric services, possibly due to lobbying by asylum doctors who feared loss of power as they competed with general hospitals for funding and status within the state system. But Aneurin Bevan, the Labour Minister of Health responsible for the introduction of the NHS, was determined to end the ghettoization of mental health care, which he regarded as “a source of endless cruelty and neglect,” and the old mental hospitals were propelled into the new regime. From this moment, although no one knew it at the time, the asylums were doomed. How could places that locked people up, subjected them to involuntary treatments, frequently neglected or even abused them, be part of a modern health system? No reform-minded government could tolerate it.
At first the asylums responded well to the challenge. The Second World War had seen some major innovations in institutional psychiatry, and these continued to gather pace after the war, eventually cresting in a reformist wave that swept through the asylums, bringing with it new treatments and rehabilitation programs, the unlocking of wards, and a revitalization of moral therapy. Assisted by the introduction of new symptom-suppressant drugs, psychiatrists in many asylums—including Friern—began experimenting with group therapy and other psychoanalytically inspired treatments, and the sector was gripped by a resurgent curative optimism.
Some asylums turned their backs on these changes, but enough embraced them to bode well for the future. Yet it was at this very moment that the government, in the person of Enoch Powell, then Conservative minister of health, sounded the death knell for the asylum system. Addressing the 1961 conference of the National Association for Mental Health (now Mind), Powell attacked the old hospitals as medical dinosaurs. “There they stand,” he told his audience, “isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by [the] gigantic water-tower[s]…the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day.” But this day had passed: “For the great majority of these establishments there is no appropriate future use…” Powell meant what he said: a year later he issued his Hospital Plan providing for the replacement of the mental hospitals by acute-care psychiatric wards in general hospitals and community-based services for non-acute and aftercare. The “deinstitutionalization” of mental health care—to use the unlovely neologism coined by sociologists—or “decarceration,” as others dubbed it, was under way.
Powell was a Tory libertarian, but his assault on the mental hospitals earned him plaudits across the political spectrum, not just in Britain but internationally. Asylums across the Western world were moving into crisis. The recent improvements in British asylums, scattered and experimental as these were, had few parallels elsewhere. American mental hospitals were vast, anonymous “bins” often housing 10,000 patients or more, most of them held there under compulsion; Canadian asylums were generally smaller but no better. In the same year as Powell delivered his “Water Tower” speech the sociologist Erving Goffman launched an excoriating attack on the American hospitals. In sharp, vivid prose, Goffman’s Asylums revealed the day-to-day degradations inflicted on inmates of a Washington asylum. Waving aside the hospital’s medical pretensions, Goffman condemned it and its counterparts as human “storage dumps,” a judgment echoing that of Thomas Szasz, who, also in 1961, in a hugely influential book titled The Myth of Mental Illness, had damned the asylums as prisons presided over by psychiatrist-jailers. Goffman’s and Szasz’s indictments of the asylum system were echoed by “anti-psychiatrists” in other countries, including Michel Foucault in France, Franco Basaglia in Italy, and R. D. Laing and David Cooper in Britain—a formidable band whose collective onslaught on the mental health establishment became a high point of 1960s radicalism.
The obligations of friendship trumped madness—and this in itself could be a form of healing.
In Britain, Laing, Cooper, and their supporters formed the left wing of an anti-asylum offensive which also included welfare reformers, investigative journalists, and, eventually, patients themselves, organized into a growing “consumer” movement, as well as Powell and his supporters. The language of these campaigners was militant—but they were pushing at an open door. In 1959 a new Mental Health Act had abolished the distinction between psychiatric and general hospitals and eased voluntary access to inpatient mental health care. In its wake, the ratio of voluntary to detained patients had risen dramatically, a transformation which made the custodialism of the old asylums appear ludicrously oppressive as well as outdated. Outpatient psychiatric services were also expanding, as new drug treatments made it possible to treat increasing numbers of people in their homes. By the early 1970s, asylums everywhere were recording a steady shrinkage in their resident numbers. Moreover, many of the buildings that housed the old hospitals were falling apart. Renovating them would be hugely costly—an unwelcome prospect to governments, especially at a time of fiscal crisis. And then there were the scandals. The 1960s and 1970s saw a steady stream of exposés of neglect and abuse, which together delivered the coup de grâce to the Asylum Age. “Every few months…some sort of scandal is reported,” a psychiatrist lamented in The Times, ending his article with a plea to the government to “finish the job and close down these old hospitals.”
Fiona and I watched daytime soaps on the ward television, collected windfalls in the hospital’s overgrown apple orchards, ate strawberries on my bed until a nurse told us off—small pleasures that in an asylum become survival stratagems. On my second admission I met Magda, the blanketed lump I had seen the nurse trying to rouse on my first morning in Friern. Very soon we were fast friends. “Get up! Come and talk to me!” I would plead to Magda. “I’m lonely, I can’t stand it out there—you have to get up and keep me company.” Magda suffered terribly from black depression yet nearly always she would pull herself together to be with me. Usually I did the same for her. The obligations of friendship trumped madness—and this in itself could be a form of healing.
For people with severe mental disorders, just being around other people is sometimes all that is desired or tolerable. Two middle-aged men at Pine Street Day Centre sat next to each other on a sofa day after day, seldom speaking; if one got up to move around, the other would soon follow. The dayroom on Ward 16 always had a few people, often the same people, sitting there together, smoking silently. “Company without intimacy” is how the psychiatric literature describes this, and it seems apt. Intimacy is demanding, it pulls hard on our inner resources and threatens our emotional control. Even slight friendships can be taxing, exposing need and vulnerability. For some people this pressure can be too much to handle, at least some of the time. This was quite often true of me, when I was too paralyzed by pain to reach out to anyone yet could not stand to be alone. So I would join the smokers in the dayroom, placing myself next to Magda if she were there. Magda would glance over at me and sit on quietly; once she took my hand.
Communities are not abstractions, they are living entities, products of human relating wherever people find themselves. On my third admission to Friern I became friendly with an Irish alcoholic, a chirpy man who, when sober, was full of ward-improvement plans. “Games night!” Colin announced one day. “We’ll have a Friday games night; I know lots of great games.” And a few days later: “A Ping-Pong championship! Let’s set one up—we could run a book on it!” His energy met with little response, including from me, until he hit on the idea of a breakfast club. This was a great success. Every Saturday about a half-dozen of us would sit down and plan the menu. Money would be pooled and Colin would go off to buy groceries. Sunday morning we’d head into the ward kitchen to produce a magnificent fry-up under Colin’s bossy supervision. A separate table was laid where we feasted while the rest of the ward looked sourly on. “It’s not our fault that they don’t have any,” Colin said, shooing away a woman edging toward his plate, “I asked everyone if they wanted to join in.” Most of the patients either didn’t understand the scheme or lacked the ready cash. Every community has its insiders and outsiders; I was glad to be one of the in-crowd.
Colin was discharged after a few weeks and the breakfast club collapsed. Acute-admissions wards like Ward 16, where people came and went constantly, were difficult places to sustain relationships. Things were different on long-stay wards: here friendships could last for many years. I interviewed Janet Alldred, who was a charge nurse in Friern and one of the people responsible for rehousing the hospital’s long-stay patients. “We made a big effort to keep friends together,” Janet told me. “Some of the group homes we set up: there are people in them who have been friends for decades.” But there had been a problem. People had been transferred at different rates, with the most socially able going first. “So the less able people, the ones who had difficulty making friends, they got left behind, which must have been very sad for some of them.”
One of these “less able” patients was my friend Magda. Ward 16 wasn’t meant to contain any long-stayers but in fact it housed several who had been there for many years. “We’re the real vets,” Magda told me. “They’ll never get rid of us.” “So what will happen when the hospital closes down?” “We’ll hide out, and when everybody else has gone we’ll take it over.”
Friern closed on April 1, 1993. It was a rush at the end, with a few patients still there on March 31. Remaining staff immediately began dismantling the hospital, selling off furniture and beds, emptying files on to the shelves of the London Metropolitan Archives. Four hundred beds and mattresses were shipped to Sudanese hospitals. Later, after the developers moved in, Victorian fireplaces and oak floorboards were sold as architectural salvage. In 2004, when I was refurbishing a house, I bought several meters of oak floorboards from a salvage company. I asked the salesman if he knew their provenance. “They’re from an old mental hospital, up in Friern Barnet…we’ve sold loads of them.” They are excellent boards; sanded and refinished, they bring a touch of souvenir elegance to my home.
The future of the site was still unresolved at closure. There was no shortage of ideas, with private companies eyeing up its commercial potential while community groups, heritage bodies, and other interested parties put forward suggestions for a library, an old people’s home, a university, low-cost accommodation. A group of service users proposed making part of the old building into a museum of psychiatry. Local residents objected to some of these suggestions and ratepayers’ groups weighed in. Things dragged on. A travelers’ community moved on to the site and proved hard to budge. It was followed by the Metropolitan Police, who used the grounds for firearms training. Eventually part of the site was sold off for a retail park and townhouse development, and at the end of 1995 the main building and thirty acres of grounds were purchased by Comer Homes, a property development company specializing in “historic” conversions. Throughout these years former patients kept turning up at the site.
Today people with ongoing mental health problems have few dedicated social venues. The day hospitals and day centers have mostly closed, usually in the face of anguished protest. When I ask mental health managers about this, I am repeatedly told that it is not good for service users to spend all their time with other service users, they should mingle with healthy people in the “community.” It is pointed out to me that mental illness is often episodic; that many people are unwell only intermittently and what they really need is help in utilizing their capabilities during their well times instead of becoming “career mental patients” consigned to psychiatric ghettoes. There is real force to this argument, and when I repeat it to a service-user activist he strongly endorses it. But it is also a convenient argument, legitimizing yet more swingeing cuts in mental health budgets, and one that leaves untouched the miserable isolation of many mentally ill people in the UK today, sitting alone in their flats with only a television to keep them company. One man who spends his days like this, sitting by himself in front of the TV, told an interviewer: “It’s just like being on a ward again, except there’s nobody else there.”
Adapted with permission from The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times by Barbara Taylor, © 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.
Barbara Taylor is professor of humanities at Queen Mary University of London. She is the author of Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination, and, with Adam Phillips, On Kindness.
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