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A History of London County Lunatic Asylums & Mental Hospitals (Paperback)

British History London P&S History Social History 20th Century Health 19th Century 18th Century

By Ed Brandon
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 224
ISBN: 9781399008730
Published: 28th July 2022

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From the Middle-Ages onwards, London’s notorious Bedlam lunatic hospital saw the city’s ‘mad’ locked away in dank cells, neglected and abused and without any real cure and little comfort. The unprecedented growth of the metropolis after the Industrial Revolution saw a perceived ‘epidemic’ of madness take hold, with ‘county asylums’ seen by those in power as the most humane or cost-effective way to offer the mass confinement and treatment believed necessary.

The county of Middlesex – to which London once belonged – would build and open three huge county asylums from 1831, and when London became its own county in 1889 it would adopt all three and go on to build or run another eight such immense institutions. Each operated much like a self-contained town; home to thousands and often incorporating its own railway, laundries, farms, gardens, kitchens, ballroom, sports pitches, surgeries, wards, cells, chapel, mortuary, and more, in order to ensure the patients never needed to leave the asylum’s grounds.

Between them, at their peak London’s eleven county asylums were home to around 25,000 patients and thousands more staff, and dominated the physical landscape as well as the public imagination from the 1830s right up to the 1990s. Several gained a legacy which lasted even beyond their closure, as their hulking, abandoned forms sat in overgrown sites around London, refusing to be forgotten and continuing to attract the attention of those with both curious and nefarious motives.

Hanwell (St Bernard’s), Colney Hatch (Friern), Banstead, Cane Hill, Claybury, Bexley, Manor, Horton, St Ebba’s, Long Grove, and West Park went from being known as ‘county lunatic asylums’ to ‘mental hospitals’ and beyond. Reflecting on both the positive and negative aspects of their long and storied histories from their planning and construction to the treatments and regimes adopted at each, the lives of patients and staff through to their use during wartime, and the modernisation and changes of the 20th century, this book documents their stories from their opening up to their eventual closure, abandonment, redevelopment, or destruction.

From the Middle-Ages onwards, London’s notorious Bedlam lunatic hospital saw the city’s ‘mad’ locked away in dank cells, neglected and abused and without any real cure and little comfort. The unprecedented growth of the metropolis after the Industrial Revolution saw a perceived ‘epidemic’ of madness take hold, with ‘county asylums’ seen by those in power as the most humane or cost-effective way to offer the mass confinement and treatment believed necessary.

The county of Middlesex – to which London once belonged – would build and open three huge county asylums from 1831, and when London became its own county in 1889 it would adopt all three and go on to build or run another eight such immense institutions. Each operated much like a self-contained town; home to thousands and often incorporating its own railway, laundries, farms, gardens, kitchens, ballroom, sports pitches, surgeries, wards, cells, chapel, mortuary, and more, in order to ensure the patients never needed to leave the asylum’s grounds.

Between them, at their peak London’s eleven county asylums were home to around 25,000 patients and thousands more staff, and dominated the physical landscape as well as the public imagination from the 1830s right up to the 1990s. Several gained a legacy which lasted even beyond their closure, as their hulking, abandoned forms sat in overgrown sites around London, refusing to be forgotten and continuing to attract the attention of those with both curious and nefarious motives.

Hanwell (St Bernard’s), Colney Hatch (Friern), Banstead, Cane Hill, Claybury, Bexley, Manor, Horton, St Ebba’s, Long Grove, and West Park went from being known as ‘county lunatic asylums’ to ‘mental hospitals’ and beyond. Reflecting on both the positive and negative aspects of their long and storied histories from their planning and construction to the treatments and regimes adopted at each, the lives of patients and staff through to their use during wartime, and the modernisation and changes of the 20th century, this book documents their stories from their opening up to their eventual closure, abandonment, redevelopment, or destruction. Such an interesting and informative read!

NetGalley, Michelle Coates

An interesting insight into the history od London Counties asylums. I learned about the doctors ruling them and their views on insanity. Each asylum was also described in terms of architecture. I enjoyed the pictures illustrating the descriptions as well giving a clearer view of the buildings. A good read.

NetGalley, Christine Boos

I thought it was an excellent read about a subject that I only know a little about. The author has obviously done large amounts of painstaking research & it shows in the level of detail.

NetGalley, Gayle Noble

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is an annotated and thorough look at mental hospitals and their residents; from their lives to what they ate is covered unflinchingly and meticulously. The book's 7 chapters are arranged geographically with individual institutions' statistics in relevant subchapters. Although it's clearly well researched and annotated, the text is accessible and easy to read. The language is not rigorously academic (or intentionally obfuscated). Most of the descriptions reflect the tragic circumstances of the patients of these institutions and I was especially affected by the descriptions of the abandoned and derelict facilities, often abandoned in haste and left to ruin.

The author has included a solid cross-referenced index, chapter endnotes, and a bibliography for further reading. The text is enhanced throughout with clear historical photos and facsimiles of documents, hospitals, and grounds. These include interior and exterior photos of abandoned and derelict buildings.

Altogether interesting and educational and in many places, quite sad.

Five stars.

NetGalley, Annie Buchanan

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

An extremely thorough analysis of London asylums and mental hospitals and the policies and practices that went with them. From what they ate to how they lived and so much more, this story gives you all you need to know , Brandon has certainly done his research and paints a comprehensive picture of times bygone (thankfully!)

NetGalley, Charlotte Papadopoulo

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ve always had knowings of the sort of things that went down within mental hospitals back in the day, but this book went beyond the ‘bad’. It praised doctors who fought for better living conditions and went through the layouts of the buildings. I enjoyed the stories of the patients within the walls, including someone considered to potentially be Jack the Ripper. It’s sad, but wasn’t mostly unknown to me, the sort of things you could end up in a mental hospital for. One reason I wasn’t aware of was for self-pleasuring. There were definitely aspects I wasn’t aware of before reading this, such as people being able to pay to visit the ‘mad’, like some sort of freak show. I wasn’t shocked though. The treatment of patients also varied between each asylum.

This is an extremely thorough and detailed book. I appreciated the layout of the book—each section went through the opening of the asylum to closure or present day—so it was easy to follow. I was worried it would read like one of those boring textbooks you’re forced to read in school, missing out the parts you want to know, focusing on details you’re not massively bothered about, but it kept me intrigued. I also appreciated the illustrations.

NetGalley, Lauren Counsell

I enjoyed reading A History of London County Lunatic Asylums and Mental Hospitals by Ed Brandon. It was very well written and informative

NetGalley, Laura Fayle

This is a book about the early history of mental health facilities and asylum in London. From those Who let people view the patient entertainment to patient standing outside of the hospital begging for change to pay for the care and on and on even have short bios of the man who wanted to make healthcare for the mentally ill better. They do stray a little outside of London but for the most part is it is in London proper and if you love history you’ll definitely love this book it is a short read but an interesting one and one I highly recommend.

NetGalley, Janalyn Prude

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The derogatory words lunatic asylum and mental hospital are synonymous with restraints, locked rooms, scant food, punishment, neglect and lobotomies and England is known for them in particular. It is disturbing to know that hundreds of years ago curious onlookers paid admission fees to ogle these poor creatures, fellow human beings, most of whom did not belong in institutions. Many were conveniently placed there by family citing demon possession and evil deeds, others were forcibly admitted after experiencing losses of family or crops. One memorable patient was admitted with "over excitement at the Great Exhibition"! I wonder whether said family members ever gave their deplorable actions a second thought or felt remorse. Undoubtedly some suffering from mental health problems did need extra care as we all know. A few patients in this book escaped or walked away only to return to "family". A few were very dangerous to others and others suicidal. Some institutions were more comfortable and respectable than others..

>From Medieval times these institutions changed a great deal. The author describes the history of madness (mad as a hatter, bedlam origins) and stigma as well as the revolutionary doctors such as Dr. Connolly who were desperate for their patients to receive excellent care and food, independence, beautiful architecture and magazines and books to read rather than tied up tightly all day and treated like sub humans. One of the stories which tugged at my heart most is that of the woman who was restrained so that she could not move, not even a finger to brush across her face or to roll over. Another is the detail that bath water was used for up to six people. Not only are the conditions, punishments and what a patient would see on his/her first day described but also the various building layouts, segregation of acute and chronic and staff quarters.

Many thousands of patients and staff entered the doors of eleven institutions which are the focus of this book from 1830s to 1990s. Funds were sparse (why bother "wasting" money on hopeless cases?) but at least many of the buildings were beautiful with thoughtfully-laid out kitchens, laundry facilities, canteens and churches. Eventually admission to a few became voluntary. A few buildings still stand and are used for other purposes but most were damaged by fire and/or bulldozed.

If you are eager to learn more about the history of asylums in England, this book should not be missed. It is well written with wonderful detail and includes photographs.

NetGalley, Brenda Carleton

This was an interesting history, full of fascinating facts and details and would be the perfect companion to anyone researching asylums and mental hospitals.

NetGalley, Louisa Heaton

This is an informative, thorough resource for anyone interested in the history of asylums. I really appreciated the depth of information about each of the specific institutions and their practices at the time as well as how the differed between each hospital within a relatively small area. The chronological order of events within each section was easy to follow and kept me interested in the changes made over the life of each facility. It's definitely a book that I would have picked up during university and will probably pick up for myself after publication as well.

NetGalley, Amber Payne

I have always been interested in the macabre and dark things and as a result I have always been fascinated with asylums and their histories - which lets face it are about as dark as it gets, even their structures are dark and foreboding. This was such an interesting read that gave me more information on the things I already knew and taught me lots that I didn't know.

NetGalley, Aria Harlow

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a very in-depth fascinating history of London’s mental hospitals. The author’s comprehensive descriptions of the buildings, historical medical practices and the doctors who influenced the mental health field gives the reader a look into history unlike I’ve read before and in a written style easy to follow. This could have read like a dry textbook, but the author weaves the stories of the asylums in a way that drew me in and kept me engaged. I’ve always been fascinated by the history of mental hospitals, and I ended this book wholly satisfied by the experience it lent.

NetGalley, Christy Martin

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A very well researched book giving the reader much more than dates, history's and locations of these buildings.
The reader is given some insight into what went on in these buildings. Horrific at times and often sad.

NetGalley, Debra Gape

About Ed Brandon

Ed Brandon has been researching, studying, and writing about the former lunatic asylums and mental hospitals since first being asked to provide an image of one for a book in 2008. He has now visited around eighty such institutions across Europe, with his work featured in exhibitions, galleries, books, magazines, and online articles.


He has worked with Mencap, Bethlem Museum of the Mind, West London & Thames Mental Health Trust, Aneurin Bevan Health Board, Norfolk & Suffolk NHS Trust, Peterborough NHS Trust, and North East London Foundation Trust to create documents of their buildings after closure, and assisted numerous museums, galleries, local history groups, students, and others with information regarding the former asylums. He is also a contributor to countyasylums.co.uk and some examples of his photography can be found on www.facebook.com/ASOMUE


This is his first solo book detailing the history of some of these most complex, intriguing, and mythologised of building types.

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