Last November I put on a new suit and went to view some luxury flats in the North London suburbs. Princess Park Manor on Friern Barnet Road – ‘a supremely elegant residence set in thirty acres of parkland’ – is a new development of 256 apartments carved out of what was once Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Friern Hospital as it later became known. Despite vigorous campaigning by patient groups and mental-health professionals, Friern was closed in 1993. Most of its grounds were sold off for a retail park and townhouse development; the building itself and the land immediately surrounding it, both under conservation orders, went to a property company that specialises in ‘historic’ conversions. Within a few years the new owners had refurbished the building’s spectacular Italianate façade, added a gym and swimming-pool, and begun to advertise one to three-bedroom apartments targeted at City workers (New Southgate railway station, just beside the Manor, is on the line to Moorgate). By the time I visited, more than two-thirds of the flats had been sold, and business was brisk.
In 1988 and again in 1989 I was a patient in Friern, spending almost nine months in total in a locked, acute-care ward. Since my last discharge I had been back to the hospital twice: once to view a small exhibition on its history; the second time – an illicit return this, sneaking past a broken security lock – to prowl its empty, broken hallways and pigeonshit-strewn wards. That second visit, which left me elated, practically dancing my way out across the hospital’s still beautiful lawns, was meant to be the last; but Friern pulls back hard. I’m sure I’m not the only former inmate who has turned up at Princess Park Manor’s sales office, kitted out for normalcy, heart tip-tapping; although at least I had an alibi, a book-in-prospect about the rise and demise of the British asylum system. I would have gone anyway, but the writerly purpose satisfied me that there was nothing pathological in my tergiversations.
In its heyday, Colney Hatch was one of the largest lunatic asylums in Europe. Opened with much fanfare in the Great Exhibition year of 1851, it was, in conception at least, a showcase for psychiatric reform. Its lovely grounds and elaborate frontage – a riot of campaniles, cupolas, rustic stone quoins and ornamental trimmings – signalled that this was a prestigious institution designed to soothe and heal the ‘truant mind’, while its treatment regimes favoured moral discipline over coercion. Visitors in London for the Great Exhibition were encouraged to witness first-hand its thousand-plus patients labouring peaceably in its communal farms, gardens and craft workshops. A decade later, such visitors could attend a ‘lunatic ball’ (15 were held in 1868 alone, along with magic lantern exhibitions, concerts, lectures and plays) or the ever popular summer fête. In the 1870s a patients’ band performed regularly, sometimes joined on stage by outside entertainers such as the Royal Poland Street Temperance Hand Bell Ringers. So idyllic did all this seem that it left more than one observer convinced that Colney Hatch was a model environment for the sane as well as the insane. The main fear was that patients would never want to leave.