Mental health care in Britain was revolutionised in the late twentieth century, as a public asylum system dating back to the 1850s was replaced by a community-based psychiatric service. This paper examines this transformation through the lens of an individual asylum closure. In the late 1980s, I spent several months in Friern mental hospital in north-east London. Friern was the former Colney Hatch Asylum, one of the largest and most notorious of the great Victorian ‘museums of the mad’. It closed in 1993. The paper gives a detailed account of the hospital's closure, in tandem with my personal memories of life in Friern during its twilight days. Friern's demise occurred in an ideological climate increasingly hostile to welfare dependency. The transfer of mental health care from institution to community was accompanied by a new ‘recovery model’ for the mentally ill which emphasised economic independence and personal autonomy. Drawing on the Friern experience, the paper concludes by raising questions about the validity of this model and its implications for mental healthcare provision in twenty-first century Britain.
(Online publication September 24 2010)
* Many people assisted me with the preparation of this article. For discussing their experiences and ideas with me, my grateful thanks to Janet Alldred, Bobby Baker, Peter Barham, Annie Brackx, Annette de la Cour, Jackie Drury, Rosalind Furlong, Ian Griffiths, David Jones, Adah Kay, Elaine Murphy, Diana Rose, David Taylor, Bill Travers, Wendy Wallace and John Wilkinson. Special thanks to Felicity Callard, Norma Clarke, Kate Hodgkin and Denise Riley for reading and commenting on earlier drafts. I learned much from all these people; nonetheless the opinions expressed here, as well as any errors of fact or interpretation, remain entirely my responsibility.