Ever Heard Of The Hanwell Asylum?

By London Historians Last edited 75 months ago

Last Updated 20 February 2018

Ever Heard Of The Hanwell Asylum?
Panopticon-style tower block, de riguer at the time in prison building theory as advocated by Jeremy Bentham.

The Hanwell Asylum, aka the Middlesex County Asylum, is probably better known — if at all — as St Bernard’s. A lot of people assume it's long-since closed, like the Holloway sanitorium in Virginia Water, or at least moved away like the Bethlem Hospital (“Bedlam”) in Lambeth, now the Imperial War Museum.

Not a bit of it. St Bernard’s Hospital, part of West London NHS Mental Health Trust, is very much active. When Mike Paterson of London Historians wandered past, there were small numbers of patients hanging around on garden benches and wandering about. Some kept each other company, others were smoking.

The Hanwell Pauper and Lunatic Asylum.

Many of the old buildings, particularly to the east (ie to the left in the above illustration) are very much extant, along with rather nondescript modern two-storey apartment blocks. While the old Holloway and Bedlam buildings are beautiful — uplifting even — overall St Bernard’s is decidedly grim and oppressive.

The Gatehouse

The complex is fronted street-side (the very busy, dual-carriageway Uxbridge Road), by an imposing, ivy-bewigged, arched gatehouse, unoccupied by an employed keeper for many years, by the looks of it. A long driveway leads to the chapel. One can imagine wagons of supplies rolling up here having collected them from the nearby GWR siding, opened a handful of years after the asylum itself that came into being in 1831.

This was very much the mid-19th century, when the authorities undertook a determined policy of shifting prisons, asylums, workhouses and cemeteries to the outskirts. London was expanding at its fastest pace before or since: no room for criminals, the poor, the dead or the mad.

The chapel

Not quite Victorian, then, strictly speaking by year of foundation, but very much so in many other ways, not least in our imaginations.

Wikipedia has a good historical description of this rather desolate Victorian survival, and there's a very good article from Illustrated London News in 1843, republished on Victorian London.

This article originally appeared on London Historians. You can become a London Historians member here.