Hanwell And Elthorne: The Train Station Sign That Tells Us About Historic Attitudes To Mental Illness

By Marcus Liddell Last edited 9 months ago

Last Updated 29 August 2023

Hanwell And Elthorne: The Train Station Sign That Tells Us About Historic Attitudes To Mental Illness
An Elizabeth line train pulls into Hanwell station
The recently refurbished station is one of the prettiest on the Elizabeth line... but it houses a dark secret. Image: Crossrail Ltd

Two large heritage platform boards are among the more eye-catching features of the recently refurbished Elizabeth line station at Hanwell. The signs, white lettering on black, evoke a time when steam trains powered through its platforms.

Yet, the name carried by the boards, 'Hanwell and Elthorne', is of greater interest. Not just because Elthorne no longer appears in the station's official name — its inclusion can also teach us something about historic attitudes to mental illness.

A Hanwell and Elthorne platform sign
A bucolic sign with an ugly history. Image: Marcus Liddell

Towards the end of the 19th century, Hanwell was a growing village on London's periphery. Its population numbered about 6,000 in 1890 but for many the name was shorthand for the nearby county asylum.

Middlesex County Asylum at Hanwell had opened in 1831. It was the first 'pauper' asylum for Middlesex so was soon expanding to meet demand — accommodating almost 1,900 people by 1881.

Treatments fell short of modern standards but the asylum did pioneer changes to improve patients' lives. Resident physician Dr John Conolly successfully introduced a non-restraint policy in 1839 and helped the asylum win a reputation for good practice.

Etching of the gran layout of Hanwell Asylum
Hanwell Asylum in 1843. Image: public domain

Yet outside the institution's imposing walls, public attitudes caused many to regret its close links to Hanwell and even consider changing Hanwell's name to shed the perceived stigma.

A common concern centred on a belief the asylum put off potential residents. We see this in a letter to the Middlesex County Times from S. Meech, of 12 Lawn Terrace, who said a large number of houses, "especially the better sort", were empty as a result. Changing the name would increase trade and prosperity, they added.

A blue plaque dedicated to Dr John Conolly
Resident physician Dr John Conolly successfully introduced a non-restraint policy in 1839. Image: English Heritage

Meech was writing in 1887, when a campaign to change Hanwell's name was building momentum. On 18 June, the Middlesex County Times mentioned a petition had attracted signatures from "a large number" of property owners and residents. One alternative name was Elthorne. It came from the hundred, an old sub-division of a county, to which Hanwell belonged, and further newspaper reports show Great Western Railway had told Hanwell Local Board it could add Elthorne to the station's name.

There was a precedent. Colney Hatch, another village strongly associated with an asylum, had changed the name of its station to Southgate and Colney Hatch in 1855, before switching to New Southgate and Colney Hatch in 1873. Those supporting a change to Hanwell's name believed Colney Hatch had benefitted and would cite the example in debate.

Green gates with 'Elthorne Park' on them
Image: Marcus Liddell

Not everyone supported a switch though, and the question generated strong feelings. The Middlesex County Times described a "turbulent meeting" on 17 August 1887 called by Rev F.H Laing who opposed changing Hanwell's name. The newspaper said he criticised the Hanwell Local Board and said outsiders, who wanted to blot out a historic name to enhance the value of their own property, were responsible for the campaign. W. Abbot, Chairman of the Local Board, who said it was "the most un-English meeting" he had attended in Hanwell, was "frequently interrupted" as he defended the board.

On this occasion, the Elthornians got their way, to an extent. In took a few years, but in 1896 the station's name changed to Hanwell and Elthorne. This partial change would not satisfy those most aggrieved by associations with the asylum and the question of Hanwell's name would emerge again in 1911.

A sign that reads 'Golden Manor'
Hanwell could have been renamed Golden Manor. Image: Marcus Liddell

By this point, the asylum had become London County Asylum, Hanwell, and was treating about 2,500 patients. In Hanwell, Elthorne Park had opened, and adverts for Elthorne Heights housing estate had appeared in the local press. Its developers had also written to Hanwell Urban District Council offering their services to help a name change happen.

But it was an unofficial plebiscite, organised by the Hanwell and Brentford Gazette, which did most to revive the question. A letter written under the pseudonym 'Elthornian' apparently prompted the move. They claimed Hanwell had the "great misfortune to be known throughout the whole London area as a place identified with a lunatic asylum". An editorial agreed Hanwell had "for a long time been a subject of jest" due to the "innocent association" before announcing a referendum to settle the matter.

A residential road
Mayfield Gardens in Elthorne Heights , which sprung up as a well to do housing estate in the early 1900s. Image: Marcus Liddell

While it might be tempting to dismiss the move as a publicity trick, the paper looks to have expended considerable effort on the vote. The Pall Mall Gazette and Evening News also mention the plebiscite, albeit briefly. The result showed a clear majority supported a name change although the newspaper was disappointed with the turnout. "Of 3,600 ballot papers distributed only 2,529 are available for counting", it said. Of that total, 1,485 supported a new name giving a majority of 441. A street-by-street analysis was published along with a list of suggested names which included Brentbridge, Golden Manor and Boston-on-Brent.

A grand brick archway
The old gatehouse to Hanwell Asylum. Image: Marcus Liddell

This seems to have been the last attempt to change Hanwell's name. The editor of the newspaper shared the result with Hanwell Urban District Council but no official action followed. There was greater change to the asylum's identity. It went through three name changes between 1918 and 1937, when it became St Bernard's Hospital.

Today it is somewhat overshadowed by Ealing General Hospital, which opened on part of its site in 1979, but St Bernard's continues to provide crucial services, including psychotherapy, perinatal mental health services and an eating disorder service. These mainly run from purpose built facilities such as The Three Bridges medium secure unit and The Orchard unit. The old chapel, central octagon and gatehouse, are still standing though, close to newly built flats. What had been symbols of the asylum are now heritage features, adding character to modern homes.

A train rattles past a Hanwell and Elthorne sign
Image: Marcus Liddell

It was also in the 1970s — 6 May 1974, in fact — that Hanwell and Elthorne reverted to being plain old Hanwell. The heritage sign remains — a reminder hiding in plain sight of times when the area was bucolic, yet many attitudes towards mental illness were ugly.