Lockdown and lunatics

THE GRAND UNION CANAL and its shorter branches link London with Birmingham and other places in the Midlands. For much of its course, it runs vaguely parallel to the route of the M1 motorway, possibly one of the least attractive highways in England. Unlike the motorway, the canal winds its way through picturesque countryside for much of its course. Starting at Brentford (Middlesex) on the River Thames, the canal and the River Brent follow the same course, but they part company at The Fox pub at Hanwell, about two miles (as the crow flies) from the old iron bridge, which carries Brentford High Street over the River Brent. Moving north along the canal from this bifurcation, we soon arrived at something that we did not know about until we walked there with our dear friends from Richmond, who have introduced us to many other fascinating places, which were also new to us.

The bifurcation is about 34 feet above sea-level. From that point, the canal’s route curves leftward changing its direction from northwest to southwest, and in so doing it reaches land that is 86 feet above sea level. This curve is about 700 yards in length. To be able to move vessels between these two altitudes, there is a series of six hand-operated locks, known collectively as the Hanwell Lock Flight, an impressive sight. Each of the six locks enables a craft to negotiate about nine feet of the change in altitude.  This is slightly less than the deepest lock on the Grand Union Canal system, which is 11 feet and one inch at Denham Deep Lock.

An old wall, now a protected historical structure, to the east of much of this flight of locks separates the grounds of the former County Lunatic Asylum (‘Hanwell Asylum’) from the canal and its towpath. The wall, formerly that of the Lunatic Asylum, then that of St Bernard’s Hospital, and now that of Ealing Hospital, was probably built in the 1830s (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001963). As for the locks, they must have been constructed at the same time as the canal, that is between 1793, when its construction was authorised and 1805, when the section between Brentford and Braunston (in Oxfordshire) was completed. The work on the canal was supervised by William Jessup (1745-1814), who was the Chief Engineer, and James Barnes (c1740-1819), the Resident Engineer. Each lock is separated by a widened part of the canal, a pool where boats could wait before using the next lock on their journey. The pools have small ramps that were used to lead towing horses from the water if they fell into it accidentally as often happened, when they tripped on the towing ropes of barges awaiting the locks.

The wall of the former asylum has small blocked up rectangular openings a few inches above the towpath. These were designed to be opened if the asylum caught fire. Water taken from the canal could then be pumped through these holes and into the asylum precincts. Between Locks numbers 94 and 95, the pool widens slightly next to the wall of the former asylum.  The wall has a blocked-up archway, which used to be an entrance to the asylum. Old maps show that this archway led to a small quare dock within the walls of the asylum. The north and east sides of this dock were flanked with the asylum’s mortuary building. To the west of this, there was a burial ground. The dock was used to unload supplies, mainly coal, to the asylum. The asylum grew most of its own food, and any surplus that it produced was loaded on to barges at the dock.

Hanwell Asylum was the first such county establishment to be opened in the county of Middlesex. The second was the better-known one at Colney Hatch (at Friern Barnet), which was opened in 1850. Writing in 1876 in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”, James Thorne describes that the inmates of the asylum were treated in ways far better than they might have been in other such places then and earlier. He wrote that the 1100 women and 650 men confined there ‘enjoyed’ a:

“…a system of entire ‘freedom from restraint on the part of the patients, ample occupation, amusement, and absence of seclusion; with constant kindness of manner and sleepless vigilance on the part of the attendants, and unceasing watchfulness by the superiors’, a system now happily established in all our larger asylums.”

These improvements were introduced under the management of the psychiatrist Dr John Conolly (1794-1866), who qualified in medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1821. In 1828, he was appointed Professor of medical practice at the recently established University College in London (now ‘UCL’). Two years later, he published a book, “Indications of Insanity”, and in 1839 he became Resident Physician at the Hanwell Asylum. There, he introduced the practice of not restraining patients suffering with what was then known as ‘insanity’. Although he was not the first to do this, his actions ensured that humane methods of treatment including ‘non-restraint’ became accepted practice all over the country. In 1856, Conolly published a book on this subject, “The Treatment of the Insane without Mechanical Restraints”. Despite this, the patients were locked into the asylum beside the locks.

In 1929, the asylum was renamed as ‘St Bernard’s Hospital’, which it remained until the mid-1970s, when the government redeveloped the site to become part of Ealing Hospital. The former Victorian asylum buildings have become the Ealing Hospital, St. Bernard’s Wing, for psychiatric patients.

We walked along the Grand Union Canal/River Brent towpath from Brentford to the Hanwell Lock Flight, just over three miles. At times, the waterway passes so close to the M4 motorway that you can almost touch the traffic roaring past, yet even when this and modern buildings are nearby, the canal runs along a lovely corridor of greenery, where the occasional water fowl such as ducks, coots, cormorants, swans, and heron can be spotted. As you walk along, it is sometimes difficult to believe that you are winding your way through the sea of suburbia that spreads in all directions from the edges of central London. Once again, I am indebted to our friends from Richmond for opening our eyes to yet more of London’s delightful surprises.

We made our walk during the last week of the November 2020 covid19 ‘lockdown’. On reflection, it seems appropriate that our perambulation took us past locks and a place where unfortunates with mental disorders were once locked-up, or should one say ‘locked-down’?

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