Histoire culturelle de l'Europe

Laurence Dubois

Soothing the mind, nourishing the body : the vital role of gardens and gardening in the therapeutic, social and economic structure of Hanwell asylum’s community.



L’asile de Hanwell, asile public pour aliénés indigents ouvert en 1831 et situé dans la banlieue ouest de Londres, faisait partie des nombreuses institutions publiques créées dans le cadre de la réforme de la législation sur les aliénés, visant à améliorer le traitement des malades mentaux en Angleterre. Lorsque le Dr John Conolly (1794-1866) fut nommé à la tête de l’établissement en 1839, il mit en place une politique entièrement nouvelle de non-restraint (abandon des moyens de contention mécanique) ainsi qu’une approche thérapeutique inspirée du traitement moral, fondée sur les principes de la thérapie d’occupation. Dans ce contexte, il y avait un consensus général sur les bénéfices thérapeutiques que l’on pouvait retirer d’un asile situé dans un environnement verdoyant, entouré de jardins que les patients étaient encouragés à contempler, mais qu’ils pouvaient également utiliser comme lieu de détente et d’exercice physique, ou bien pour faire du jardinage ou encore rencontrer les autres. Même si la dimension thérapeutique des jardins et du jardinage ne saurait être sous-estimée, il ne fait aucun doute que les enjeux étaient également économiques et sociaux : l’exploitation de la ferme de l’asile représentait une source de revenus conséquente et régulière qui contribuait à réduire les coûts supportés par les autorités locales responsables de la prise en charge des pensionnaires de l’asile. À Hanwell, les jardins jouaient ainsi un rôle majeur dans la création et le maintien d’une communauté autarcique.


Hanwell Asylum, a pauper lunatic asylum situated in the western suburbs of London and built in 1831, was one of the numerous public institutions created in the context of the Lunacy Reform movement in order to improve the treatment of the mentally ill in England. As soon as Dr John Conolly (1794-1866) was appointed medical superintendent of the institution, in 1839, he implemented a whole new policy of non-restraint and a “moral management” approach, grounded on the principles of occupational therapy. In that context, there was wide consensus about the curative benefits that could be gathered from the position of the asylum in a leafy environment, surrounded by gardens that the patients were encouraged to contemplate, but also to use for physical exercise, gardening and social intercourse. Even though the therapeutic dimension of gardens and gardening should not be dismissed, there is no denying that there were also various social and economic issues at stake : the asylum farm business represented a significant and regular income that helped reduce the costs borne by the local authorities in charge of the inmates. Hanwell asylum’s gardens thus played a vital role in creating and maintaining a self-sufficient community.

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1When it came to cultivating the body and the soul, the metaphor of gardening was frequently used during the Victorian era, as the idea of being able to improve human character through hard work and patient care corresponded to typical values of Britain at the time1. As Vieda Skultans noticed, the same vision was already expressed years before by Shakespeare in Othello, when Iago declared :

[…] our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many – either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry – why, the power and corrigible authority lies in our wills2.

2In the nineteenth-century context of lunacy reforms, the emphasis was put on a therapeutic method named « moral treatment » which fundamentally sought to « encourage autonomy3 » and was coherent with promoting willpower. The aim was to help patients develop their self-control through a favorable environment in which they could indulge in relaxing and/or entertaining occupations and get positively distracted from their mental illness or their melancholy. Hanwell Asylum, a pauper lunatic asylum situated in the western suburbs of London and built in 1831, was one of the numerous public institutions created in the context of the Lunacy Reform movement in order to improve the treatment of the mentally ill in England and make it more humane. Dr John Conolly (1794-1866) was appointed medical superintendent of the institution in June 1839 and he implemented a whole new policy of non-restraint, applied on an unprecedented scale, meaning that relative freedom of movement was given to the patients and that straitjackets or chains were banned and became things of the past. From the 1840s onwards, Victorian asylums were meant to be genuine places of refuge and care and the practice in those institutions was deeply rooted in the prevailing therapeutic optimism of the time. Specific attention was dedicated to the quality of the patients’ environment and way of life, as well as to the wide range of entertainment offered to them : games, Christmas parties, summer festivals, reading sessions, music, sport and dancing. As far as the environment was concerned, there was widespread consensus on the necessity of building asylums in the countryside, far enough from big cities or urban areas, in places where one could breathe fresh air and enjoy vast landscapes4, since a bucolic atmosphere and a rural environment were supposed to be part of therapy5. Technically, it meant that there was plenty of space surrounding the asylum or even on the premises. This article will discuss the extent to which the medical or administrative authorities of Hanwell integrated gardens or parks as central elements in the daily life of the asylum, using them as places for therapeutic activities or social interactions. It will also study how gardening, far from being restricted to its therapeutic function, could also be seen as an essential contribution to the economic balance of the institution, by making it partly or fully self-sufficient in terms of food production.

3When people visited the newly-built institution at the time of Dr William Ellis6, even before Conolly’s vast project of reform, they sometimes felt as if they were entering some kind of pastoral working community, living in harmony. This is at least the description given by Harriet Martineau7 in the long account she wrote about her visit to Hanwell Asylum in 1834 :

On entering the gate, I met a patient going to his garden work with his tools in his hand, and passed three others breaking clods with their forks, and keeping near each other for the sake of being sociable. Further on, were three women rolling the grass in company ; one of whom – a merry creature, who clapped her hands at the sight of visitors, had been chained to her bed for seven years before she was brought hither, but is likely to give little further trouble, henceforth, than that of finding her enough to do. […] In a shed in this garden, sit three or four patients cutting potatoes for seed, singing and amusing each other […]8.

4This somewhat idealised vision led Harriet Martineau to consider that rich patients were in fact penalised insofar as they were unable to benefit from Dr Ellis’s care. According to her, the living conditions offered to Hanwell patients, who were all pauper lunatics, were thoroughly superior to the conditions in which the richest were forced to live in private madhouses. She declared that they would be « far happier painting Dr Ellis’s hall, or patching a shoe-sole, with hands shaking with eagerness9 », and she also insisted on the benefits that were derived from devoting the whole day to healthy outdoor activities.

5As for Conolly, when he took office at Hanwell in 1839, he totally agreed with the asylum administrative committee in considering that outdoor activities should be promoted and favoured over all others because of what he assumed to be their supreme therapeutic value : « farm and garden work is not only more active, but more various, and therefore more remedial10 ». He clearly stated that sedentary work, especially indoor activities, was far from being as beneficial to their health. He did not deny the importance of living in a nice environment though, and acknowledged the potential benefit of « elaborately painted walls and ceilings, luxurious furniture11 ». He still considered that they were not essential to the treatment and that their influence could be deemed « doubtful12 ». On the opposite, he did not have the slightest doubt as to the necessity of having « very diversified and magnificent pleasure-grounds13 » that would facilitate outdoor entertainment, and he promoted activities linked to nature and gardens : « many natural pleasures, [such] as the aspect of an agreeable garden, or airing grounds ; lively exercises ; the care of animals ; […] and well-regulated and simple entertainments14 ». It must be said that John Conolly had a clear and precise view of how the asylums grounds had to be organised in order to convert them into proper pleasure grounds :

The larger exercising-grounds of asylums should always contain summer-houses, flower-borders, with gravel walks between rows of lime-trees, or other trees of quick growth, not obstructing the proper inspection of the patients when walking there. A bowling-green, a cricket-ground, seats under the trees […] and buildings containing birds of various kinds, and tame animals, will be found to interest many of the patients. A piece of shallow water, with ducks and other aquatic fowl, would also give them pleasure. […] The walks should be wide, and made of fine well-rolled gravel, and there should be shrubs, and flower-beds, and mounds, and sheltered seats15.

6There seemed to be widespread consensus within the institution on the importance and benefits of outdoor activities, whether it be from the doctors’ point of view or from the committee’s. Working on the farm or in the garden was highly praised and recommended (it was also considered as a privilege by many patients) but for the « numerous patients who [were] unwilling to work, or incapable of being employed, the importance of taking frequent exercise in the open air [was] not permitted to be forgotten. In fine weather, every patient who [could] be induced to go into the Airing Courts, [was] allowed to be there a great part of the day16 ». Refurbishment works were made in order to improve the quality of the grounds and gardens on the premises to make them more convivial and more suitable for entertainment and relaxation, following Conolly’s recommendations : « dry walks of sufficient extent and variety ; constructing a building for the reception of tame animals of various kinds ; and the formation of a bowling-green17 ». John Conolly was entirely satisfied with the alterations that were made and the fact that « nearly every airing-court ha[d] been converted into a garden, and an abundant portion of ground assigned to the entire use of the most tranquil and orderly patients18 ». When the weather was fine, « hundreds of … patients [were] to be seen out of doors, enjoying a freedom most agreeable to contemplate, and seldom abused19 ». Conolly insisted on the necessity for all patients to go out and breathe some fresh air, even for those who were the most apathetic or dejected and who would probably not have decided to go out spontaneously and relax outside. The benefits seemed obvious to him, as he declared that « nothing has so great a tendency to increase the irritability of the patients as keeping them within doors20 ». Those who were considered to be too excited or violent should also be encouraged to take a few steps in the open, as that was the best way of « giving them relief21 ». Dr Conolly was adamant that no patient should be excluded from this kind of relaxing moments and he maintained that even « the irritable and troublesome […] ought to be able to go out of their sitting-rooms, although into gardens more secluded and secure22 ». The asylum rules included considerations on the possible weather changes and all the scenarios had been carefully thought out : during the summer, if the temperature was too high, the patients had to be taken out as early as possible in the morning and should be back indoors before midday. It was crucial for them to always be protected from the sun. During the winter, or when the weather was cold, they were only allowed to go out for half an hour, precisely between half past eleven and twelve. When it rained and the lawn was wet, lying on the grass was strictly forbidden. It was only when the weather was truly bad that the patients « [were] not to be taken out23 » but it had to remain an exception. Every afternoon, the patients who were « quiet and neat enough24 » were allowed to go further than the playground or the gardens and they could explore the « asylum grounds » and spend one hour or two there, depending on the season. They were generally allowed to go out around half past three, but it could be later if the weather was too hot – it would then be after five in the afternoon. The asylum staff were instructed to help the patients go out and take a walk as often as possible whenever the weather was appropriate, and so the courtyards had to always be accessible, « at least three hours in the morning, and three hours in the afternoon of every day25 ». In order to make the surroundings more pleasant, the asylum authorities invested in major refurbishment and structural improvements. Numerous paths were created, so that the patients could walk all around the building and still be sheltered from the sun and the rain26. Lots of plants, various trees, bushes, shrubs and flower beds were added in front of the asylum and in the patients’ courtyards27. One of the yards dedicated to male patients « [had] been principally planted, and [was] entirely kept in order by a patient, who [was] a gardener, and its appearance was superior to that of the rest28 ». It was decided that all the available spaces were to be turned into « pleasure grounds29 ». Some patients contributed to the task and were asked to plant trees or to take an active part in digging works to create new paths and « a broad gravelled terrace » and « a circular walk30 » on the north-east side of the building. At the beginning of the 1840s, part of the institution’s operating budget was specifically allocated to the purchase of plants : £12 for trees and shrubbery and £1531 to buy elm trees for the year 184332. There was also a specific budget for the creation of new gardens and the refurbishment of the existing courtyards : £300 were thus spent to « form a large and cheerful additional airing-ground in front of the West Wing, which the increased number of the female patients ha[d] rendered essential33 ». The main purpose of this newly improved environment was to encourage patients to spend more time relaxing outside the building as an alternative to their being confined in crowded places within the asylum : « some of the male patients [were] generally to be seen sitting, reading newspapers, or smoking and conversing. The female patients often [took] their needle-work out, and […] enjoy[ed] the open air and the shade […]34 ». The gardens could also be quite useful when the patients had visitors. They could of course meet them in rooms specifically dedicated to this purpose, « visitors’ rooms35 » or « receiving or reception rooms36 », but they could also see their relatives and friends in the asylum gardens if they wished to do so. This option was supposed to give them more intimacy and a feeling of relative freedom. The visit usually lasted between thirty minutes and one hour, which was exceptional and corresponded to the maximum length allowed37.

7The overall landscape and the view offered to the patients were also elements to be taken into account because the inmates had to be able to enjoy the surrounding countryside. As a result, the walls surrounding the different courtyards had to be as low as possible. Where there was no other possibility than to keep high walls, mainly for safety reasons, the suggestion was that « they [might] be covered by plants38 ». In 1841 « the lowering of the walls of several airing courts » was completed at Hanwell on a large scale39.

8If this contemplative approach was deemed potentially curative, other much more active forms of entertainment also existed, especially for male patients. Sports and games played an important part in the inmates’ daily life. Every activity was conceived as part of a larger therapeutic scheme and was recommended to each patient according to his personal state of health. The general restrictions frequently imposed by their fragile mental condition were also considered :

In devising out-of-door recreation, it is necessary to avoid such as would endanger heedless patients or be capable of being turned to mischievous purposes. Swings, see-saws, roundabouts, and various diversions popular at fairs, are on these accounts scarcely to be recommended. The large rocking-horses to be seen in all our airing-courts at Hanwell are free from all objection. Five or six patients can safely ride upon them at once, or one patient can be amused by them ; the free exercise they afford relieves the excited, and the gentle motion […] often soothes them to sleep. Means of amusement out of doors are useful to the attendants as well as to the patients ; they contribute to relieve the irksomeness of their duties, and act as inducements to their taking the patients out as often as they can40.

9These « rocking horses » were quite popular in the institution and were thoroughly approved of by the asylum authorities as they were considered to be an efficient means of physical exercise and entertainment. They were also seen as « an alleviation of their malady; some of the patients [were] evidently forgetting their troubles and irritations when taking this kind of exercise [...]41 ». Outdoor games were strongly promoted, « ball-playing, or hoop or battledore, or trap-ball, or ninepins42 », as well as « bowling […] cricket, […] and any out-door amusements which [were] not too exciting43 ». As was usually the case for all types of activities, gender segregation was applied : « the boundaries [were] to be strictly watched, and the male and female patients, restricted to their own portion of the grounds44 ». Anyway, team sports were exclusively for men, even though the matron kept complaining about the lack of suitable physical activity offered to women. The very first bowling green was inaugurated in May 184145 and the patients played with the asylum staff, apparently « with much satisfaction, remaining pretty comfortable the whole of the day46 ». Cricket still seemed to be one of the most valued sports. A cricket field was created the same year as the bowling green, in 184147, and matches were played quite frequently48. The values traditionally associated to sport in general and cricket in particular were coherent with what they wanted to inculcate in the patients since sport was seen as « a means of assimilating the group ethic and understanding group expectations. There is a common understanding about limits ; they are a matter of general assent, and to accept them is to accept the customs of one’s society49 ». Cricket at the time was recognised as an « exemplar and promoter of English virtue50 », « the most respectable of popular Victorian sports51 »  and « from the fifties to the seventies cricket was sovereign among sports […] ; its popularity as a game to be played or watched was unrivaled52 ». It had lost the reputation of being a « rough and violent53 » sport that it had had at the beginning of the century and had become a popular entertainment, especially among the working class and in rural areas54.

10Sport was a male activity, but Miss Powell, the asylum matron in charge of the female department, was also quite enthusiastic about outdoor activities. She organised garden parties for the female patients on her own initiative. She noticed the general improvement in the patients’ state of health induced by this kind of entertainment :

After the lapse of a fortnight since the entertainment given to the female Patients in the grounds of the Asylum : the Matron has the pleasure of calling the attention of the visiting justices to the comfortable circumstances of the female department – that the seclusions have been fewer than during any corresponding period of the past year – and that there are a greater number of patients employed55.

11According to her it was « impossible to imagine a more happy party56 » and « the utmost liveliness was combined with perfect good behaviour57 ». Some patients who suffered from melancholia and « who [had] scarcely ever been seen to smile before58 » were present and apparently looked very happy. In 1842, the matron decided to organise the same garden party she had had the previous year and a larger number of patients were invited to the reception she gave for her own birthday : they had tea, danced and played « various active games » in the meadow just in front of the asylum59. More than 350 patients spent the afternoon in the garden and they only went back to their dining hall at 8 p.m. and then went on dancing, singing, drinking beer and eating cake60. When Miss Powell, who had then become Mrs Bowden, left the asylum in 1843 and was replaced by Catherine Macfie, the tradition of having a garden party every summer was firmly established, even though it was no longer on the occasion of the matron’s birthday. In 1843, the party took place a bit later in the season, on September 8th, but the spirit was similar : 300 female patients gathered in the meadow, « most of them dressed with great care61 », and they were offered coffee, cake and beer. Male attendants played music and women danced on the grass. As the weather was fine, the matron insisted on having the majority of the female patients in the gardens, and the « old infirm patients from n°262 » were helped by other patients so that they could also enjoy the party. In September 1844, the garden party was even more festive and the head gardener offered pears and peaches freshly picked from the asylum orchard as a treat to the 300 inmates present that day63. As usual, the matron remarked that « not a single unpleasantness occurred to disturb the general harmony and good feeling of the evening64 » and that « the delight and gratitude of the patients were expressed in a very lively manner65 ». In 1846, the garden party took place on June 25th and was attended by as many as 400 female patients. The positive impact of the event was put forward by the matron as she noticed that no patient was kept in seclusion that day and that the occasion was « merry as a marriage ball!66 ». In July 1849, even though the weather was quite bad, they decided not to cancel the party and it took place indoors, « the scene of the festivity [being] exceedingly crowded », which did not prevent the 400 assembled patients from being « very happy67 ».

12These garden parties were almost private, in the sense that they remained internal to the asylum and were organised for the benefit of the patients only. Alongside these were another form of garden parties : the summer fêtes or bazaars. Bazaars were held in order to open the asylum to visitors for philanthropic reasons, as they were invited to spend a festive afternoon at the asylum and buy various objects that had been manufactured by the patients. The money thus collected was put into a charity called the « Queen Adelaide’s Fund », which was entirely dedicated to bringing financial support to the patients, especially those who had recovered and needed to be accompanied in their new life outside. The fund could provide them with various types of support, from buying clothes to paying for their journey to America or Australia or giving them a monthly allowance.

13The local population was associated to these events, as well as the local shopkeepers. The florist played a major role in the general success of the day :

A profusion of beautiful flowers, chiefly exotic, was generously supplied from the gardens and hot-houses of ladies and gentlemen in the vicinity ; and Mr Mountjoy, the eminent florist, whose charming gardens and extensive nursery grounds are so ornamental to the village of Hanwell, contributed a very handsome donation of potted plants in full perfection of bud and blossom68.

14A confectioner usually came from the nearby village of Brentford, a Mr Cherry who also took an active part in the summer fête and sold cakes and cold drinks to the visitors in the asylum gardens69. The number of visitors was always very impressive : 1200 people in 1845, and more than 2000 in 184970. The Great Western Railway even chartered a special train in 1852, which arrived at Hanwell « at an early hour in the afternoon, [and] which return[ed] again to London at a suitable time in the evening71 ». This certainly contributed to the fact that many visitors came from London72. People living in the neighbourhood also came to the party, mainly « families of rank and respectability73 », members of the County nobility74 and members of the clergy75. Dr Conolly was systematically present, with relatives and friends76 and so were many Visiting Justices, as members of the administrative committee. The assembled company was described as « fashionable77 », with « elegantly dressed ladies78 » walking down the alleys and « many aristocratic equipages [bringing] benevolent groups of the high-born and the fair, to give grace and beauty to the scene79 ». More interestingly, some former patients from Hanwell also came every year to the fête. They were « now restored to health, and the full use of their reason, [and were] rejoicing in the enjoyment of their proper places in society and in the bosom of their families80 ».

15Even if these public garden parties could be controversial – Conolly himself thought that it could induce too much agitation for the patients and was wary about any potential voyeurism, as he certainly did not want his asylum to turn into some kind of human zoo on the occasion – it seems that a large number of patients were associated to these events81 and that several hundreds of them were generally « permitted to visit the grounds and look on at the proceedings82 ». It was also an efficient way of bringing money to the Queen Adelaide’s Fund, even if « some tasteful articles [sometimes] remained undisposed of at the end83 ». The charity fair also took place on August 5th 186484, on July 18th 1867 – with 604 patients involved85 – and on July 2nd 186886. On this occasion, the new matron Isabella Hicks noticed that for the past three years they had been unable to thoroughly enjoy the asylum gardens because of the weather87, but for a change they benefited from « glorious weather88 » that year. The atmosphere seemed relaxed and playful and the patients could take part in a raffle, watch a Punch & Judy show or dance until nine p.m.89.

16In terms of entertainment, the major innovations were linked to the ambition of giving more freedom to the patients, by enabling them to go beyond the limits of the asylum but without being submitted to the stress and pressure of the city90. That is the reason why the asylum authorities decided to plan a whole programme of excursions throughout the summer from 1854 onwards. They mostly went to highly popular places, such as the Crystal Palace, but the trips also had to be relaxing for the patients. Unsurprisingly, parks and gardens were frequently chosen as ideal locations. For the first trip, the patients were taken to Kew Gardens, which is still considered today as one of the world’s most important botanical gardens and was highly praised at the time :

The new arrangement that the convalescent and orderly Patients should be permitted to go beyond the boundaries of the Asylum for exercise and recreation, during fine weather, and under the care of proper attendants, has been productive of much good, and was highly appreciated during the summer. On more than one occasion an officer and attendant accompanied a party of Female Patients to Kew Gardens, to their great delight and gratification. […] Of those composing the First party of visitors to Kew, two had been upwards of 18 years inmates of the Asylum, and this was the First occasion of their passing the gates. … On approaching the Palm House, a gentle hint was given to [one of them] that the flowers must not be touched. « Do you imagine I would think of gathering any? » she said, « I could not be so selfish! Suppose that one-half of the people now in these gardens plucked but one flower each out of that collection of roses », pointing, as she spoke, to a group of rose trees, « not one would remain for the rest even to look at ! »91

17In 1856, the principle of summer trips was reinforced and there were slight variations in the destinations : not only did they go to Kew Gardens, but also to Hampton Court Palace – quite renowned for its beautiful gardens – and Uxbridge, closer to the Grand Union Canal. Even though the destinations were more or less the same every year, the staff insisted on the fact that the patients visited Kew Gardens or Hampton Court « without diminution of expectancy or failure of positive enjoyment92 ». Dr Begley, one of the most influential doctors of the asylum, was an enthusiastic proponent of those trips and presented them as « sources of great pleasure, [which] ha[d] not been productive of impropriety or even inconvenience93 ». For the occasion, the patients « [were] always dressed in plain clothes and unvariably accompanied by two attendants94 ». When the weather was too wet, the trips could be cancelled or their number reduced and they were then replaced by long walks in the countryside near the asylum. That was what happened in 1860 :

The wetness and uncertainty of the weather during the summer and autumn had unavoidably the effect of restricting the Patients’ walks and excursions beyond the gates. Hampton Court Palace and Kew Gardens were, however, visited a few times. The newly-finished walk round the West Field almost precludes the necessity for exercise beyond the premises, affording as it does complete exception to the […] familiar scenery of the Asylum, with at the same time pure, bracing air, pleasant views, and firm, dry footing, whilst shelter from the rain can be obtained in a few minutes; indeed, this new field for exercise is a very valuable addition to the recreative means of the Asylum95.

18The matron was nonetheless highly favourable to what she called « excursions beyond the gates » and she could be quite lyrical when she mentioned them. According to her, trips were never to be organised only to offer some ephemeral pleasure to the patients but also had to be conceived of as part of a larger scheme, based on the logics of moral treatment, with the clear purpose of soothing their mind, affecting their mood in a positive way and creating memories that would have a therapeutic effect on a long-term basis. This is how she described the picnic in Bushey Park:

Not an incident of the journey is unobserved nor left undetailed, from the spreading of the table-cloth for refreshments under one of the magnificent chestnuts in Bushey Park, to the last burst of sunshine gilding the old trees at Heston, as the party nears home again. These pleasant excursions appear to acquire additional zest as the years roll on. Reminiscences of past visits, characteristic traits of former companions with whom they were shared, considerate kindnesses of Officers superintending the parties and pic-nics, are dwelt upon in grateful terms96.

19There seemed to be some kind of complementarity between trips and walks in the countryside, as indicated in a report in 1866:

Six hundred and thirty-eight patients, in parties varying from seven to twelve, took walk in the surrounding neighbourhood sixty-six times, and three hundred and seventy-five, in parties from sixteen to twenty, made excursions by omnibuses to Kew, Richmond, Hampton Court, Battersea Park, Harrow and Harefield97.

20Dr Sankey, who replaced Dr Conolly in 1852, was also convinced that the trips organised by the institution could have a powerful curative effect and he went as far as declaring that some of the patients undoubtedly recovered thanks to those activities. He gave the example of a female patient who had now fully recovered and had been sent back home and who had told him that « the first thing she could remember on the return to her reason, was crossing the Thames in a boat on going on one of these excursions to Kew98 ». He insisted on the virtual miracle of this recovery, as the young woman « was suicidal, and obstinately refused food99 » and he made it clear that « it was on this excursion that this propensity left her and did not again return100 ».

21Apart from these excursions, the patients were also taken to flower exhibitions101, collectively or individually, as was the case in July 1863, when « the Patient Thomas Walsh having expressed a strong desire to be allowed to go to a flower show during the present season, [it was] resolved that Dare the head gardener be allowed to take the patient on any day on which Dare may be going to one of these shows102 ».

22If some patients contented themselves with visiting gardens or enjoying beautiful landscapes, others devoted themselves to the art of gardening. At Hanwell, female patients were encouraged to discover the pleasures of gardening, some « small plots of ground » being allocated to them103 :

These gardens are separated and surrounded by gravel walks, and bordered with box ; […] and each is given up to the sole care and cultivation of its possessor, and bears her name, which is painted on an oval zinc plate, and placed in a conspicuous position. Some of the amateur gardeners display considerable artistic skill, as well as great taste in the arrangement of their plants and flowers104.

23The curative virtues of gardening were praised by the matron, and she had no doubt in her mind that gardening was part of a global therapeutic programme, as would « any healthful study or active occupation which can tend to withdraw the morbid mind from dwelling upon its corroding cares and misapprehensions105 ». All the patients were left completely free in their choice of plants and Catherine Macfie admired the great variety thus created :

The appearance of these gardens during the latter part of the season presented, in a forcible manner, an index to the tastes, habits, and peculiarities of the several proprietors. Some were […] crowded with sunflowers, […] others displayed plants of more humble, but equable development. Some patients contented themselves with pinks, pansies, daisies, and other lowly flowers, whilst the bed of others presented a mass of brilliant confusion, from the […] entwining of the many-hued convolvulus, and other gay parasites106.

24Some patients chose more practical options as an alternative and decided to grow potatoes, peas, onions, Jerusalem artichokes and parsley. Despite this choice, gardening was still strictly considered as a hobby in that context, which was not the case for patients regularly working on the farm. The asylum administrative committee was indeed very concerned with the idea that a majority of patients should work. The traditional arguments in favour of patients’ work were medical – which seemed to be sincere in John Conolly’s mind, as he insisted on the fact that no patient should ever be forced to work if they did not feel like it – but it cannot be denied that for the asylum authorities and the Poor Law guardians the main concern was also economic. The cost of keeping people in asylums was a recurring source of conflict between the authorities and the parish unions, that bore the responsibility of caring for the pauper lunatics of their area. Paradoxically enough, sending people to a lunatic asylum was « the most expensive option open to poor law authorities107 » and « the cost of keeping an insane person in the asylum was always appreciably larger than looking after the same individual in the workhouse108 ».

25All things considered, having patients working was thus likely to alleviate the cost borne by taxpayers, which was a preoccupation – not to say an obsession – of the Poor Law authorities. Outdoor work, especially gardening and work on the farm, was deemed crucial to the self-sufficiency of the asylum and the asylum rules mentioned that « during the day, the patients of both sexes [ought to] be employed as much as practicable out of doors ; the men in gardening and husbandry, the women in occupations suited to their ability109 ». The gender inequality implied by these rules seemed to have been a reality, and many women suffered from being quite often excluded from open-air work ; some of them had to insist strenuously to be allowed to take part in farming activities. This gender-based division of labour was in accordance with the traditional division that was the norm in British society at the time, especially for the middle-class. Even though the patients at Hanwell mainly belonged to the working class, the values imposed upon them were basically – and unsurprisingly – middle-class values. Elaine Showalter remarked that women in asylums generally had few options concerning their activities and were mostly confined to domestic chores such as cleaning, washing, sewing or cooking110. The virtues of working in the open were widely recognised, which may also explain why they were often reserved to men, as they were traditionally considered to have more energy to spend than women. This opinion was clearly not shared by the matron, who promoted the necessity of allowing women to participate in outdoor activities, not just for health reasons – even though she had always been a fervent proponent of physical exertion for women – but also for merely practical and we may even say cynical reasons, linked to the difficult task of keeping too many female patients indoors during the day. According to her, having women work in the garden had a major advantage : it « greatly diminish[ed] the number in the wards during the day, which [were] at present very much crowded111 » ! The committee insisted on the constant efforts that should be made to « occupy the minds of the patients, to induce them to take exercise in the open air, and to promote cheerfulness and happiness amongst them112 », but it was seldom the case for women.

26Growing vegetables in the kitchen garden or looking after flower beds required a certain number of patients working daily, about fifty at least, among whom maybe a dozen women, working in a separate place. The patients that worked on the farm sometimes received special treatment and were often given an extra portion of food or drink – mainly home-brewed beer – as a reward for their efforts. They were supervised by a head gardener. Running the asylum farm business was one of the most lucrative activities for the institution : Hanwell Asylum had its own farm stocked with cattle, poultry and pigs113, with an average population of about fifteen cows and a hundred pigs. Farm products were a valuable source of income for the institution and for the County, « as well as of health and enjoyment, to the inmates of the Asylum114 » according to the asylum administrators. The farm annual yield was generally abundant. In 1855, for instance, they managed to harvest more than a hundred tonnes of potatoes, twenty tonnes of parsnips and fifty tonnes of mangel-wurzels115. The figures for 1855 were high but were still quite representative of the average output during the thirty years that followed. They did not just keep their farm products for their own consumption, they also often sold the surplus to external buyers. The geographical location of Hanwell Asylum, with the Grand Union Canal running alongside one of its outer walls, made trade and the transportation of goods easy. For instance, the canal was used to deliver coal to the asylum, and they could use it the other way around, to send their fruit, vegetables or any other farm product to the outside world.

27At Rainhill Asylum (County of Lancaster Asylum), opened in January 1851, the local asylum authorities used Hanwell Asylum as a source of inspiration, which was not so original or surprising as it had become a model throughout Britain. Obviously, the first resolution they took was to abandon all mechanical restraint by adopting the new system of non-restraint, but they also paid attention to the question of gardens and landscapes and decided to create vast landscaped parks to use them as pleasure grounds for their patients116. This was part of the medical project and it shows that they had a vision of the innovative therapeutic programme at Hanwell as undeniably connected to gardens and a green environment. In doing so, the authorities of Rainhill rightly paid tribute to the vital role of gardens and gardening in the structure of Hanwell asylum, and to their capacity to soothe the patients’ mind and feed their body, thus hopefully contributing to maintaining a self-sufficient and harmonious community.


1  In his book, Self Help, published in 1859 and which was a best seller, Samuel Smiles promoted the values of thrift, hard work, education, perseverance and a sound moral character.

2  William Shakespeare, Othello, Act I scene 3, in Vieda Skultans, Madness and Morals : Ideas on Insanity in the Nineteenth Century (1975), Londres, Boston, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, p. 17.

3  Louis C. Charland, « Benevolent theory : moral treatment at the York Retreat », in History of Psychiatry, March 2007, n° 18, p. 63.

4  Richard Hunter / Ida McAlpine, George III and the Madbusiness, New York, Pantheon, 1970, p. 347.

5  Clare Hickman, « Cheerful prospects and tranquil restoration : the visual experience of landscape as part of the therapeutic regime of the British asylum, 1800-60 », in History of Psychiatry, n° 20, 2009, p. 425-441. On the same topic, see Chris Philo, « "Fit localities for an asylum": the historical geography of the nineteenth-century "mad-business" in England as viewed through the pages of the Asylum Journal », in Journal of Historical Geography, 1987, vol. 13, n° 4, p. 398-415 (see « The spatial separation of the insane », p. 401).

6  William Ellis (1780-1839) was the first resident medical superintendent at Hanwell. He came from Wakefield Asylum and had a reputation for benevolence and humanity.

7  Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was a British journalist, writer, activist and sociologist. She was well-known for her political commitment towards women and poor people and for her action in favour of the abolition of slavery.

8  Harriet Martineau, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, June 1834.

9  Ibid.

10  John Conolly, On the Construction and Government of Lunatic Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane, Londres, John Churchill, 1847, p. 79.

11  Ibid.

12  Ibid.

13  Ibid.

14  Ibid.

15  Ibid., p. 52-53.

16  Charles Augustus Tulk, « Fifty-Fourth report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1840 », Hanwell asylum records, London Metropolitan Archives, H1/HLL/A/ 05/001, p. 10.

17  Ibid.

18  John Conolly, op. cit., p. 51.

19  Ibid.

20  Ibid., p. 52.

21  Ibid.

22  Ibid., p. 59.

23  « Manual of the duties of the ward attendants, Hanwell, ordered and prescribed by the Committee of Visitors », 26 Oct 1846, Londres, John Thomas Norris, 1846, LMA, H11/HLL/A/ 09/002.

24  Ibid., p. 7.

25  Minutes of the meeting of 12 May 1846, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/01/0052.

26  « Fifty-Seventh report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1841 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H1/HLL/A/05/001, p. 4.

27  Ibid., p. 6.

28  « Sixty-Second Report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1842 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/002, p. 25.

29  « Sixty-First Report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1842 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H1/HLL/A/05/002, p. 3.

30  Ibid.

31  Which was far from negligible, as it represented approximately the equivalent of the annual salary of a nurse.

32  « Sixty-Sixth Report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1843 », table of expenditures, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/002.

33  « Sixty-Second Report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1842 », op. cit., p. 4.

34  Ibid., p. 25.

35  Ibid., p. 4.

36  « Manual of the duties of the ward attendants », op. cit., p. 12 ; « Fifty-Ninth report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1841 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/001, p. 4.

37  « Manual of the duties of the ward attendants », op. cit.

38  Ibid., p. 53.

39  « Fifty-Seventh report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1841 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/0021, p. 5.

40  John Conolly, op. cit., p. 54.

41  « Sixty-Second Report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1842 », op. cit., p. 25-26.

42  John Conolly, op. cit., p. 52.

43  « Manual of the duties of the ward attendants, Hanwell, ordered and prescribed by the Committee of Visitors, 26 Oct 1846 », op. cit., p. 5.

44  Ibid.

45  « Fifty-Seventh report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1841 », op. cit., p. 4 ; Charles Augustus Tulk, A guide through the Hanwell Asylum, Londres, McComan & Co, 1843, p. 12, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/Y/02/002. p. 3, « Sixty-First Report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1842 », op. cit., p. 3.

46  « Fifty-Seventh report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1841 », op. cit., p. 6.

47  Ibid.

48  Minutes of meeting, 4 June 1846, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/01/0055 ; « Index to resolutions of the Committee of Visiting Justices (Dec. 1845- 29 Dec. 1870) », 1858, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/02/001 ; Pauline May, St Bernard’s Hospital : The Story of an Asylum from 1831, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/Y/02/008, p. 54.

49  Bruce Haley, The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 147.

50  Nancy Fix Anderson, The Sporting Life : Victorian Sports and Games, Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers Inc., 2010, p. 42.

51  Bruce Haley, op. cit., p. 125.

52  Ibid.

53  Ernest LlewellynWoodward, The Age of Reform (1815-1870). Oxford History of England, Vol 1, Londres, Oxford University Press, 1962, p. 604.

54  Bruce Haley, op. cit., p. 124.

55  « Matron’s report book », 11 September 1845, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/C/04/001.

56  Ibid.

57  Ibid.

58  Ibid.

59  John Adams, « Sixty-Second report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1840 », op. cit., p. 27.

60  « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 27 July 1842.

61  Ibid., 14 September 1843.

62  Ibid.

63  Ibid., 5 September 1844.

64  Ibid.

65  Ibid.

66  Ibid., 2 July 1846.

67  Ibid.

68  « Matron’s Report », 31 December 1852, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/003/A.

69 « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 26 August 1847 and 29 June 1848.

70  « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 28 August 1845 and 14 July 1849. There were noticeably fewer visitors in 1847, only 800, which may be explained by the fact that a majority of the visitors were locals and that very few people came from London that year. « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 26 August 1847.

71  « Matron’s Report », 31 December 1852, op. cit.

72  Trains generally left from Paddington Station and sometimes from Regent’s Park. « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 26 July 1849.

73  « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 26 August 1847.

74  « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 28 August 1845.

75  « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 26 August 1847.

76  Conolly’s daughters regularly attended Hanwell Asylum’s official events. Ibid.

77  Ibid.

78  David Russel, « Hanwell lunatic asylum 1831-1844 : The Golden years », in International History of Nursing Journal, February 1998, vol. 4, n° 1, p. 8.

79  « Matron’s Report », 31 December 1852, op. cit.

80 « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 14 July 1849.

81  Despite David Russel’s remarks on the fact that too many patients seem to have been excluded from the festivities. See David Russel, op. cit., p. 9.

82  « Matron’s Report », 31 December 1852, op. cit.

83  Ibid.

84  « Matron’s Report, to the Chairman and Committee of Visitors for Hanwell Asylum, Isabella E. Hicks, 1865 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/006, p. 55.

85  « Report of the Medical Superintendent of the Male Department, W.C. Begley, Jan 11th, 1868 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/007, p. 41.

86  « The Matron’s Report, to the Chairman and Committee of Visitors for Hanwell Asylum, Isabella E. Hicks, 8th January, 1869 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/007, p. 45.

87  « Matron’s Report, to the Chairman and Committee of Visitors for Hanwell Asylum, Isabella E. Hicks, 1867 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/006, p. 59.

88  Ibid.

89  Ibid.

90  There were individual exceptions to that, as some patients were allowed to go and visit their friends or relatives in London for the day, accompanied by an attendant. Generally speaking, London was not considered to be a suitable destination for a collective trip.

91  « Matron’s Report, to the Committee of Visitors of the Hanwell Asylum, Catherine M.E. Macfie, undated (1855) », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/004, p. 35-36.

92  « Matron’s Report, to the Chairman and Committee of Visitors for Hanwell Asylum, Catherine M.E. Macfie, 2nd January,1858 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/005, p. 49.

93  « Report of the Medical Superintendent of the Male Department, W.C. Begley, Jan 10th, 1856 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/004, p. 27.

94  Ibid ; Minutes of meeting, 8 June 1854, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/01/0276.

95 « Matron’s Report, to the Chairman and Committee of Visitors for Hanwell Asylum, Catherine M.E. Macfie,1861 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/005, p. 59.

96  « Matron’s Report, Catherine M.E. Macfie,1862 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/005, p. 102-104.

97  « Report of the Medical Superintendent of the Male Department, W.C. Begley, Jan 11th, 1866 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/006, p. 23.

98  « Report of the Medical Superintendent of the Female Department, W.H.O. Sankey, Jan 1857 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/004, p. 67.

99  Ibid.

100  Ibid.

101  « Report of the Medical Superintendent of the Male Department, W.C. Begley, Jan 11th, 1868 », op. cit., p. 34 ; « Report of the Medical Superintendent of Male Department, W.C. Begley, January 1870 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/007, p. 45 ; « Report of the Medical Superintendent of the Male Department, W.C. Begley, Jan 12th, 1872 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/008, p. 29 ; Minutes of meeting, 2 June 1870, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/01/0599.

102  Minutes of meeting, 9 July 1863, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/01/0413 ; « Resolution of the 9th day of July 1863 », « Index to resolutions 4 Dec 1854-29 Dec 1870 », op. cit.

103  « Fourteenth Report of the Committee of Visitors of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, January Quarter Session, 1859 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/005, p. 10.

104  « Matron’s Report to the Chairman and Committee of Visitors for Hanwell Asylum, Catherine M.E. Macfie, 2nd January, 1858 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/005, p. 49.

105  « Matron’s Report to the Chairman and Committee of Visitors for Hanwell Asylum, Catherine M.E. Macfie, January 10th, 1859 », extract from her diary, 3 May 1858, Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/005, p. 44.

106  Ibid. « Matron’s Report to the Chairman and Committee of Visitors for Hanwell Asylum, Catherine M.E. Macfie, December 31st, 1859 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/005, p. 72.

107  David Wright, « The certification of insanity in nineteenth-century England and Wales », in History of Psychiatry, September 1998, n° 9, p. 269

108  Edgar Miller, « Variations in the official prevalence and disposal of the insane in England under the poor law, 1850-1900 », in History of Psychiatry, March 2007, n° 18, p. 32.

109  « General Rules for the Government of the Pauper Lunatic Asylum for the County of Middlesex at Hanwell 1846 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/ 09/003.

110  Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady. Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, Londres, Virago Press, 1987, p. 82.

111  « Matron’s Report Book », op. cit., 14 April 1840.

112  Ibid.

113  Charles Augustus Tulk, 1843, op. cit.

114  « Fifty-Fourth report of the Visiting Justices of the County Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, 1840 », op. cit., p. 11.

115  « Report of the Farm and Garden Committee, Hanwell, 1st Jan., 1855 », Hanwell Asylum records, LMA, H11/HLL/A/05/004.

116  R. Parker / A. Dutta / A. Barnes and T. Fleet, « County of Lancaster Asylum, Rainhill: 100 years ago and now », in History of Psychiatry, March 1993, n° 4, p. 96.

Pour citer ce document

Laurence Dubois, «Soothing the mind, nourishing the body : the vital role of gardens and gardening in the therapeutic, social and economic structure of Hanwell asylum’s community.», Histoire culturelle de l'Europe [En ligne], Prochains numéros, Jardin et mélancolie en Europe entre le XVIIIe siècle et l’époque contemporaine, Jardin et thérapie : sens, sensations, émotions,mis à jour le : 03/12/2019,URL : http://www.unicaen.fr/mrsh/hce/index.php?id=1554

Quelques mots à propos de : Laurence Dubois

Université Paris Nanterre

Laurence Dubois est maître de conférences en civilisation britannique à l’Université Paris Nanterre. Elle a enseigné l’anglais pendant sept ans dans une clinique psychiatrique pour adolescents et jeunes adultes (Clinique Georges Heuyer, Paris 13e). Ses recherches portent sur l’histoire de la psychiatrie et plus particulièrement sur l’asile victorien. Elle est l’auteur de L’asile de Hanwell : un modèle utopique dans l’histoire de la psychiatrie anglaise?, Paris, Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2017.