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Mental Health Care in St Albans

Posted on: 11th May 2015 By: Stef Eastoe

Hertfordshire has a rich and diverse history in the care and treatment of the mentally ill, a past which stretches back well into the 19th century.  Indeed, by the Edwardian period there were five asylums in the St Albans area; Harperbary, Hill End, Shenley, Cell Barnes, and Napsbury.  

Contemporary photographs of asylums often emphasised their extensive grounds, and as I have found in my research into the social history of mental illness, the institutional landscape was considered by doctors to be an incredibly important feature.  Many 19th century asylums were built on large sites, surrounded by rolling countryside.  This was in part to provide a tranquil and cheerful environment.  The grounds would also accommodated the all-important asylum farm to grow food and provide opportunities for patient employment, airing courts for exercise, and gardens for aesthetic and therapeutic practices.  The image above is of Napsbury Hospital, where Louis Wain painted some his most iconic cat themed paintings.   The image above comes from a postcard and is reproduced courtesy of the Wakefield Asylum Project.

During the 19th century outdoor recreation played a significant role in patient management.  It was believed that contact with nature, be it through walking, working on the land or tending to the gardens was beneficial, mentally and physically.  Many of those running asylums felt that it soothed the fractious, calmed the excitable and raised the spirits of the melancholic.  This belief has continued into the 21st century, with gardening being increasingly used as a therapeutic intervention for mental well-being.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is mindfulness, a therapeutic practice that ‘focuses on paying attention to the present moment, without getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future’.  Mindfulness can be practiced indoors or outdoors, it can be done sitting, standing, walking, or when one is digging over the garden, planting seeds, or simply sat on a bench in the park.

St Albans District Council has a programme of events to raise awareness of mental health and provide information on managing mental, physical and emotional well-being.  For more information follow this link -

This blog post was written by Stef Eastoe, who is researching the history of mental health care for her PhD.  She also works at St Albans Museums Services as a Museums Assistant.


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