Dr John Conolly and the former Hanwell Asylum receive English Heritage blue plaque

  • Early advocate of humane treatments for people living with mental illness commemorated during Mental Health Awareness Week

Dr John Conolly (1794-1866) and the former Hanwell Asylum have been commemorated with a blue plaque, English Heritage announced today (12 May 2022). The plaque is situated on what was the left-hand wing in Conolly’s time and is now part of St Bernard’s Hospital. It was here that Conolly, a supporter of the asylum system as a means of care and cure, made his influential contribution to transforming the care of people who had been hospitalised with mental health problems, advocating a system of 'non-restraint', which dispensed with the handcuffs, leg irons, and strait jackets regularly used in most asylums at that time.

Blue Plaques Panel Member, Dr Simon Chaplin, said: "Dr John Conolly made a valuable contribution not only to changing how people with mental health disorders were treated, but also to understanding insanity as an illness and not as a crime. He played an important role in changing how people living with mental illness were perceived in nineteenth century England and it seems fitting that English Heritage has honoured him with a blue plaque during Mental Health Awareness Week."

Dr Derek Tracy, Medical Director of West London NHS Trust, said: "It’s timely to remember the ground-breaking work and legacy of Dr John Conolly. His pioneering efforts reducing restrictive practice, against the grain of the practice and beliefs of his contemporaries, helped humanise and de-stigmatise the care of some of the most vulnerable in society. It is also a moment to reflect on the work still ahead of us, not least in trying to eliminate the inequalities in care that we know continue to exist."

When Conolly was appointed as Resident Physician at the Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell in 1839, it was one of the biggest new asylums in London, housing about 850 patients. At this time, there was pressure for counties and boroughs to make purpose-built provision for their 'pauper insane'. Though Conolly’s methods at Hanwell were initially controversial, they drew support from The Times, The Lancet and the parliamentary forces pressing for 'lunacy reform'. By 1846 the new national Lunacy Commission had embraced non-restraint as the ruling orthodoxy.

With this new plaque, Dr John Conolly will join other psychoanalysts recognised by the Blue Plaques Scheme: Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. This is the first plaque to go up in Hanwell as part of the official London-wide scheme.

The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.

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