Open House

A few months ago in September I participated in an event which I’d been meaning to investigate for some time, London Open House. This is an annual weekend when significant London buildings usually closed to the general public are opened up to us. It’s a great opportunity to see some of the capital’s finest buildings, and as this was the first time I had managed to actually get out and do it, I spent most of the Saturday looking at the more popular sights, including the grandeur of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Brunel’s Rotherhithe tunnel, Smirke’s Custom House, the Royal Society, and the official residence of the Lord Mayor, Mansion House; over the road, the queue for the Bank of England stretched from the entrance on Bartholomew Lane, all the way along the Threadneedle and Prince’s Street side, so I passed on that. But the last visit of the day, as the shadows of an Indian summer afternoon began to lengthen and the air took on an autumnal chill, was in many ways the most interesting, and certainly the most thought-provoking.

IMG_1213Included among the great civic piles, legal, political, and royal institutions, galleries, and aristocratic town houses, was the rather less grand (despite the name) Kingsley Hall, in Bromley-by-Bow, E3. Anyone familiar with the history of modern psychiatry will remember this building as the home of one the anti-psychiatry movement’s most famous—or notorious—experiments. In the late 1960s, R. D. Laing and the Philadelphia Association established a therapeutic community there over several years which were in some respects the high-water mark of the British anti-psychiatry movement’s activity. There has been enough comment and controversy about this episode (for example the chapter ‘In and out of Kingsley Hall’ in Daniel Burston’s life of Laing, The Wing of Madness, Harvard UP, 1996: link) for it not to need recounting again here. It has also attracted various cultural representations from the playwright David Edgar’s dramatization of Mary Barnes’ account of her ‘journey through madness’ in 1979, to Clancy Sigal’s roman à clef about Laing and his circle, Zone of the Interior (2005). Dominic Harris has also recently photographed and interviewed many of the residents.

IMG_1212However, the volunteers who guided visitors around the building were noticeably reticent to talk about this period, at least initially, and it was clear that there were still mixed feelings about the Philadelphia Assocation’s period of tenure locally. The building had been established as a community centre in what was then, as now, an economically deprived area by two rather extraordinary sisters, Doris and Muriel Lester, and the guides were keener to celebrate the legacy of their social philanthropy, or Mahatma Gandhi’s even briefer stay in the building. Gandhi gets a blue plaque as can be seen in the photo to the right; there is no visible commemoration of Laing and the P.A.

IMGKH1970.jpgTo be fair, once inside the hall there was a small upstairs room laid out with some material from the period, and part of the main display downstairs covered the therapeutic community, albeit mostly with decidely suspicious press cuttings from the time, and a strategically placed and rather Hogarthian photo showing the derelict state the building fell into after their departure. Laing’s reputation, or at least his fame, is not quite so ruinous. Among other things that have kept him in the public consciousness, Luke Fowler’s recent film about Laing was nominated for the Turner prize (and can be seen daily at the Tate Britain until January 6th). But he has perhaps become a figure of cultural mystique rather than clinical influence. Even when attempts are made to ‘rehabilitate’ Laing’s reputation, they come with strong disclaimers about his being divisive, ‘arrogant’, or ‘unrealistic about treatments’ (see link).HRP8 There is some weight to these charges. But part of their effect is that moments like the Kingsley Hall community, as publicly remembered, have slipped partly back into the leyenda negra of neglect, abuse, error, dead end, or misguided utopianism that often seems to shadow perspectives on the history of psychiatry.Capture4 That is to say, they are now visualised in chiaroscuro, as successsive generations (including Laing’s) have imagined preceding psychiatric regimes.

We need something more than this. There are no grounds to be complacent about the ambition of past attempts to treat mental illness as requiring a revolution in social relations. The recent Schizophrenia Commission report has concluded that people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia die 15-20 years earlier than the general population. Life expectancy—the phrase communicates more than it narrowly means—is the issue. As I travelled eastwards on the District line from the FCO and the strongholds of political power and wealth in Westminster to Bromley-by-Bow, my journey echoed this striking visualization of the effects of inequality.


The two statistical facts are not unrelated. The therapeutic community was established where Kingsley Hall already existed, but also where it was needed. As Laing realized and to a certain extent demonstrated in his writings, social prospects—expectancies—and situation are unavoidably part of the complex picture of mental illness, or ‘problems in living’ if one prefers such a term, which could hardly be addressed without some ambition to change the wider world.

In the terms of its original establishment under the Lester sisters from 1927, Kingsley Hall was a place, the official displays told me, “meant to belong to the community”. Muriel Lester in particular was an advocate of the educational theories and practices of Fröbel and Montessori, and a great believer in the power of self-determination and the right of the autodidact to challenge received wisdom. She wrote that the Hall’s activities should be open to all “without barriers of class, colour or creed” and were intended to endow a deprived community with “its birthright of music, art, poetry, drama, open-air life, self-confidence…and a new social order, the Kingdom of Heaven here and now”. These aspirations are not far from those which Laing had for the subjects of psychiatry—utopian or even messianic overtones included—and was surely the reason why Kingsley Hall was such an appropriate venue for his experimental community (although unfortunately the primary community intended to benefit from its philanthropy did not always think so). IMG_1205Perhaps we now find it hard to credit Laing’s ideas as ‘realistic’ because we can no longer see how these political, religious, and therapeutic beliefs crossed over and into each other. Perhaps that is inevitable, or necessary, and probably psychiatry cannot, should not, and will not carry the weight of the world on its shoulders in such a way again. But it is also necessary to remember without hesitancy or evasion the doors these beliefs and principles opened. Kingsley Hall was a house of many rooms, and the Philadephia Association made it a place of open doors in an era when institutions, perceptions, and expectations relating to mental illness remained firmly closed off.


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