Water towers: icons of the asylums and mental hospitals
20 August, 2021
By Dr Claire Hilton, Historian in Residence at the RCPsych.
As historian in residence at the RCPsych, all sorts of emails come my way. This one arrived recently: “as I dropped my daughter off at a friend’s house, near St Albans – I noticed a huge tower dominating the leafy housing estate where her friend lived…it was part of the Shenley Mental Hospital!”
My colleague had found the hospital’s water tower.
(left to right) West Park, Netherne and Ewell, all now residential.
(left to right) Cane Hill, under restoration. St Augustine’s, surrounded by a modern building (in my opinion, rather out of keeping with the original). Claybury: During the First World War, the tower was also used as lookout post. The asylum charged the Admiralty for repairs following damage caused while in use for this purpose (LCC/MIN/00948, 6 Dec 1917, London Metropolitan Archives)
Why did mental hospitals have water towers?
In places which lacked a mains water connection, supplying clean water could be a challenge. This was particularly so for a densely populated rural institution, such as a mental hospital, which might have over 2,000 residents. Pumping water into a storage tank at the top of a tower ensured a sufficient and flexible supply of fresh water to meet variable demand during every 24-hour period. In addition to supplying water for daily use, the towers provided water in the event of a fire. In the days when asylums had gas lighting, coal fires for heating, and wooden floors shined with inflammable polishes, and patients might be encouraged to smoke cigarettes as a suitable pastime, fires were not uncommon. Some asylums trained their own fire brigades of staff and patients who worked together in the event of an emergency.
Goodmayes’ water tower, 2017.
How water towers worked
Dr Charles Mercier described the logistics of water supply management in his book Lunatic Asylums: their Organisation and Management (1894, pp.17-18). The system:
The water tower should be at least 20 feet higher than the highest part of the remainder of the asylum, and the tank should be capacious enough to hold at least forty-eight hours' supply. The pipes, both the rising main and the supply, should of course be inside the tower, in order to guard against frost. In a conspicuous position, frequently passed by both the engineer and the superintendent, should be an index, actuated by a float in the tank, showing the depth of water, or better, the number of gallons contained therein.
Polesden Lacey water tower and gauge.
The Water Tower Speech, 1961.
Today, perhaps the context in which psychiatrists most often discuss mental hospital water towers, relates to deinstitutionalisation and community care, linking to a speech by Minister of Health Enoch Powell, in 1961. He addressed a conference of the National Association for Mental Health (now called Mind), outlining government proposals to close the mental hospitals. It was dubbed “The Water Tower Speech” because Powell described the existing hospitals, “isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside – the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day.” Professor of history Joanna Bourke commented recently on the subsequent process of deinstitutionalisation:
In the years that followed Powell’s speech, mentally ill people moved between hospitals, care centres, other local facilities and family homes, as well as within a growing sector of “for-profit” care. The belief that welfare dependency was obsolete and morally corrupting grew; the mentally ill were not only encouraged but required to become independent and autonomous. (in: Mind, State and Society: Social History of Psychiatry and Mental Health in Britain 1960–2010, eds. Ikkos and Bouras, 2021 p.4-5)