"It seems that books on Colney Hatch Asylum are like buses,“ muses David Berguer, the author of one, “you wait ages and then three appear at once.“ After Will Self’s Umbrella, his 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, comes Enfield author Colin Cossor’s On Wings of Song, previewed in the Times two weeks ago, and now David’s The Friern Hospital Story.

David’s book is a history of the asylum that begins with a look at the treatment of mental illness through the ages and the subsequent growing realisation by the Victorians that sufferers could be better treated in purpose-built asylums.

“It’s the history from the very start, in 1851, right through to the development of the Princess Park Manor apartments,“ says David, the chairman of the Friern Barnet and District Local History Society.

“An asylum was simply that – somewhere where patients could be protected from the harsh realities, ill treatment and ridicule of the outside world. But the Victorians were driven by necessity too – the workhouses were becoming overcrowded by so-called pauper lunatics and so large establishments like Colney Hatch were built; there were four in Middlesex alone.“ The book traces the history of Colney Hatch, its commissioning, design, building and running, and it looks at the patients, staff and the treatment of mental illness, and how this changed over the years.

“If you’re looking for a headline for the article,“ says David, “I’d suggest ‘It wasn’t so bad at Friern’.

"Imagine if you’re a nurse and there’s a patient who’s about to attack you or another nurse – you have to use a certain amount of force. To an outsider it would look like awful treatment, but it wasn’t necessarily all like that.

"The people looking after the patients were heroes really – imagine having to work in that sort of depressing atmosphere every day. When treatments like drugs came along it got better, but when the asylum started they didn’t have any treatment because they didn’t know what caused mental illness. Invariably many of them weren’t ‘mad’, they just had epilepsy.

“The patients were looked after, well fed and they worked on the farm, the orchard and the bakery,“ says David.

“They might not have been treated but they weren’t ill-treated.“ The book also covers how Colney Hatch, which became Friern Mental Hospital in 1937 and then, in 1959, Friern Hospital, led to the development of Friern Barnet as an area.

“Up until 1851 it was a very rural area,“ says David, 73, “and there were very few dwellings. And then suddenly there was this huge lunatic asylum, the largest in Europe, and then the Eastcoast mainline, as it is now, was built, and you had all these people who had to be employed there, so the dwellings sprung up. Before that it had been a tiny hamlet out in the countryside.“ At its peak in 1937, Colney Hatch had 2,654 patients and about 1,000 staff, and the building itself was immense, with a corridor of 1,700ft – the longest in Europe at that time.

“It was huge,“ says David, “very difficult to run and maintain, and over the years it gradually started crumbling and conditions got worse.“ Friern Hospital finally closed in 1993, after the Conservative Government’s controversial 1983 ‘care in the community’ policy, and the Grade II listed property was gradually converted into luxury apartments, from 2000 to 2009.

  • The Friern Hospital Story is available from Waterstones, High Road, North Finchley, from Amazon or from North Finchley publisher Chaville Press. Details: www.chavillepress.co.uk