Wild Fruit

Asylum_layoutSome of us wondered about the origins of the wild fruit trees in the area of the Hanwell Meadows. Some are obvious, such as suckers from nearby cherry trees, or survivors of trees where the lock keeper’s garden once must have been, but not all offer an easy explanation.

The abundance of plums along Fitzherbert Walk is particularly puzzling. This is the small stretch of river Brent between Uxbridge Road and the Grand Union canal, alongside the eastern perimeter fence of Ealing Hospital.

Several people suggested that the land was used for allotments in times of war. While probably true, this doesn’t offer a likely explanation for long-term planting and slow growth such as fruit trees. However, after talking talking to several senior residents and former employees at St Bernard’s Hospital (now West London Mental Health, formerly known as the Hanwell Pauper and Lunatic Asylum), it was confirmed again and again that these fruit trees are probably survivors of the old asylum’s kitchen garden.

Wikipedia has a detailed history of the asylum (click), which includes this map from ~1850 (click for a larger version). If you look closely, you’ll find the top left section labelled orchard, the bottom centre section labelled kitchen garden and another central section labelled garden. 

A map from 1894 (click to see the map within the National Library of Scotland‘s excellent archive) doesn’t label the garden areas, but shows clearly where those were in relation to the ground plan shown above.

Work in the asylum’s gardens and brewery (brewery closed in 1888) was very much part of therapy, and former employees confirmed the existence of orchards and gardens well into the 20th century. The surviving fruit trees are a reminder on those who suffered and on those who received help there since 1831 in what once was the world’s largest asylum, and the first large asylum to dispense with all mechanical restraints.

It’s just too bad that most of what once was the kitchen garden and orchard is now unmanaged overgrowth or covered by car park and utility side buildings.

(Picture from Wikipedia, in public domain)