You don't have to be mad to live here ...

IT IS, they say, London's new countryside retreat, with a "distinguished history" and an "aura of grandeur", writes Glenda Cooper. But what no one seems to have told the rich buyers of the luxury apartments at Princess Park Manor is that they are taking over the asylum.

Mental health campaigners are angry that those converting the North London property have glossed over the fact that it was once the world's largest psychiatric hospital, and say it should be used as a "museum of madness" as a testimony to those who lived and died inside its walls.

Princess Park Manor was formerly Friern Hospital, a "county lunatic pauper asylum" built in 1845.

Comer Homes describes the conversion as worthy of "its original classic design". A glossy brochure informs potential buyers that the competition to build Friern, originally called Colney Hatch Asylum, was fierce, and that the foundation stone was laid by Prince Albert himself.

It doesn't mention that the competition between 39 leading architects was to design a building that was seen as a model for other psychiatric hospitals around the world.

"Princess Park Manor is a Victorian masterpiece which has delighted and inspired aficionados of fine architecture for generations," says the brochure. Presumably, it did not delight all the patients who lived there when it was severely overcrowded and common forms of restraint were the straitjacket and the padded cell.

Poor Law guardians were offered four shillings a week to send pauper lunatics to the asylum rather than the workhouse. Now, a two-bedroom flat will cost you pounds 160,000, with larger apartments going for pounds 400,000.

Peter Beresford, a member of the mental health self-help group Survivors Speak Out, said he was shocked when he heard of the conversion.

Writing in the mental health magazine Open Mind, he called for a "museum of madness", which would enable survivors of asylums to present their side of the story "so that future generations can understand what it was like in those shocking places". He said that while some survivors might want psychiatric hospitals destroyed, it was dangerous to do so, because people in future would not be able to see what these "grim institutions" were like. "Wouldn't it have been easier to deny the Holocaust if the remains of the extermination camps had been destroyed?" he added.

Sara Dunn, the editor of Open Mind, said: "The marketing of Princess Park Manor seems to be an extreme version of the more general obscuring of the history of psychiatric service users' experience."

Asked why there was no mention of the building's past in the brochure, Brian Comer of Comer Homes said: "It is common knowledge that this building was the hospital. It's just a building. We're not trying to hide anything."

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