The Philadelphia Association came into being in 1965 in order to provide alternatives to traditional ways of treating those designated 'mentally ill', especially those diagnosed as schizophrenic. Our first such venture was the community at Kingsley Hall, an old community settlement building in the east end of London. In the words of a brochure of the time, Kingsley Hall was:
"a melting pot, a crucible in which many, assumptions about normal-abnormal, conformist-deviant, sane-crazy experience and behaviour were dissolved. No person gave another tranquilisers or sedatives. Behaviour was feasible which would have been intolerable elsewhere. It was a place where people could be together and let each other be".
With its anti-authoritarian ethos and questioning of established ideas about sanity and insanity, normality and abnormality, Kingsley Hall was an important focal point for the newly emerging 'counter culture' in Britain and for the nascent critical and anti-psychiatry movements. By the time the lease on Kingsley Hall expired in 1970 more than 120 ordinary people had gone there seeking a different kind of help to that proffered by mental hospitals - and found it. It is reported that there were no suicides.
Films - "Asylum" and others
Although Kingsley Hall is the best known PA community, there have been more than 20 others since. A picture of what the early communities were like can be seen in the 1972 film Asylum made by the radical film-maker Peter Robinson. This film, made using hand-held cameras by a small crew who lived in the community for a time, shows life at the Archway Community in north London. It is now available once again on DVD and is available from Kino International.
Interest in the early PA communities continues. The film, What you see is where you're at, which uses footage of Kingsley Hall and the Archway community along with interviews with R D Laing, was produced by the Scottish artist Luke Fowler in 2005, and was shortlisted for the prestigious Becks' Futures Prize and exhibited at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Mary Barnes - a famous resident
Perhaps the best known resident of Kingsley Hall was the nurse Mary Barnes who came with a history of severe mental distress. With the help of her therapist, Dr Joseph Berke, Mary Barnes went into a profound state of regression to childhood, slowly coming out to paint and to write.
Their book, Mary Barnes: two accounts of a journey through madness, published in 1971, was described as 'probably the most celebrated account of what it is to be mad'. (A new edition, with epilogues by both authors, was published by Other Press in 2002.) A play, Mary Barnes, based on the book, was written by radical playwright David Edgar and first performed in 1979 with a cast including Simon Callow and Patti Love.
Mary Barnes went on to become a painter and lived for many years in Scotland where she and others tried to establish community households along the lines of the early PA houses. A book of interviews, Something Sacred: conversations, writings, paintings (with Ann Scott) was published in 1989 by Free Association Books. Mary Barnes died in June 2001 and a packed meeting in her memory was held later that year at Kingsley Hall.