(This blog post was first published on this blog’s sister site, Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres, which centres on my suburban research with colleagues at University College London)
Prompted by a blog post by the Wellcome Trust on suburban neurosis and the Peckham Experiment, I’m jotting down here my own reading on this supposed illness. In the blog post, Giulia Smith points out that the Pioneer Health Centre (developed by Dr Innes Hope Pearse and Dr George Scott Williamson) was intended to ameliorate the prevalent ‘anxieties about the ability of low-to-middle-class mothers to raise their children by themselves in the privacy of their own houses’. These ideas were based on a hypothetical illness, suburban neurosis, which would mean that ‘unhappy mothers would be unable to produce happy, healthy offspring’.
The conception of suburbs as a mundane trap were widespread amongst the cultural elite. See for example George Orwell’s excoriating ‘A line of semi-detached torture-chambers where the little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and the wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches.’
Simultaneous with Orwell’s novel, came supposed medical confirmation that suburbs were bad for family stability and structure, and indeed for women’s health. A doctor from the Royal Free, based his The Lancet note, ‘The Suburban Neurosis’ on his work in in hospital’s outpatient department, claiming that a new group of ‘neurotics’ had come to his notice. ‘Less poverty stricken’ but worrying about money, with few friends and not enough to do or think about.
What wonder that the underdeveloped, relatively poor mind of the suburban woman seeks an escape in neurosis…
And as long as life offers the suburban woman so little to live for, so long will she continue at last to pluck up her courage and add to the numbers in our out-patient waiting halls…
We have, I fear, let matters go too far in the jerry-building, ribbon-development line…
If the house can be disposed of, a flat near a few friends may work wonders.
Yet, as Judy Giles points out, escaping to the suburbs from the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of their parents’ poverty was a sign of progress in which ‘modernity means a bathroom, an indoor toilet, and an ‘up-to-date drawer space’ (p. 49).. Suburban modernity was embraced rather than spurned, though this is not to say that ordinary women too did not feel the same longings as modernist male literary elites.
The diagnosis persisted for decades more, further reinforced by a study by Margot Jeffreys of a group of relocated East Enders, who moved into an out-London housing area South Oxhey, in the 1950s. In fact, ‘Jeffreys found ‘no definite symptoms of a higher incidence of a psycho-neurotic illness than women of the same age elsewhere’. One of the authors of the suburban neurosis paper actually refuted it in 1964 and, as Mark Clapson has pointed out, many problems were attributable to initial settling in, coupled with high numbers of ill people at top of list for allocations to the area. Nevertheless, a review of the literature today will find that suburbia and the New Towns are continuing to be being blamed for female neurosis, or its analogue: New Town Blues as distinct from the general phenomenon of moving home.
The Oxhey estate near Watford, built soon after 1950 to house people from inner London, had a rate of mental illness higher than the national average, despite having a good layout, greenspace within the estate and good access to Oxhey Woods … Possibly this is an early example of the “suburban neurosis” that has been widely reported from Britain’s New Towns.
The above-quoted article is in fact associating poor mental health with a lack of social contact. There is some truth in this: social isolation (or loneliness – though they are not synonymous) can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, but the suburbs aren’t necessarily the cause of poor health per se. My new collaboration on the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network will hopefully shed some more light on the role of the built environment in this complex issue.
 Orwell, G. (1939). Coming Up for Air. London, Gollancz.
 Taylor, S. (1938). “The Suburban Neurosis.” The Lancet 231(5978): 759-762. Intriguingly, Taylor refers to the Pioneer Health Centre at Peckham as a model (though without the health facilities) for the sort of solution he offers: to establish a sort of club that would contain, under one roof, “a swimming bath and gymnasium, a cafeteria, a day nursery, the public library and reading, smoking and games rooms.”
 Giles, J. (2004). The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic Identities, Class, Femininity and Modernity. Oxford, Berg.
 Jeffreys, M. (1964). Londoners in Hertfordshire. London: Aspects of Change. Centre for Urban Studies and R. Glass. London, MacGibbon and Kee. 3: 207-255.
 We found no real evidence of what one of us (Taylor) twenty five years ago described as ‘the suburban neurosis’, nor of what has more recently been described as ‘new town blues‘”. Taylor, L. and S. Chave (1964). “Mental health and environment.” Mental Health and Environment.
 Clapson, M. (1999). “Working-class Women’s Experiences of Moving to New Housing Estates in England since 1919.” Twentieth Century British History 10(3): 345-365.
 Douglas, I. (2005). Urban greenspace and mental health. Manchester, The UK Man and the Biosphere Committee (UK-MAB).
 Holt-Lunstad, J., et al. (2015). “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10(2): 227-237.