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BARBICAN LIFE


A BEDLAM POSTSCRIPT


Since the article about the history of Bedlam, the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital, was published in the Summer 2012 edition of Barbican Life, archaeologists have been excavating the site in connection with the Crossrail development. Gillian Laidlaw reports.


B


efore any major building works take place in an area of historical interest, developers must undertake archaeological research. As


a result archaeologists from the Museum of London are working with Crossrail to explore the route of the new railway. Behind the hoardings in front of Liverpool Street station a major dig is taking place, much of it on the site of the old Priory of St Mary Bethlehem. Beneath what will be the new ticket hall of Liverpool Street station, hundreds of skeletons have been discovered but it is unclear whether they are the unfortunate inmates of the hospital itself or local residents. In medieval times this area was Moorgate Marsh. In winter it froze over and was obviously used as a skating rink because grooved animal shin bones, which must have served as skates, have been found. By Tudor times the area had been drained as a result of increasing pressure for new usable land in the City. Maps of 1553 show washing laid out in fields. But it doesn’t seem as though the space was initially intended as a cemetery; at first it seems to have been used as a market garden to grow food for the hospital. But pressure for burial space was increasing; parish graveyards in the City were at crisis point with coffins packed tightly on top of each other. The garden appears to have been requisitioned for a new burial ground, not for the inhabitants of Bedlam but for the general population of London. Indeed it may be that there are few Bedlam patients buried there. Although we consider the treatment which they received to be barbaric, they were not usually sent to Bedlam for life. Patients arrived from all over the country and were usually discharged after about a year, whether or not they were “cured”. And if they died while at Bedlam


Archaeologists inspecting finds at the Crossrail Liverpool Street worksite. (Picture courtesy Crossrail)


they were usually returned to their home parish for burial. By the late 18th century this cemetery was also full with coffins and bodies which had been buried in the cheaper shrouds piled up to two metres deep. The skeletons so far exhumed range from children to adults, with perhaps some kind of segregation as one trench seems to contain a majority of younger people. There are no grave goods other than coffin nails and the copper pins which secured shrouds. One exception is a bone and coloured glass necklace still worn by a child of under three years. Evidence of illness and injury is similar to what is already known about the London population at the time. Rickets, caused by a shortage of Vitamin D and calcium during childhood, is fairly common. There is also some evidence of syphilis, bone fractures and at least one otherwise healthy male killed by an aggressive cancer. Some skulls have a greenish tinge on the forehead as a result of the corrosion of the copper pins holding the shroud in place. Broken bones presented a very


serious risk. One female had a fractured tibia which repaired itself but left one leg one and a half inches shorter than the other as the muscles had adapted to the new position; she lived for some years after the event. Archaeologists speculate that she was either too poor to visit a bone setter or too scared to do so. Although many of the coffins carry nameplates it has not been possible to identify individuals as the plates are too corroded to read. However one famous person was interred in the graveyard in 1654 at his own request – Nicholas Culpepper, the famous pioneer of herbal medicines. And during an earlier excavation before the construction of Broadgate a brick vault, used between 1686 and 1714 by the Jenks’ family, was discovered indicating the residential rather than institutional purpose of the graveyard. After it was closed the area seems to have been used for fly-tipping. Fragments of pottery and rejected objects from local workshops have been found. The site was finally


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