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BEDLAM An etching of the

grandiose Bethlem Hospital at Moorfields.

The spectacular building rather belied the treatment of the inmates


f you think that the current traffic conditions in the City are bedlam, spare a thought for those who experienced the real thing.


The Priory of St Mary Bethlehem was founded in 1247 on Bishopsgate Street, just north of Bishopsgate outside the walls of the City of London, occupying a site where Liverpool Street station now stands. There is a blue plaque on a wall in Liverpool Street showing its location just to the west of the entrance to the Andaz Hotel. It was recorded as Bedleem in the 14th century and Bedlam in 1528. By 1329 the priory was known to have a hospital attached to it but this was probably for general medical complaints. Monasteries gave food and shelter to travellers and early hospitals were usually associated with monasteries. The nearby St Bartholomew’s Hospital, established in 1123, was a guest house and also an infirmary caring for the needy and deserving poor. Not until 1377 is it recorded that “distracted” patients were looked after at St Mary Bethlehem. In 1403 records suggest that there were nine inmates overseen by a master, a porter and his wife and several servants. By the early 16th century thirty-one people were said to be held in a space designed for twenty-four. “Care” consisted primarily of constraint; patients were kept chained to the wall by leg or ankle and, when violent, ducked in water or whipped. Peter Ackroyd, in his book “London: e Biograph

y”, describes a woman who

was confined in 1636 for proclaiming herself a prophet. Although she received better treatment than others as she was permitted to live at the steward’s house rather than on a common ward, she


n. 1 a scene of uproar and confusion. 2 archaic an asylum (The Concise Oxford Dictionary).

Gillian Laidlaw looks into the history of the hospital for the mentally unstable which for much of its history was only a stone’s throw away from the Barbican

nevertheless complained that Bedlam was like hell. Commentators referred to screeching, roaring and brawling and likened the inmates to animals. Some were allowed to leave during the daytime and were licensed to beg. They wore a tin plate badge and were known as Bedlamers, Bedlamites or Bedlam Beggars. In William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, the Earl of Gloucester’s son, Edgar, disguises himself as a Bedlam Beggar so that he can remain in England unnoticed after he has been banished. Some of the so-called “lunaticks” were vagrants or prostitutes or those who had fallen on hard times.

The priory and hospital had been placed under the protection of the Mayor and Corporation in 1346 so when the priory was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII, the site was bought and the hospital was re-established as a lunatic asylum. Later, in 1557, it was placed under the administration of Bridewell, the former royal palace on the banks of the Fleet River which by this stage had become a prison, hospital and workrooms. After the Great Fire of London in 1666 a programme of post-Fire reconstruction of public buildings was necessary. The opportunity was taken to replace medieval and Tudor buildings in fashionable new styles, even institutions which had not been touched by the Fire. One such was Bethlehem Hospital. The old building had become squalid and the authorities probably wanted to demonstrate that lunacy was being properly managed in the new Age of Enlightenment.

In the 1670s a palatial new building, designed by the scientist Robert Hooke,

was opened on the north side of London Wall adjacent to Moorfields. It cost an astonishing £17,000 and was likened by John Evelyn to the Tuileries in Paris. Above its entry gate were two bald- headed and semi-naked figures by the sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber called “R

aving Madness” and “Melanch oly

Madness”, behind its ornate facade were long galleries to house the patients and the building was surrounded by gracious formal gardens. These consisted of an open space divided by gravel squares into four quadrangles planted with elm trees. The gardens became such a visitor attraction that the area was called the City Mall.

The inmates of the hospital became a visitor attraction too and good money was paid for the entertainment which they unwittingly offered. Since the beginning of the 17th century visitors had been allowed to view and laugh at the inmates and Bedlam, as it was now known, had become one of the main sights of London. The patients were chained in cells in the galleries like animals in a menagerie with iron gates separating the males and females. Admission was one penny and the asylum made a good income from visitors. William Hogarth included an image of Bedlam in a scene of his “R

ak e’s Progress”

of 1735. However by 1770 it was considered that visitors “tended to disturb the tranquillity of the patients” by “making sport and diversion of the miserable inhabitants”, so admission became available by ticket only. Public attitudes were slowly changing as a result of the campaigning efforts of John Howard, the prison reformer, and public

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