A history of Bedlam, the world’s most notorious asylum

The Bethlem Hospital, or Bedlam as it is more commonly known, is Europe’s oldest extant psychiatric hospital and has operated continuously for over 600 years. It was founded in London in 1247 during the reign of Henry III, as the priory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlehem. Bethlem was not actually intended as a hospital, much less as a specialist institution for the insane, but rather as a house for the poor and a centre for the collection of alms to support the Crusader Church. However, the crown seized Bethlem in the 1370s and it became an increasingly secular institution staffed by crown appointees.

The first definitive record of the presence of the insane in Bethlem is from the details of a visitation of the Charity Commissioners in 1403. This recorded that among other patients there were six male inmates who were “mente capti”, a Latin term indicating insanity. The visitation also noted the presence of four pairs of manacles, eleven chains, six locks and two pairs of stocks, presumably used to restrain the most violent inmates. In c.1450 the Mayor of London described Bedlam as a “place [where may] be found many men that be fallen out of their wit. And full honestly they be kept in that place; and some be restored onto their wit and health again. And some be abiding therein for ever, for they be fallen so much out of themselves that it is incurable unto man”. Little is known of the treatment of the insane for much of the medieval period, though mechanical restraint, a meagre diet and solitary confinement are likely to have been common practices. The name “Bedlam” developed in the 14th century as a corruption of “Bethlem”, or “Bethlehem”.

Plan of the medieval Bethlem hospital
Plan of the medieval Bethlem hospital

By 1600, Bethlem was co-owned by the crown and the City of London, and run by a board of governors. The change in management doesn’t seem to have benefited the hospital’s inmates; conditions in 16th- and 17th-century Bedlam were appalling. Bethlem had been built over a sewer which served both the hospital and the surrounding area, and as it regularly blocked, waste of all kinds would seep into the building. The 1598 visitation by the Governors had observed that the hospital was “filthely kept”, and a later inspection found inmates actually starving. Under the leadership of the aptly-named Helkiah Crooke, who was dismissed in 1632 on grounds of absenteeism and embezzlement, charitable goods and foodstuffs were stolen by the steward and either personally consumed or sold on to patients. Those without the resources to trade with the steward often went hungry. It was at approximately this time that the word “Bedlam” seems to entered everyday speech to signify a state of madness and chaos.

The admittance of public visitors as a means of raising hospital income may have been allowed since the late 16th century; certainly there are 17th century accounts which describe the “Swarms of People” which descended on Bethlem during public holidays in order to amuse themselves by watching the mad inmates. The number of visitors seeking entertainment rose in the 18th century, becoming one of Bedlam’s most notorious characteristics. Visiting was defended by some commentators as a form of moral instruction, as it illustrated the dangers of immorality and vice which could, in popular belief, lead to madness. As one spectator commented, “[there is no] better lesson [to] be taught us in any part of the globe than in this school of misery…From so humbling a sight we may learn to moderate our pride, and to keep those passions within bounds, which if too much indulged, would drive reason from her seat, and level us with the wretches of this unhappy mansion”.

Figures representing Melancholia and Mania, at the entrance to Bedlam
Figures representing Melancholia and Mania, at the entrance to Bedlam

All well and good, but for the vast majority, Bedlam was simply a titillating source of cheap amusement which provided what historian Roy Porter describes as the “frisson of the freak show”. An 18th century observer recorded how on one occasion, “a hundred people at least [were] . . . suffered unattended to run rioting up and down the wards, making sport and diversion of the miserable inhabitants, [some of whom were] provoked by the insults of this holiday mob into furies of rage”. Unrestricted public access continued until 1770, after which time visitors required a ticket signed by a governor of the hospital. As distasteful as it was to have crowds flocking to make fun of the mentally ill, some historians have speculated that the lack of public oversight after 1770 allowed for more flagrant abuses.

Being such an infamous institution, Bedlam did not lack for attention in the public, literary and artistic spheres. Jonathan Swift memorably quipped, where better to recruit the nation’s politicians than Bedlam, since the inmates could not be any more insane than the ones in power! Bedlam provided a wonderfully melodramatic backdrop to literary texts, as in Eliza Haywood’s 1725 play The distress’d orphan or, Love in a mad-house. Haywood describes how “the rattling of Chains, the Shrieks of those severely treated by their barbarous Keepers, mingled with Curses, Oaths, and the most blasphemous Imprecations, did from one quarter of the House shock…tormented Ears while from another, Howlings like that of Dogs, Shoutings, Roarings, Prayers, Preaching, Curses, Singing, Crying, promiscuously join’d to make a Chaos of the most horrible Confusion”. Perhaps the most famous depiction of Bedlam is the final painting in Hogarth’s cycle The Rake’s Progress (1723-25). Driven mad by debauchery (probably an effect of syphilis), the cycle’s protagonist Tom Rakewell presents a sorry sight, sprawled on the floor of a dank cell in Bedlam. He is surrounded by other lunatics, one of whom thinks he is a king, another a bishop; wealthy visitors laugh at the wretched scene.

Bedlam, as depicted in the final scene in Hogarth's cycle A Rake's Progress (1723-25)
Bedlam, as depicted in the final scene in Hogarth’s cycle A Rake’s Progress (1723-25)

Bedlam’s medical regime – such as it was – was at best useless, at worst actively injurious to the mental health of the inmates. Mental illness was completely misunderstood at the time. Epileptics and people with learning difficulties and dementia were classed in the same group as people suffering from paranoia, schizophrenia and depression. Following Greek and Roman philosophy, it was believed that ailments were generally caused by an imbalance of the four humours; too much black bile, for instance, was thought to lead to depression. Consequently, a depletive medical system held sway in Europe until the 19th century.

The most common treatment in this system was blood-letting, but patients at Bedlam were also subject to forcibly induced vomiting, scarification and purgation. Such was the violence of the standard medical course that patients were regularly discharged or refused admission if they were deemed unfit to survive the physical onslaught. Alexander Cruden, a writer who was briefly incarcerated in Bedlam, said bitterly of the physicians there: “but is there so great Merit and Dexterity in being a mad Doctor? The common Prescriptions of a Bethlemitical Doctor are a Purge and a Vomit, and a Vomit and a Purge over again, and sometimes a Bleeding, which is no great mystery”.

Applying leeches, ready for blood-letting (C18). A common treatment in pre-modern European medicine
Applying leeches, ready for blood-letting (C18). A common treatment in pre-modern European medicine

The years 1814 and 1815 proved a turning point in Bedlam’s history. Edward Wakefield, a Quaker philanthropist and leading advocate of lunacy reform, visited several times during 1814 with the aim of inspecting conditions. Fearing bad publicity, Bedlam personnel tried to keep Wakefield out, but he eventually gained entry in the company of an MP and a governor of the hospital. He found that inmates were not classified in any logical manner, as both highly disturbed and quiescent patients were mixed together indiscriminately. Patients were chained to the wall, sometimes with thick iron rings around their necks; it was said that “chains are universally submitted for the strait-waistcoat”. In 1818 a former Bedlam inmate, Urbane Metcalf, described the case of a man named Popplestone, “whose leg rotted off as he was chained up for such a lengthy period that the metal cut into his flesh”. There was also the infamous case of the American marine, James Norris, whose intestines burst after being confined in chains for over a decade.

Wakefield and others revealed how keepers at Bedlam could be brutal and even sadistic towards their mentally ill charges. Wakefield recounted an incident in which “a man arose naked from his bed, and had deliberately and quietly walked a few paces from his cell door along the gallery; he was instantly seized by the keepers. thrown into his bed, and leg-locked, without enquiry or observation”. Metcalf reported an alleged case of murder: “Fowler [a patient], was one morning put in the bath by Blackburn [a keeper], who ordered a patient then bathing, to hold him down; he did so, and the consequence was the death of Fowler, and though this was known to the officers it was hushed up”. Metcalf also described a how a keeper named Davis, a “cruel, unjust and drunken man…for many years as keeper secretly practised the greatest cruelties to those under his care”.

368px-James_Norris,_Bethlem_Patient,_1815.jpg. norris was American marine imprisoned in Bedlam since 1800
James Norris, the American marine whose intestines burst as a result of over 10 years of being chained up

Notwithstanding the prevailing idea that women were weak and fragile vessels who needed tender protection, female patients at Bedlam were not treated particularly gently. Wakefield describes his visit to the womens’ section as follows: “each [inmate was] chained by one arm or leg to the wall…The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket-gown only… One female thus chained, was an object remarkably striking; she mentioned her maiden and married names, and stated that she had been a teacher of languages…The Committee can hardly imagine a human being in a more degraded and brutalizing situation than that in which I found this female, who held a coherent conversation with us, and was of course fully sensible of the mental and bodily condition of those wretched beings [also incarcerated there]”. Sexual assault by male keepers was a problem faced by many women at Bedlam. John Haslam, author of the 1815 Report from the Committee on Madhouses, alleged that “some years ago, a female patient had been impregnated twice, during the time she was in the Hospital; at one time she miscarried; and the person who was proved to have had connexion with her, being a keeper, was accordingly discharged”.

Following Wakefield’s revelations, Thomas Monro, Bedlam’s principal physician, resigned after being accused of “wanting in humanity” towards his patients. Wakefield’s testimony, combined with reports about patient maltreatment at other asylums helped prompt a campaign for national lunacy reform, resulting in the establishment of a House of Commons Select Committee on Madhouses in 1815. This examined the conditions under which the insane were confined in county asylums, private madhouses, charitable asylums and in the lunatic wards of Poor Law workhouses.

Gradually, attitudes to madness changed across the medical profession and more widely in society. The emphasis increasingly shifted from the external control of the insane through physical restraint and coercion, to their moral management whereby a system of punishment and reward would encourage self-discipline. Bedlam itself became a more humane place under the influence of William Hood, who became chief medical superintendent in 1853. A further House of Commons Select Committee on the Operations of the Lunacy Laws, which met in 1877, heard the testimony of Sir James Coxe, who echoed society’s changing attitudes towards madhouses: “I think it is a very hard case for a man to be locked up in an asylum and kept there; you may call it anything you like, but it is a prison.” It was, however, not until 1890 that the status of lunatics was changed, by parliamentary legislation, from prisoners to patients.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Madness. | karen j carlisle

  2. Our road in Muswell Hill, North London, joins up with Colney Hatch Lane that led to the infamous Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum that was built in the mid C19th. The term ‘going to Colney Hatch’ became an derisive description for mental illness. The building is still there, imposing and rather forbidding – now turned into swanky flats. I wouldn’t want to live there! I think my imagination would run riot!

  3. That’s quite a history, well told. It’s a pity that mistreatment of those unable to care for themselves seems to continue to this day! Bedlam moved several times, I think. The Imperial War Museum, London, is one of the hospital’s former sites. I believe it ended up in Beckenham.

    • caeciliajane@gmail.com

      Yes, it moved near Beckenham in 1930. I didn’t know the Imperial War Museum is based on one of the former sites – I shall have to check it out. As for the treatment of the mentally ill. Clearly there is a long way to go (it’s unbelievable that funds for NHS mental health services are being cut, of all things), though we have thankfully moved on from the days of chains, near-starvation, with epileptic patients labelled as mad and lumped in with people suffering from acute psychosis!

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