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Bethlem in the News

The history of Bethlem, in relation to two of the Hospital’s former sites, has appeared in the news on several recent occasions. Many of our readers will, I’m sure, have seen the reports in early April on the discovery of as many as a thousand skeletons, unearthed by archaeologists close to Bethlem’s original site on Bishopsgate, outside the City walls. The Hospital was located here from 1247 until it moved to a new building in nearby Moorfields, designed by Robert Hooke, in 1676. This grand baroque building dominated the area until its closure in 1815

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The BBC posted a map showing an area labelled “Bethlehem Churchyard,” located to the side of Moorfields (an unlabelled space between Moorfields and the red circle on the (later) map below), indicating this to be the site where the skeletons were found. While it was suggested that this formed the Hospital’s burial ground, this was not, in fact, the case. Research on the first Hospital, the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem, has indicated that this relatively open site was closely connected with the surrounding parish, which was built up around it. In Chapters in the History of the Insane (1882), Daniel Hack Tuke cites the creation of a new churchyard from part of the hospital’s grounds, on the Moorfields side, in 1569. This churchyard was used “for burial in case of such parishes of London as wanted ground convenient”: lack of space in City churchyards was a common problem by this time. Patients admitted to Bethlem were usually recommended by their local parish officer: that parish (or the patient’s family) was thus responsible for the burial of those who died in the Hospital. Although it is not impossible that some of these individuals were buried in the “New Churchyard near Bethlem” (as it was initially named), they were no more likely to be buried here than any other London resident. Moreover, the number of patients in the early Hospital was tiny: in 1598, there were just twenty inmates, so a thousand skeletons would be a somewhat surprising legacy!

The Hospital’s move in 1676 allowed for an expansion, with about 80 patients now admitted per year (there was always a waiting list, between about 200 and 320 patients). An article in The Australian recently suggested, rather misleadingly, that “England's oldest psychiatric institution is up for sale.” The article refers to the sale of Salisbury House, built in 1901 on the side of Finsbury Circus, formerly the new Hospital in Moorfields. Having moved twice more since the early nineteenth century, Bethlem Hospital has, however, not been sold off, and remains in its current location in Beckenham, Kent.

What is not true of Bethlem – that it maintained a cemetery for its patients, and that it has been closed and sold off – is, however, true of one of its sister institutions, Warlingham Park Hospital. This hospital was opened in 1903 to accommodate the Borough of Croydon’s ‘pauper lunatics’, and closed in March 1999, by which time responsibility for Croydon mental health services had passed to the (then) Bethlem and Maudsley NHS Trust. Residential housing now occupies the site of the hospital, but not of the cemetery, which is now disused.