Black Lives in Early Modern Bethlem
We know from Duncan Salkeld’s work that Black Londoners had used various civic services at Bridewell, for good or for ill, in the late 1500s and early 1600s. There may well be further entries in the later Court of Governors’ Minute Books as well - there would seem to be no reason for Bridewell to stop, and the prison records held at London Metropolitan Archives only start in the late 1600s.
However, the majority of the records we hold are not for Bridewell, but for Bethlem Hospital. So what relationship did Bethlem have with Black Londoners - was it open to them, or did it only look to exclude minority ethnic communities?
The point we’ve chosen to look at is a bit later than Duncan’s work with the Court of Governors’ records, at the point where Bethlem developed its own admission registers but before the registers started to include standardised information of date of admission, details of the two securities, and date and manner of discharge. You can find more details on Bethlem’s admission registers here - https://motm-www.s3.amazonaws..... Therefore we looked at the admission registers covering 1685 to 1717. In the last 10 years of this period the majority of the entries follow the standard pattern laid down, but I thought that was worth examining to see if there were ever any exceptions in the information written down.
These registers are available to view for free on our website at https://archives.museumofthemind.org.uk/ARA.htm so if you feel I’ve made a mistake or missed anything do please let me know! I looked at ARA-01, ARA-03 and ARA-04. If I mention someone it will be by the date, but you are most welcome to go back over what I have done. Also, I’ve not undertaken detailed statistical study, but I think that is entirely possible, though some analysis has been done by the researchers working on the history written by Jonathan Andrews et al in 1997 (‘The History of Bethlem’).
We based this search on the Black and Asian Londoners project run at London Metropolitan Archives, which examined London’s Parish registers for evidence of Black Londoners. Kathleen Chater’s book ‘Untold Histories’ is based on similar research, and includes the found list of words from the parish records that indicate people of non-white origin, and this formed the basis for what I looked for in the records.
Were there black people in Bethlem 1685-1715
The answer is… We don’t know. What we can say from our reading of the admission books is that there is no known reason why Black or Asian people could not have been among Bethlem’s patient population at the time.
What we would call ethnicity is not recorded at all. To borrow from Kathleen Chater, this does not mean that Britain was either mono-cultural, or colour blind. Contemporary writers thought there were as many as 30,000 black men in the country by 1764 (Chater p.25), though that is not an uncontested figure. It is possible that the clerk responsible for filling in the Hospital’s admission register took a view not to record ethnicity, in view of its irrelevance to the admissions process and the limited space available in the register. What was of greater importance to them was the recording of the two securities and the place of parish residence, because it was by having this information that the Hospital could recover the cost of treating its patients.
There is some evidence that black people would not be refused treatment. Unlike the wider City of London Corporation, which spent much of the 1700s specifically legislating against greater inclusion in its processes of Freedom and apprenticing, the Hospital shows itself willing admits people who seem to be from abroad, such as Mathias Marlto, admitted by the warrant Princess Anne of Denmark in 1700.
We also see people described as ‘servants’ in the registers, and some seem to be admitted by the arrangement of their masters. This does not mean that, for example, Thomas Coombes (admitted in June 1697 and whose master is noted as John Querk, a Cutler) was a slave – ‘service’ covered a very wide area of jobs, ranging from chattel workers brought over from the colonies in slavery to personal valets. However it does mean that Bethlem was open to people from this walk of life, and also that it was not unheard of for a master to place his servant or slave into care. We have an example of this in the private casebooks of a later Bethlem Physician, Dr John Monro, who in January 1766 specifically attends ‘Flora, an Indian girl, a slave to Mr Denne' in a private capacity, paid for by the family.
So the possibility that the names of people with black and minority ethnic origins are recorded in the admission books remains. We would love to know more about Anthony White of the Bermudas (admitted in July 1696), or Solomon de las de Barys, described as a ‘Frenchman’ at the time of his admission in November 1696, or Margaret Arun, described as a ‘freeman’ from Rotherhithe in April 1704. Sometimes the names seem suggestive of a place of origin - is it Banbury or Barbary Hobb admitted in in 1693 ? If it is the latter then there may be a link to North Africa in the name. But all the information can do is suggest, it cannot confirm.
Most intriguing is the admission of Siporah Judith who is simply recorded as coming ‘from the Synagogue’ in 1708. It seems likely her first name is a phonetic spelling of Zipporah or Tsipporah, Hebrew for ‘Bird’, and that she was Jewish. While this may not seem worthy of comment to us today, London’s Jewish community was tiny at this time, comprising only a few hundred people, based around the Bevis Marks synagogue in the City ( ‘the Synagogue’ of the entry). This shows that the Hospital was willing to admit people who were considered to be of a different ‘race’ and a different religion - provided there was a community that could support the Hospital in doing so. The same could be said of Anthony Pieque, admitted from the French congregation in Threadneedle Street, which was a Huguenot Church, in 1694. Again this is an identified member of a minority community given access to the Hospital.
There are however a couple of factors that go against the possibility there being black patients in Bethlem. Chater believes that the majority of Black people in London in the early 1700s would have been men (she puts figures at around 80%, page 30). We believe the majority of admissions to Bethlem were of female patients, perhaps at a ratio of 55-45. The other factor (again from Chater) is that she characterises most of the Black people she has identified as independent, physically active, and young by comparison to the rest of the population. Again, by definition, this is a group probably less likely to have needed the kind of help Bethlem could provide.
Given its links with the City of London, seventeenth-century Bethlem may have been expected to share in practices that we would view today as exclusionary, even xenophobic. However the evidence we can find suggests that this is not so, and in fact the Hospital seems to be trying to treat a wide variety of people in difficult circumstances. In this way it emerges, perhaps surprisingly, as a relatively inclusive institution at this point in its history. However, until we can match some of the names in the admission register to other sources that identify Black Britons we won’t know how far this inclusivity actually extended.