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Escape from Bethlem!

Lawrence Walkerlaw was admitted on 2nd January 1813 by petition from the Transport Office (notated as TO in the admittance book ARA-15) as many sailors were. This means he was adjudged as suffering from some sort of mental illness while serving in the Navy, whose central administration arranged for him to be treated at Bethlem. This was not uncommon, and Bethlem received many admissions by the guarantee of the Transport Office, the War Office, The Office of Sick and Wounded Seamen, or even directly from Greenwich Hospital, which was a home for retired naval personnel.

From the Hospital Committee Book of 1813 (our reference HCM-20)

“The steward reported that Lawrence Walkerlaw had escaped and the patient being a sailor and sent by the Transport Board the Council investigated the conduct of Edis one of the keepers and severely reprimanded him for neglect and directed that the door by which he escaped should never be opened except in the presence of the Steward.

Also Resolved that it is the decided opinion of the Committee that no Patient should in any instance be permitted to gait the galle[r]y on any of the necessary duties of the house which ought to be exclusively performed by the Servants”

Unlike many of his contemporaries in Bethlem, Walkerlaw seems to have won the trust of the stewards enough to have been allowed a level of access in the secure areas at Bethlem. At this point there would have been some 30 untrained stewards attending to over 250 patients, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the most able patients were also corralled into helping with mundane tasks. Unfortunately poor steward Edis was in for a nasty shock, as his trusted patient made use of his privilege to bolt from the Hospital.

In the admission book Walkerlaw is noted as ‘Escaped’ 7th April 1813. Presumably he was noticeably recovered by then, as there is a note saying that he was ‘Well’ dated 3rd April 1813, though this may be an example of the stable door slamming shut long after the horse has bolted to spare the hospital’s blushes.

Walkerlaw is not readmitted to Bethlem, and he then disappears from record. I’ve not been able to locate him at all in the 1841 census, though this is not a surprise. Bethlem was not a prison or a corrective facility at this point, and so provided he was not thought to be dangerous or a threat there may not have been a concerted attempt to apprehend him. At a time before an active police force, it would have technically been the Navy’s responsibility to return him to Bethlem, though in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars this would perhaps have only happened if he came back into contact with them.

Surprising Archives 4

House Committee Minutes 1813