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Getting into Georgian Bethlem 2

Correspondence between two eighteenth century solicitors, currently being edited for publication by the Sussex Record Society, provides an unexpected insight into how the rules of admission to Bethlem Hospital (described in an earlier post) functioned in practice at that time. We are grateful to the editor of these letters for drawing our attention to this example, and for permission to cite it here.

On 12 November 1745, James Collier of Hastings wrote to John Collier ‘in relation to the unhappy affair of Mary Cousens, whom my uncle and I though a proper person’ for admission to Bethlem.

‘I shall be able I beleive [sic] to have some respite in regard to her removal, and when the committee are known, shall endeavour to get her minuted down for the ward of the incurables which depends principally upon the report of Dr Monro; and I am glad to find that our case, viz. a raving madness, is a circumstance that particularly induces the committee to send such poor people there.’

In seeking a place for Mary Cousens at Bethlem, Mr Collier was acting as a professional agent of the Hastings authorities legally and financially responsible for the care of all ‘pauper lunatics’ resident within their parish boundaries. His communications with Bethlem’s Physician, Dr Monro, seem to have been conducted via a third party. At any rate, he had been poorly advised. As noted in the previous post in this series, in the ordinary course of events patients were not admitted directly to the ‘incurable’ department, and people judged ‘incurable’ would not be admitted to the Hospital in the first place.

While he hoped for a Bethlem admission for Mary, James Collier did not put all his eggs in one basket. ‘By next post, I shall be able to acquaint you with certainty what will be done as to Guy’s hospital,’ his letter to John continues. ‘They never suffer anybody to enter there, who has once been in bedlam, and I am afraid private madhouses will be attended with great expence.’

How did matters turn out? From a second letter, written by James Collier to John nine days later, it appears that Mary lived under Bethlem’s roof while being assessed for admission, but was not in the event admitted. ‘Mary Cousens is not as yet removed out of Bethlem hospitall [sic], but it is impossible to get her continued there’, he writes. ‘Mr Alnright of Lambeth marsh will take her for one month upon trial for 8sh per week, but if her distemper is such as to require a more than ordinary attendance, he will have more.’ With an eye to parish finances, Mr Collier would have preferred Bethlem to relent, an outcome for which he continued to hope against hope. ‘I don’t despair at present of getting her minuted down in the list of persons who are to supply the vacancys in the ward of incurables.’ In the event, however, Mary Cousens’ name does not appear in any of the Hospital's admission registers, incurable or otherwise. Where she went, we cannot say.