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In the Spotlight: Relatives 2

Having focussed on relatives of those historically associated with Bethlem or the Maudsley Hospitals in July, this month we turn our attention to three Bethlem patients who were related to people who were otherwise well known in their time, and to a fourth person who, while related to someone famous, was never a Bethlem patient – but is widely believed to have been.

At the start of the nineteenth century, Bethlem Hospital was locked in bitter rivalry with its near neighbour St Luke’s Hospital, whose founding physician William Battie made a point of admitting patients who had been discharged uncured from Bethlem for treatment. (As far as the patients were concerned, it may have been a case of ‘a curse on both your houses’. According to one of their number, popular wisdom about the respective regimes held that ‘St Luke’s is clean with tyranny; Bedlam’s all filth with liberty’.1) Bethlem was not in the habit of returning this favour, but did so for one Mary Turner, who had been admitted aged around sixty to St Luke’s in November 1799 and discharged uncured in December 1800. Mary arrived at Bethlem shortly after Christmas in that year, and stayed until her death in April 1804. Today she is chiefly remembered as the mother of the artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Since medical records were not kept by Bethlem at the time of Mary’s residence, Turner’s biographers have been able to do no more than speculate as to the reasons for her admission to the Hospital, the nature of her progress (in fact decline) there, and any possible effects on her artist son.2

Elizabeth Catlett, a beloved niece of the slave-trader turned evangelical preacher and hymn-writer John Newton, was admitted to Bethlem Hospital on 1 August 1801, spending about a year there before being discharged recovered. At the time of her residence, Newton was elderly, infirm and rather short-sighted, yet, according to his biographer Josiah Bull, 'it was [his] custom to walk every morning at a certain hour to the hospital [in the company of a friend], and to look up to the window of the poor patient's ward, and for each party to make an understood sign of recognition ... at the turn…Pointing to the window, he would say [to the friend next to him], ' Do you see a white handkerchief being waved to and fro ?' — he could not see himself — and being satisfied the good man returned home.'3

Bethlem Hospital was relocated, reformed and changed beyond recognition in the course of the century that followed the admission of Mary Turner and Elizabeth Catlett. By 1904, the London Argus could opine that its arrangements were ‘not so much those of an asylum or a hospital as of a first-class hotel’.4 Into this institution stepped a patient on transfer from the privately-run Bethnal House in May 1901, one Bertha Lawson, then wife of the Australian poet Henry Lawson. The pair had come to London with their two young children in the hope that they could make their living by Henry’s pen. (Incidentally, it would be unfair to consider Bertha solely under the rubric of her husband’s talent. She was an aspiring author in her own right. In London, however, her responsibilities were limited to childcare.) This hope was to be disappointed. Shortly after their arrival. Bertha’s health broke down – no thanks to her husband, according to his biographers – and she was hospitalised. Within three months of her transfer to Bethlem, she had recovered and left. However, Henry had been unable to establish a writing career in London in the interim, and the family returned to Sydney in 1902. Sadly, their return marked a decline in Henry’s fortunes from which he seems never to have recovered. A suicide attempt on the part of Henry, and an application for marital separation on the part of Bertha, followed in quick succession; and it was Henry, rather than Bertha, whose later years were spent in and out of Australian mental hospitals.5

That Hannah Chaplin (1865-1928), mother of the comic actor and film director Charlie Chaplin, was at one time a Bethlem Hospital patient is an established piece of wiki-orthodoxy, but one without any foundation in fact. Since the Hospital’s admission records, complete and comprehensive for the term of Hannah’s life, are held here at the Archives & Museum, we are in a position to be quite certain about this. In the 1890s, poverty forced Hannah and her sons Sydney and Charlie into temporary periods of residence at Renfrew Road Workhouse in Lambeth, an institution which had nothing to do with Bethlem Hospital other than being within sight of its distinctive dome. She later spent time at Cane Hill Hospital and Peckham House, but she was never admitted to Bethlem. How, then, to account for the persistence of rumours to the contrary? Is there, perhaps, something about the association of acknowledged celebrity with assumed notoriety which defies correction?