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Just Visiting: Queen Mary

Later this month we will bring In the Spotlight, our series of blog posts on ‘famous’ Bethlem and Maudsley patients, to a conclusion. However, in succession to it we will post a series on people who were just visiting the Hospital, starting today with Queen Mary (1867-1953), the wife of George V. Mary’s first association with the Hospital dates from 9 July 1930, when she was the guest of honour at its formal opening on its new Beckenham site. Some photographs of the hospital’s construction, and of the Queen on opening day, feature in A Clearer, Bluer Sky, the exhibition that opens at the Bethlem Gallery next week.

There is also a passing reference to Queen Mary’s visit to Bethlem halfway through episode two of the BBC documentary King George and Queen Mary: The Royals who Rescued the Monarchy (which aired last Wednesday and is available to view on iPlayer until 11 January) in the anecdote told by the historian Frank Prochaska:

Queen Mary was invited to open a ward and plant a tree at one of the South London hospitals. They rolled out the red carpet for her, she walked along it, she came to the end of the red carpet, but alas, there were six feet of raw earth between herself and the spade. She wouldn’t budge, and the quick-witted hospital administrator shot to the other end of the carpet, cut six feet of it off and put it at her feet, and she duly walked upon this red carpet and planted the tree.

As keen as she was on the observance of protocol, Queen Mary must have been impressed by the initiative shown here. In any event, she became the titular President of Bethlem, consented to have her portrait hung in the Hospital’s Boardroom (where it remains to this day), and returned to plant another tree on 23 July 1934. Then on 28 June 1947, in her redoubtable old age, she was again Bethlem’s guest of honour, this time at its commemorative 700th anniversary garden party, a grand occasion which was filmed for posterity and available to watch here. Mary may have been ‘ramrod straight and as tough as nails’, as is asserted in the BBC documentary, but she was a firm and sympathetic supporter of the Hospital’s work.

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