Location, Location 2
Whereas “old Bethlem was built over a regularly blocked common sewer”, as we reported on this thread in January, new Bethlem (built in 1676 half a mile to the west at Moorfields, on the south side of what is now Finsbury Circus) “suffered from subsidence upon the site of the old city ditch, used as a dump for rubbish and waste”.1 Yet this unpromising fact was invisible to the building’s first admirers. Robert Hooke’s Bethlem Hospital at Moorfields was “London’s first great public construction in half a century [after the Royal Exchange and the Custom House]… surpassing the other two in size, stylishness, ornament and, not least, superb siting”, 2 the Moorfields area then being known for the relatively pure (and, it was supposed, restorative) quality of its air. It was built on a strip of land 740 feet wide and 80 feet deep, which Bethlem’s Governors had secured on a 999-year lease at a nominal rent from the City of London. “Most fundamental to understanding” its architectural grandeur, according to the historian Christine Stevenson, “is the [Bethlem] Governors’ conception of Hooke’s building as the home of an ancient Christian charity, one all the more noble because [it was thought that] its recipients could not be grateful nor, indeed, comprehend the nobility of the building”.3 The irony of this was not lost on seventeenth century commentators, one of whom wrote cynically:
“Bedlam is a pleasant Place, that it is, and abounds with Amusements; the first of which is the building so stately a Fabrick for Persons wholly unsensible of the Beauty and Use of it: the Outside is a perfect Mockery to the Inside, and Admits of two Amusing Queries, Whether the Persons that ordered the Building of it, or those that inhabit it, were the maddest?”4
However dramatic the siting of the building, however admirable its architectural aspirations, by the end of the eighteenth century considerations such as these had been overtaken by pressing engineering concerns. “Want of skill or attention are obvious in the carpentry of the walls and floors, below the roofs; there being no bond, or tyes, between the several parts, which should have been strongly connected”, wrote James Lewis, the Hospital’s Surveyor, in 1800 - or, as Christine Stevenson puts it, “Nothing aside from the tie-beams…actually joined the front to the back. No floor was level, no wall upright.”5 In the opinion of Lewis, “the present condition of the building is not in such a state as to warrant any other repair to be made thereto, than to preserve it…by such works as may be requisite…it is incurable.”6 With over 85% of their 999-year tenure remaining, Bethlem’s Governors were obliged to contemplate another move.