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Mansions in the Orchard: New oral history project

We're pleased to announce that the Bethlem Archives & Museum will be starting a new oral history and photography project, focused on the twentieth century hospital at Monks Orchard, and funded by a Wellcome Trust People Award scheme. The modern Bethlem site, opened in 1930, has long been overshadowed by interest in Victorian 'Bedlam'. Yet there is much we can learn from the red-brick buildings, described by Bethlem's chaplain E.G. O'Donoghue in the 1920s as 'splendid mansions rising in the woods'.1

While one of these original 'mansions' - the Art Deco administration building - is converted into the new Museum of the Mind, we will be exploring the history of Bethlem and its place in twentieth-century mental health care. As the fabric of the building is peeled back, layer by layer, revealing architectural changes over the decades, new photography will bring the building to life, revealing the traces of those who have used it over the years. A new monthly series on the blog will provide regular updates on the project.

This will also help to expand the archive collection and displays by adding personal reflections (like those of O’Donoghue) to the archive. At present, much of this sort of material in our records comes from the Victorian hospital (now the Imperial War Museum), in the form of letters, diaries, photographs, personal papers, concert programmes and more. Yet we have very little contextual material about the present site, and the records are primarily administrative. We know from plans, for instance, that there was originally an entertainment hall behind the administration building. But we have no notes or ephemera on the plays, lectures and concerts that were undoubtedly performed.

In this project, then, we will be exploring the history of people who have used the site, whether as staff, patients, visitors or local residents. Would you be interested in being interviewed about your memories of twentieth-century Bethlem? Whether you worked here decades ago (or, indeed, still do), used to sing in the chapel as a child, or have used the services in the past, we would like to hear from you.

If you would be interested in getting involved in the Mansions in the Orchard project, please contact us. If possible, let us know in a few sentences what your connection with the hospital was.

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O’Donoghue on the wooded site in the late 1920s.