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Margaret Nicholson in Bethlem

Margaret Nicholson seemed like an entirely ordinary woman to her landlord in Wigmore Street in 1786- he would later describe her as a bit peculiar, but respectable. Margaret had been born in Stockton on Tees around 1850 (some reports suggest she was older), and had been a domestic servant, moving from one household to another. By the time she had moved to Wigmore Street she was supporting herself by sewing and weaving at home, a hard and solitary life. She had apparently lost her last service job for improper conduct with a fellow servant, which had damaged both her prospects of employment and marriage in Georgian society.

We can only speculate why Margaret ended up confronting George III and his retinue at the garden entrance to St James’s Palace with a blunt dessert knife on her person, but it is possible that the strain of a hard, solitary life with little chance of improvement played a part. The King thought she was presenting him with a petition, as many members of the public did, and so turned toward her. In the account that later appeared in the newspapers, Margaret

‘struck with a concealed knife at his breast; which happily he avoided by drawing back. As she was making a second thrust, one of the yeomen caught her arm, and, at the same instant, one of the King’s footmen wrenched a knife from her hand. The King with great temper and fortitude, exclaimed, ‘I am not hurt. Take care of this poor woman. Do not hurt her.’

– Sketches in Bedlam (1822) p 253
LDBTH7 11 Margaret Nicholson Attempting to Assassinate His Majesty King George III 1786 b

EO-138 Entitled 'Margaret Nicholson attempting to assassinate His Majesty George III at the Garden Entrance of St James Palace, 2 August 1786' Printed for and sold by Carington Bowles.

Margaret was questioned by the King’s closest advisors, the Privy Council, and it was discovered that she had sent a petition to the King some days before the attack. Many years later Margaret would claim that she only came to St James’s to ask the King about her petition, and the incident with the knife had been a clumsy accident. However the Privy Council found the petition to be a rambling, incomprehensible document, one of several she had presented. They also found Margaret to be a similarly unreliable witness, to the point where they judged that she was suffering from a mental illness. John Monro, the physician at Bethlem, had been ‘unsure’ of her sanity in an earlier examination, but concurred with the judgement of the Council.

Margaret did not receive a trial, and instead the Privy Council ordered her to be taken to Bethlem Hospital in Moorfields, which she was only days later. Some saw this as an imposition of tyranny and a lack of due process, others as too mild a punishment for a crime that could result in execution, but many thought it an act of clemency. The King was praised for his words, which it was felt had undoubtedly spared her life.

Margaret was effectively imprisoned in Bethlem for life. This happened after the Governors had barred most visitors from coming to the Hospital, but we do get some glimpses of her life there. Visiting Bethlem in 1786, the German novelist Sophie von la Roche found Margaret reading Shakespeare and writing her own notes. She spent her first year in the Hospital in chains, though after she was admitted to the long stay wing (the so-called ‘Incurable Wing’) in 1787 she was permitted visitors. However we know from the Bethlem sub-committee minutes that it was only in 1791 that it was ordered that she would no longer be restrained in her cell by a chain, giving her some liberty within the walls of the Hospital. At least one source mentions an escape attempt in 1790, but this doesn’t feature in our records. It may explain the discrepancy in the sub-committee books about the restraint if a chain was put in place again as a form of punishment afterwards.

LDBTH2 17 44 New Bethlem Hospital St Georges Fields c 1830 a

Image of the New Bethlem in St George's Fields c. 1830 our ref LDBTH2.17.44

Margaret was moved into the new Bethlem in Southwark in 1815, though she stayed with the ‘incurables’ in their new ward rather than transferred to the purpose-built Criminal Wing. While she had been locked up without trial, new legislation came into being following the case of James Hadfield in 1800 to legislate for those whose mental health problems impacted their criminal guilt. This legislation meant that Bethlem would have a role in housing these so-called ‘criminal lunatics’ on its new site until the construction of Broadmoor Hospital in the 1860s.

The move to Southwark coincided with more detailed casenotes being produced by the doctors, though these often only amount to a couple of sentences each year, if that. In the first of these for the Incurable Patients in 1815 Margaret is described as profoundly deaf and ‘apparently destitute of all the natural powers of the mind’. However the archives also note that she is quiet and civil in demeanour, and consistently record her as being in good bodily health despite her being ‘of a profound age’. The final entry in the casebook notes ‘sick, ill’ in March 1820, which was probably no surprise as she was apparently the oldest person in the Hospital.

In 1822 Sketches In Bedlam was published, an anonymous insider’s account of the Hospital and its patients, including Margaret. In this she is described as ‘tranquil’ and appears resigned to her confinement in the Hospital. The author records that she has shown no signs of madness since the assassination attempt either, which rings somewhat truer than the casenote’s rather imprecise statements on her sanity. Bethlem was Margaret’s home by then, offering more security than her precarious life outside its walls, and the 30 years she had spent in the Hospital by then had probably thoroughly institutionalised her. Sketches records that she remained active in the Hospital, took the small rewards she gained for her work in snuff, and received a small stream of visitors

It is quite possible that the Bethlem doctors recognised that Margaret was in an impossible situation- if they declared that she had recovered her sanity they may well have been risking her life. She was never released, and died in the Hospital in 1828.