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Under the Dome: Notes on the Chapel

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The recent Open House London weekend saw us once more 'under the dome' at the Imperial War Museum, where we welcomed a record 142 visitors on seven very crowded tours of the former dome chapel (later museum reading room) and board room. There was also a rare opportunity to see some of the original hospital fittings - a small amount of office space still contains the distinctive ceilings and windows of Victorian Bethlem, most of which were destroyed during the Blitz.

Visitors who have heard about the history of the Chapel, and the oft-mentioned partition dividing male and female patients, might be interested in the following extract from the Hospital magazine, Under the Dome, written by the Chaplain in 1895:

“But what was this partition, of which officials and attendants know nothing? There was nothing for it but to interview the oldest inhabitants on both sides, and some very interesting reminiscences I gathered from their lips. Some of our friends can remember the building of the dome (services were then held at the schools), and the use of part of the hospital as a Broadmoor.

“But as to the partition, which has disappeared from these notes as completely as from the chapel, we have still with us three or four who remember it running from the grating under the gallery, down the centre aisle, till it came within a foot or so of the communion rails. It stood so high, that the ladies could never see over it; and indeed, when it was removed for some Sundays many of the gentlemen refused to go to church, on the ground that their wall of protection had been taken away, and they didn’t know what might happen to them now! In those days we had two classes of patients, and accordingly on each side of the partition there were two divisions of men and women. How should we have managed one of our surpliced processions with such prison-like arrangements?”

The partition must have been removed before the early 1880s, when Superintendent R. Percy Smith joined the Hospital as Assistant Physician, a fact which might surprise anyone who assumes the segregation of the sexes to have been a feature of late Victorian life.

Two photos, taken a hundred years apart: the distinctive ridged ceiling can be seen in both images.

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