Visiting Bethlem

Learning

Visiting Bethlem in the long eighteenth century is a learning resource centred on the famous London hospital for the insane, first founded in 1247 and better known throughout the centuries as 'Bedlam'.

Why ‘Visiting Bethlem’?

Bethlem Hospital was an integral part of London’s charitable provision for the poor in medieval and early modern times. Hand in hand with public benevolence went great public interest in the objects of charity. Until 1770, the Hospital was open (at specified times of the week) to any member of the public who wished to see inside, and ‘poor boxes’ were strategically placed near the entrance for donations. Bethlem was by no means the only early modern hospital to permit this level of public access to its inner workings, but it is probably the best known for having done so. The memory of Bethlem’s display of the misery of its patients for entertainment and gain is a powerful metaphor to this day.

But is that what the Hospital intended? What is the truth of what actually happened? How and why did the hospital seek to regulate the practice of visiting? To explore these issues and many others, we have assembled written and pictorial sources from the Hospital’s own archives; the published writings of visitors; and the commentaries of experts onto a timeline for you to ‘visit’ that stretches across 140 years, from 1676 to 1815.

Why ‘the long eighteenth century’?

Your ‘visit’ represents a step back to a particular time in the life of the Hospital, and of London. In 1676, Bethlem moved from its original location in Bishopsgate to a purpose-built, palatial building in Moorfields (incidentally nowhere near the Eye Hospital) on London Wall. The new building, designed by Robert Hooke, quickly came to be one of sights of the city, as did the figures of Raving and Melancholy Madness, sculpted by Cauis Gabriel Cibber, that reclined on top of the Hospital’s gateposts. There the hospital remained until the early nineteenth century, when the failing structure of the building was condemned (to a degree that few of the hospital’s patients ever were) as ‘incurable’. In 1815, the whole edifice was dismantled, its masonry auctioned off piece by piece, and the hospital relocated to South London.

Credits

Bethlem Museum of the Mind would like to thank:

Dr Jonathan Andrews (Newcastle University) and Dr Christine Stevenson (Courtauld Institute of Art) for their assistance in the provision of content.

The Royal College of Physicians of London, the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum (www.soane.org), and the Trustees of the British Museum for permission to reproduce images as acknowledged.

MLA London for part funding this project.