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Bethlem Royal Hospital

(Redirected from Bedlam)

The Bethlem Royal Hospital, (which has been variously known as Bethlem Hospital, Bethlehem Hospital and Bedlam) is the world's oldest "madhouse" or psychiatric hospital. It has been a part of London since 1247, first as a priory for the sisters and brethren of the order of the Star of Bethlehem. Its first site was in Bishopsgate Street (where Liverpool Street station now stands). In 1330 it is mentioned as a hospital, and it is documented that in 1403 some of the first lunatics were there. Colloquially known as Bedlam, it was handed over by Henry VIII with all its revenues to the city of London as a hospital for lunatics in 1547.

Bethlem Royal Hospital became famous and afterwards infamous for the brutal ill-treatment meted out to the insane. In 1675 Bedlam moved to new buildings in Moorfields, outside the City boundary. In the 18th century people used to go there to see the lunatics. For a penny one could peer into their cells, view the freaks of the "show of Bethlehem" and laugh at their antics. The lunatics were first called "patients" in 1700, and "curable" and "incurable" wards were opened in 1725-34. In 1815, Bedlam was moved to St George's Fields, Lambeth (into buildings now used to house the Imperial War Museum). Finally, in 1930, the hospital was moved to an outer suburb of London, Eden Park near Beckenham, Kent.

Scene of Bethlem Hospital from Hogarth's A Rake's Progress
Scene of Bethlem Hospital from Hogarth's A Rake's Progress

Bethlem was most notably portrayed in a scene from William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1735), the story of a rich merchant's son whose immoral living causes him to end up in a ward at Bethlem. This reflects the view of the time that madness was a result of moral weakness, leading to 'moral insanity' to be used as a common diagnosis.

The word "Bedlam" has long been used for lunatic asylums in general, and later for a scene of uproar and confusion.

In another old English use of the word, "a Bedlam" (or more colloquially a "Tom O' Bedlam") signified one discharged from Bethlem Hospital and licensed to beg. Such persons wore a tin plate on their arm as a badge and were known as Bedlamers, Bedlamites, or Bedlam Beggars.

Notable patients of Bethlem hospital

External links

  • Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives + Museum
  • Museum of London: Bedlam
  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Bedlam
  • Bedlam, London, England
  • Picture of Bethlem Hospital, in its St George's Fields location

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45