Those Bedlam Bones Again 1

Last year, in response to excited media reports of the discovery during Crossrail excavations of a graveyard filled, it was said, with hundreds of skeletons of patients from early modern Bethlem, we blogged to set the record straight: the churchyard was carved out of land to the west of Bethlem’s buildings in 1569 to provide additional burial space for a handful of London parishes (including St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate) which had run out of room for their dead. The graveyard, in short, was not maintained by the Hospital for its deceased patients – it was ‘overspill’ consecrated land used by the surrounding parishes – and the link between Hospital and churchyard was principally one of geographical proximity.

The details we provided, both publicly on this forum and privately in response to enquiries received, seem to have had a salutary effect. We were especially impressed with the sobriety of the article that appeared in Current Archaeology in July 2011. Yet not everyone reads Current Archaeology – alas, not everyone is familiar with this blog! – and we have since written about the pull exerted by narratives that are macabre and sensational (even if not strictly factual, or commensurate with human dignity). So we await with interest the latest iteration of the pop-up exhibition Bison to Bedlam which is on show at Crossrail’s Visitor Information Centre at 16-18 St Giles High Street, near Tottenham Court tube station in central London, throughout October 2012.

One project that no-one has yet attempted in connection with the current publicity concerning the churchyard – at least, not to our knowledge – is to consult the registers of parishes such as St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate in order to establish what proportion of burials were linked in some way to Bethlem Hospital. Mirabili dictu, we recently discovered that Bethlem’s chaplain, Geoffrey O’Donoghue, did just this in 1894 in respect of the sixty-five year period between 1558 and 1623. According to an article published in the Hospital’s magazine, Under the Dome, he found within the Bishopsgate registers seventy entries recording the burial of persons connected with the Hospital in this period – an average of just over one per year.1 By no means had all of the deceased been patients at the Hospital: two of the ten mentioned by name in the article were described as ‘keepers’. And there is no way of knowing how many of the seventy may have ended up in the ‘overspill’ churchyard next to Bethlem, except to say that none could have been in the first eleven years of the period studied by O’Donoghue, since the churchyard was only brought into use in 1569. His article tells us the number of the entries in the Bishopsgate register that were associated with Bethlem, but not the proportion this represented of the contents of the register as a whole. The likelihood is, however, that the proportion was very small, and that the line we have used more than once in private correspondence concerning the Crossrail excavation, that “the remains in that graveyard are equally likely to be those of veterans of the Spanish Armada conflict or actors on the Elizabethan stage as they are to be of Bethlem patients”, is not far off the mark. Perhaps the Crossrail exhibition might have been better named Denarius to Drake or Mammoth to Marlowe?

1 Under the Dome, vol. 3 no. 11 (30 September 1894), pp. 107-108.

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