If Charlotte Brontë did visit Bethlem, as she anticipated, in 1853, what would she have seen there? It is impossible to say for certain, since no account of her visit survives. But a sense of the Hospital’s environs is given in an account written just four years later by a lesser literary figure of the Victorian era, Henry Morley.
In 1857 Morley was commissioned by his friend Charles Dickens to write an account of a visit to Bethlem for Household Words, Dickens himself having reported on a visit to Bethlem’s rival St Luke’s Hospital in 1852. Morley’s account is of an institution transformed in the early 1850s by the appointment of Bethlem’s first Resident Physician.
“We went over the hospital a week or two ago,” he wrote. “Within the entrance gates, as we went round the lawn towards the building, glancing aside, we saw several groups of patients quietly sunning themselves in the garden, some playing on a grass-plot with two or three happy little children. We found afterwards that these were the children of the Resident Physician and Superintendent, Dr. Hood. They are trusted freely among the patients, and the patients take great pleasure in their presence among them. The sufferers feel that surely they are not cut off from fellowship with man, not objects of a harsh distrust, when even little children come to play with them, and prattle confidently in their ears. There are no chains nor strait waistcoats now in Bethlehem; yet, upon the staircase of a ward occupied by men the greater number of whom would, in the old time, have been beheld by strong-nerved adults with a shudder, there stood a noble little boy, another fragment of the Resident Physician’s family, with a bright smile upon his face, who looked like an embodiment of the good spirit that had found its way into the hospital, and chased out all the gloom.”
Morley’s conclusion, after a review of Bethlem’s chequered history? That “thousands of middle class homes contain nothing so pretty as a ward in Bedlam” and that “as to all the small comforts of life, patients in Bethlehem are as much at liberty to make provision for themselves as they would be at home”.1
1 H Morley, ‘The Star of Bethlehem’, Household Words, 15 August 1857.
Henry Morley, c. 1888