By the start of the twentieth century, “Bethlem was a respectable and neatly gardened enclave in the midst of poverty, overcrowding and traffic congestion”, according to its published history, albeit one with an old-fashioned layout, unsatisfactory sanitary arrangements and an expensive maintenance bill. In the 1920s the Hospital’s Governors concluded that “for a hospital for the educated middle classes Southwark was not an ideal location”, and began looking for an alternative.1 They duly found one, a 334 acre country house estate that straddled the boundary between Croydon and Beckenham, Kent that had remained unsold at auction in 1920. The land was obtained via a second exchange of the 999-year leasehold which was originally granted by the City of London in 1674 in respect of the Hospital’s Moorfields site, and transferred to Southwark in 1815. There a new hospital was built according to the ‘villa system’ pioneered on the Continent, with separate blocks for “administration, occupational therapy, refractory patients, convalescent patients, treatment and research, along with a nurses’ home, chapel, reception hospital, mortuary, workshops and a laundry”.2
In anticipation of the move, the hospital magazine Under the Dome (soon to be restyled Orchard Leaves) devoted space in several issues to depicting the new site in Elysian terms. In 1928, for example, it published an imaginary letter of a patient to his wife dated May 2000, which began:
“When I arrived here yesterday, I found that I was just in time to wash and dress for dinner… The fare here is pretty good, but the oysters were not quite up to the mark, and the butler had not iced the champagne in just that way, you know, Clara, in which one expects it to be. All went well during the evening, except that the only bath salts they had here consisted of Parma Violet, and you know how I have always used Rose at home… Each bed has its own wireless set, but I am asking for an extension from mine to be put in my own bathroom here, as I hate to miss anything.”
The perceived advantages of the Hospital’s new situation were, however, parodied by Samuel Beckett in his satirical novel, Murphy.
“The Magdalen Mental Mercyseat [Beckett’s fictional version of Bethlem] lay a little way out of town, ideally situated in its own grounds on the boundary of two counties. In order to die in the one sheriffalty rather than in the other some patients had merely to move up, or be moved up, a little in the bed. This sometimes proved a great convenience.”3
In the event, the fact that Bethlem’s grounds were bisected by the boundary between Beckenham (subsumed into the London Borough of Bromley in 1965) and Croydon proved an administrative headache in circumstances that required the attention of a coroner. At the time of the relocation, it also led to some purposeful lobbying of the Postmaster General on the part of Bethlem’s Governors, anxious to ensure that the Hospital was given a postal address in ‘respectable’ Beckenham rather than in Croydon. The Governors duly got their way, but it was not until the 1990s that the borough boundary was redrawn to take the entirety of the site into Bromley and in, terms of mental health service provision, the Hospital’s present links with Croydon are as strong as, if not stronger than, those it maintains with Bromley.
1 Jonathan Andrews et al, The History of Bethlem (London, 1997), pp. 546-547.
2ibid., pp. 549-550.
3 Samuel Beckett, Murphy (Clader, London, 1993), p. 90.