Mansions in the Orchard: New oral history project

We’re pleased to announce that the Bethlem Archives & Museum will be starting a new oral history and photography project, focused on the twentieth century hospital at Monks Orchard, and funded by a Wellcome Trust People Award scheme. The modern Bethlem site, opened in 1930, has long been overshadowed by interest in Victorian ‘Bedlam’. Yet there is much we can learn from the red-brick buildings, described by Bethlem’s chaplain E.G. O’Donoghue in the 1920s as ‘splendid mansions rising in the woods’.1

While one of these original ‘mansions’ – the Art Deco administration building – is converted into the new Museum of the Mind, we will be exploring the history of Bethlem and its place in twentieth-century mental health care. As the fabric of the building is peeled back, layer by layer, revealing architectural changes over the decades, new photography will bring the building to life, revealing the traces of those who have used it over the years. A new monthly series on the blog will provide regular updates on the project.

This will also help to expand the archive collection and displays by adding personal reflections (like those of O’Donoghue) to the archive. At present, much of this sort of material in our records comes from the Victorian hospital (now the Imperial War Museum), in the form of letters, diaries, photographs, personal papers, concert programmes and more. Yet we have very little contextual material about the present site, and the records are primarily administrative. We know from plans, for instance, that there was originally an entertainment hall behind the administration building. But we have no notes or ephemera on the plays, lectures and concerts that were undoubtedly performed.

In this project, then, we will be exploring the history of people who have used the site, whether as staff, patients, visitors or local residents. Would you be interested in being interviewed about your memories of twentieth-century Bethlem? Whether you worked here decades ago (or, indeed, still do), used to sing in the chapel as a child, or have used the services in the past, we would like to hear from you.

If you would be interested in getting involved in the Mansions in the Orchard project, please contact Sarah Chaney, Project Co-ordinator, on If possible, let us know in a few sentences what your connection with the hospital was.

1 Under the Dome, 1929, p. 8

 Photograph of the Bethlem Chaplain on the wooded site, 1920s

O’Donoghue on the wooded site in the late 1920s.


3 Responses to “Mansions in the Orchard: New oral history project”

  1. 1 Ed Brandon September 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Don’t know if anyone actually reads posts on here, but anyway, Re: Missing “recreation hall” – I am very much open to being corrected on this, but here’s what I have found so far.
    I was for a while of the opinion that the reason no-one could find any record of it was simply that it never existed; ie it was included in the architectural plans but never built, which is neither an unreasonable nor unprecedented assumption.
    But let me further complicate things – the aerial view of Bethlem taken to commemorate the Hospital’s 700th anniversary in 1947 shows the admin block – and there is NO recreation hall built on to the back of the admin block (it is in fact exactly the same as it is now).
    If the recreation hall had ever been located there, we would have to assume that it was demolished in the space of just 17 years (between the hospital’s opening in 1930 and the aerial shot taken in 1947), and it would obviously seem highly unlikely that this would have taken place at all, let alone that it would be considered unnecessary so quickly after presumably being seen as essential when the hospital was built.
    However, the extra complication comes with the Bethlem & Maudsley Hospital Gazette of September 1954 which specifically mentions the “Founders Day” celebrations which include “a dance for the patients in the recreation hall”!
    The only logical conclusion would seem to be that either the recreation hall was never in fact located behind the admin block, but somewhere else on site (or even off-site?) and if so, certainly far enough away from the main buildings to not appear in the aerial photo, or that “recreation hall” may have been a rather grandiose title for some other area of the building that served the same purpose, perhaps only on a temporary or occasional basis.
    It will be very interesting to see what this new project reveals about it!

  1. 1 A Clearer, Bluer Sky: Exhibition in Bromley 24 Feb – 17 April | Bethlem Blog Trackback on February 26, 2014 at 10:01 am

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