Posts Tagged 'bedlam'

Bedlam in the Old Vic Tunnels

Two artists associated with the Archives and Museum are currently exhibiting in a new show at the Old Vic Tunnels. Bedlam is described as the third and final meeting of minds between Lazarides Gallery and the Old Vic Tunnels, creatively exploring the history of the institution. Like Nell Leyshon’s play at the Globe Theatre two years ago (and as we blogged at that time), the event seeks to explore the parallels between the hospital itself and a “world gone mad”, using the institution’s history as part of a more general critique of society, art, madness and genius.

Much of the work included reflects the interests of Lazarides Ltd, who pride themselves on their popularisation of urban and non-traditional art. The dark, cavernous space of the Old Vic Tunnels suits the material well, lending a haunting quality to the spray-painted canvases and muted video installations. From the near-total darkness of the entry-way, the artworks slowly emerge from the space, the lighting and context lending an uneasy fragility to some of the material, such as Tessa Farmer’s glass and taxidermy sculptures or the ominous presence of Doug Foster and Nachev’s Lidless – a huge weather balloon on which footage of an eye, staring and blinking, is projected.

We were particularly excited, however, by the opportunity to see work by Jane Fradgley and War Boutique. Jane’s striking photographs of the museum’s collection of strong clothing will soon be on display at Guy’s Hospital. Here, however, the large-scale projections emerge with slow beauty on the dark brick walls: ghostly, exquisite and unsettling all at once. These haunting images of late nineteenth and early twentieth century garments of restraint offer a much more complex perspective on mental health care and experiences past and present than the usual stereotypes that fall under the “Bedlam” tag. Jane’s own exhibition, Held, will open in Atrium 2, Guy’s Hospital, on 9 November.

War Boutique’s practice examines forms of conflict – whether physical, psychological or emotional. For Bedlam, he has produced The Noosphere (literally meaning “sphere of the mind”). The sculpture combines Victorian crinoline construction with modern military fabrics, and is based on ideas of rotational therapy for mental illness, which date back to Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia of 1801. The Archives and Museum collection contains a model centrifuge, seemingly made in Bethlem’s workshop at a later date and for unknown reasons. The Noosphere even offers visitors a chance to experience the spinning chair, perhaps providing a new visual perspective on the world beyond it.

Bedlam runs until 21 October at the Old Vic Tunnels, Station Approach Road, London SE1 8SW. Book your free tickets online here.


Getting into Georgian Bethlem 3

In previous posts we described the restrictions placed on admissions to Bethlem Hospital, and to its ‘incurable’ ward, in the eighteenth century, and told the first of two stories of attempts made to gain admission for a patient. The second concerns Sarah Lufkin of Little Bentley near Manningtree, Essex, who came into the Hospital on 16 February 1782, and was discharged uncured on 15 February of the following year, in strict accordance with the previously-described rules governing admission and discharge. Mrs Lufkin was considered a ‘fit Object’ for transfer to Bethlem’s ‘incurable’ ward, but had to go on the waiting list for a vacancy. It took seven years for her to be offered a place, and a letter written to the Hospital by Sarah’s son John Lufkin is preserved in the archives.

‘My Brothers, Sisters and myself have Deliberated on the matter,’ John wrote, ‘and although her who has been one of the tenderest Mothers still continue in a state of Insanity, I leve [sic] you to judge from your own feelings if it would not be a heard, very heard work for us to part from her and perhaps never to see her more.’ This was no exaggeration on John’s part. Little Bentley was at least two days’ coach journey away from London in the eighteenth century, and the fare was not cheap.

By 1790 Sarah Lufkin’s children had been seven years without Bethlem’s assistance in caring for her. ‘Ever since she left London she has been in a very Creditable Famaly [sic] where she is treated with the greatest kindness and has every Indulgence a person in her Situation can have, and where we can see her as often as we please as the Distance is only half a mile from our own Famaly.’ What would they do, then, with Bethlem’s renewed offer of help?

‘Although it is a very heavy Expence’, John Lufkin continued, ‘we hope with the Blessing of God to be able to support her till it shall please the Lord to release her from her heavy affliction, for can we do two [sic] much for a good Parent’? That John Lufkin’s filial devotion was shot through with practicality is evidenced by the next (and effectively last) line of his letter: ‘Sir, if we omit this opportunity and if at a futer [sic] time any thing unforeseen should happen so that we find the Expence more than we are able to support, could she then at a Vacancy be admitted’? No record survives of the answer given by the Hospital, but we may surmise that, if that it stuck by its rules, the answer would probably have been ‘No’.

Getting into Georgian Bethlem 2

Correspondence between two eighteenth century solicitors, currently being edited for publication by the Sussex Record Society, provides an unexpected insight into how the rules of admission to Bethlem Hospital (described in an earlier post) functioned in practice at that time. We are grateful to the editor of these letters for drawing our attention to this example, and for permission to cite it here.

On 12 November 1745, James Collier of Hastings wrote to John Collier ‘in relation to the unhappy affair of Mary Cousens, whom my uncle and I though a proper person’ for admission to Bethlem.

‘I shall be able I beleive [sic] to have some respite in regard to her removal, and when the committee are known, shall endeavour to get her minuted down for the ward of the incurables which depends principally upon the report of Dr Monro; and I am glad to find that our case, viz. a raving madness, is a circumstance that particularly induces the committee to send such poor people there.’

In seeking a place for Mary Cousens at Bethlem, Mr Collier was acting as a professional agent of the Hastings authorities legally and financially responsible for the care of all ‘pauper lunatics’ resident within their parish boundaries. His communications with Bethlem’s Physician, Dr Monro, seem to have been conducted via a third party. At any rate, he had been poorly advised. As noted in the previous post in this series, in the ordinary course of events patients were not admitted directly to the ‘incurable’ department, and people judged ‘incurable’ would not be admitted to the Hospital in the first place.

While he hoped for a Bethlem admission for Mary, James Collier did not put all his eggs in one basket. ‘By next post, I shall be able to acquaint you with certainty what will be done as to Guy’s hospital,’ his letter to John continues. ‘They never suffer anybody to enter there, who has once been in bedlam, and I am afraid private madhouses will be attended with great expence.’

How did matters turn out? From a second letter, written by James Collier to John nine days later, it appears that Mary lived under Bethlem’s roof while being assessed for admission, but was not in the event admitted. ‘Mary Cousens is not as yet removed out of Bethlem hospitall [sic], but it is impossible to get her continued there’, he writes. ‘Mr Alnright of Lambeth marsh will take her for one month upon trial for 8sh per week, but if her distemper is such as to require a more than ordinary attendance, he will have more.’ With an eye to parish finances, Mr Collier would have preferred Bethlem to relent, an outcome for which he continued to hope against hope. ‘I don’t despair at present of getting her minuted down in the list of persons who are to supply the vacancys in the ward of incurables.’ In the event, however, Mary Cousens’ name does not appear in any of the Hospital’s admission registers, incurable or otherwise. Where she went, we cannot say.

Getting into Georgian Bethlem 1

The restrictions on admission to and discharge from Bethlem Hospital in the eighteenth century often come as a surprise to first-time researchers. (So, incidentally, does the language in which these restrictions were expressed). ‘Mopes, Persons afflicted with the Palsy, or subject to Convulsive or Epileptic Fits, or such as are become weak through Age or long Illness are not proper Objects of this Charity,’ according to the Hospital’s printed admission regulations.

In other words, the Georgian Hospital wished to focus its therapeutic efforts on those patients it regarded as most amenable to recovery, and commonly discharged uncured those who had not recovered within a year of admission. For example, 60% of patients admitted between 1694 and 1718 stayed no longer than twelve months, and a further 16% stayed no longer than twenty-four.

To ameliorate the hardship sometimes caused by discharging patients uncured, the Hospital opened a new ward in the 1720s in which ‘incurable’ patients could remain. Those still unwell twelve months after admission were assessed as to whether they were ‘fit’ and ‘proper Objects’ for this ‘Charity’. Space in this ward was at a premium, however. The majority of uncured patients were judged ‘unfit’ upon discharge, and even the patients considered ‘fit Objects’ for transfer had to wait until a vacancy became available on the ‘incurable’ ward.

But here’s the thing: patients could not be admitted to the ‘incurable’ department directly; they arrived there only by internal transfer. So those considered incurable at the outset were not admitted at all. Here we see Georgian Bethlem striving hard to avoid becoming in reality what it was in uninformed popular imagination: a warehouse of human misery. Its primary strategy was to enforce its published strictures on entry. Admission petitions ‘will be laid before the Committee… who…will make an Order as soon as there is a Vacancy, for the Patient to be brought to be Viewed as Examined by them and the Physician, and to be then admitted, if [and only if] a proper Object’.

The published histories of the Hospital often turn attention to its famous (or infamous) patients. But in blog posts to follow, the Archivist will describe attempts to find places in Bethlem’s ‘incurable’ ward for two ‘ordinary’ people of the eighteenth century…attempts which, as we will see, soon ran into difficulty.

'New Bedlam in Moorfields' in newbed

Georgian Bethlem, in Moorfields

Nineteenth Century Society: Women, Madness and Marriage 1

This short series looks at the very different experiences of several of Victorian Bethlem’s female patients regarding marriage. The diversity of these reminds us of how problematic it can be to make general assumptions about social expectations in the nineteenth century, despite the fact that some cases do indicate elements of the stereotypes commonly indicated by many feminist histories.

What might be of particular interest in an era in which online dating has received regular attention – both positive and negative – is those references found in the Bethlem casebooks to matrimonial agencies. For single women well past the usual marrying age, such as Mary Ann Swann, who was admitted to Bethlem in July 1895 as a voluntary boarder, social expectations could be difficult to deal with. Young people were expected to suffer from insanity following “love disappointments,” yet in fifty-year-old Swann’s case, her attitudes to marriage were seen as evidence of her mental illness. Mary Ann held the delusion “that she is persecuted by her sisters in order that they may keep her money … She is also erotic & desires to marry some man who will protect her from her sisters & brothers.” While her desire to marry in order to escape her perceived persecution could be regarded as quite a rational response to something she felt was very real, Mary Ann’s persistent desire to marry was instead regarded in Bethlem as a further delusion, related to her “erotic” nature: inappropriate behaviour in someone regarded as a confirmed spinster.

What was most problematic was Swann’s use of matrimonial agencies to effect her object: the Commissioners in Lunacy clearly regarded this as a dubious means of finding a suitor. After she was discharged well, in September 1895, Commissioner Mr Frene paid a visit to the Hospital, presumably instigated by the patient’s relatives, “to enquire how it was that this patient was at large as she was doing most extraordinary things & was shortly to be married to a man whom she had got to know through the Matrimonial News.” The Bethlem medical officers promptly arranged for Swann’s re-certification: presumably suspicion of such dating agencies was widespread. Mary Ann herself regarded her re-admission as a conspiracy on the part of her relatives, claiming that there was nothing extraordinary in her conduct. Yet, as Bethlem superintendent George Savage pointed out in his published writings, in the frequent absence of visible physical signs and symptoms the presence or absence of insanity had often to be determined by behaviour, regardless of the patient’s protestations. In the event, Mary Swann was discharged well after three months as a Bethlem patient.

Visit Bethlem at Open House London on 18 September

One of many London buildings not usually accessible to the public is the Victorian Bethlem Hospital at the Imperial War Museum. Opened in 1815, when Bethlem was moved from its crumbling former premises at Moorfields, the Hospital was located on this site until 1930, when it moved to its present location in Beckenham. Although the conversion of the building to the Imperial War Museum, established in 1920 and opened on this site in 1936, as well as extensive bomb damage in the Second World War (a total of 41 incidents) means that much of the building’s original fabric has been altered, the facade is still distinctly recognisable, while the pathways and walls in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, formerly the Hospital grounds and airing courts, still follow the plans of nineteenth century Bethlem.

Most of the former Hospital rooms now form the “behind the scenes” areas of the Imperial War Museum, with the public galleries located in what was originally a central garden. Some of the most distinctive Hospital locations, however, will be open for visitors on Saturday 18 September only, as part of Open House London weekend: the Dome and the Boardroom. Smirke’s Dome, added to the Hospital during improvements carried out between 1838 and 1846, was one of the most distinctive features of the nineteenth century building: the patient-edited Hospital magazine, begun in 1889, was titled Under the Dome. The Dome contained Bethlem’s chapel, pictured below. More recently, after restoration following an arson attack in 1968, the Dome housed the Imperial War Museum’s Reading Room (from May 2010, this was moved to the new Explore History Centre). The guided tour, led by archivists from the Imperial War Museum, will also take in the Boardroom – the only room in the building still used for its original purposes, having formerly served as Boardroom for Bethlem’s Governors. The room currently contains a collection of artworks by William Orpen.

Dome Chapel

Tours take place on the hour from 11am, with the last tour starting at 5pm. Staff from the Imperial War Museum and Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum will be on hand to provide information and answer questions, and information from the Bethlem Archives will be on display in the Dome. Like all Open House events, tours will be free of charge. Spaces are limited (max 15 per tour), so please book in advance to avoid disappointment. Booking will open on Saturday 11 September at the Imperial War Museum Information Desk, in the ground floor display area.

To find out more about Open House London and the Imperial War Museum visit:

To explore nineteenth century Bethlem online, visit our interactive guide:

Bedlam at the Globe Theatre

The Archives & Museum was recently visited by the cast of the forthcoming production at Shakespeare’s Globe, Bedlam. Playwright, Nell Leyshon, covered her own visit in an article in The Evening Standard (read it here): interestingly her conclusions bore remarkable similarity to those of the Illustrated London News correspondent who visited Bethlem in 1860. Remarking on what he saw as evident progress in the Hospital since the eighteenth century, this could do little to fill “the vast abyss of human mental misery.”

We should remember that the progress remarked on in 1860 reflected much wider changes – in medical treatment (with the declining popularity of bleeding and purging as a standard response to both physical and mental disease), and the growth of the county asylum system, and an increasingly bureaucratic and professionalised mental health field. For some, however, seemingly outdated treatments continued popular: in 1860, one 38 year old housewife at Bethlem demanded to be cupped and bled “as the only means to relieve the distress of her head.” The medical officers did not comply with her requests.

Yet, it seems fitting that Leyshon’s play reflects the use of the word ‘Bedlam’ in the Globe’s heyday. In the 1600s, the term entered popular parlance as a general term for insanity, chaos or riotousness, as well as referring specifically to the Hospital and its former inmates. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar disguises himself as a “Tom o’ Bedlam,” a common term to refer to former inmates who might subsequently become wandering vagrants, while the Hospital itself appeared in the early Jacobean satire, Northward Ho, written by Thomas Dekker and John Webster. Such plays tend to provide romanticised or exaggerated views of asylums and the mad, for dramatic effect, humour, social commentary or political allegory. They provide better insights into the fears and obsessions at large in the world outside the hospital, than they do about conditions that actually obtained inside it.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Bedlam, by Nell Leyshon, runs from 5 September to 1 October at Shakespeare’s Globe, complemented by an art exhibition previously on show at the Bethlem Gallery – Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists.