Posts Tagged 'Bishopsgate site'

The Bedlam Bones: Excavation, History and Myth

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that we’ve long been pointing out the holes in stories claiming the skeletons unearthed at Bishopsgate as part of the Crossrail project were former patients of the Hospital. We even drew attention to the efforts of turn-of-the-twentieth-century chaplain, Edward Geoffrey O’Donoghue, to trace any references to the first Bethlem Hospital in local parish registers, which included the surprising revelation that “old Bedlam” (as he put it) “was not without its amusements, for on July 25th 1618, the burial is recorded of William Marshall, who died suddenly in the Bowling Alley in Bedlam.”1

Yet the ‘Bedlam Bones’ tag seems to have caught the attention of the media, and is now apparently well nigh unshakeable. This coming Saturday, however, visitors to the Museum will be able to hear the Bethlem Archivist explain the real history of the “New Churchyard by Bethlem”. The free talk starts at 2pm, and visitors will also be able to see a new exhibition in the space: Back From Holiday. In the last few years, many of our paintings have been out on loan around the world. This display features some of these temporary absentees, now back home in Beckenham, including work by Vaslav Nijinsky, Jonathan Martin, Richard Dadd and Louis Wain.

Other events coming up will focus on some of the works recently returned to the Museum. On 2 November, a free talk on James Tilly Matthews explores his sketch of the “Air Loom Gang” that he believed were persecuting him, while December’s Saturday talk (on 7 December) will focus on Nijinsky, whose drawing A Mask, is on display. For full details of upcoming events, visit our website: or join the mailing list.

 photo Masksmallc1919b_zpsa8fbd3a9.jpg

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


Location, Location 1

Here is the first of six posts concerning the rationale behind the location of the hospitals for which the Archives & Museum holds records: Bethlem, the Maudsley and Warlingham Park Hospitals.
“The actual site” upon which Bethlem Hospital was originally founded, “now buried beneath the concrete horrors of Liverpool Street railway station, was never a very large one”, according to the medieval historian Nicholas Vincent, and its founders “would no doubt have been surprised to learn of the subsequent fate of their institution, intended in origin not as a mad-house but as…part of a wider movement in which the cathedral church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and its bishops sought land, alms and hospitality in western Europe”.1 Its location was not chosen with its later function as a hospital in mind, but instead was governed by the landholdings of Simon fitz Mary, sheriff of London. In 1247 he granted all the property which he held in the parish of St Botolph outside Bishopsgate to the visiting bishop of Bethlehem, “to found there a priory under the obedience of the church of Bethlehem, for the reception of the poor and of the bishop, canons, brothers and representatives of Bethlehem whenever they should choose to visit England”.2 By 1403, however, this religious community (which had been small from the outset, and by then was so tiny as to be practically unrecognisable as such) was playing host not to paupers or visitors but rather to the unwell, specifically “six insane men and three others who were sick”, according to the Porter’s visitation report of that year. In short, Bethlem’s location – like its transition from monastic house to hospital (in the medieval sense of that word, to which ‘almshouse’ is probably the nearest equivalent in meaning) – was “the product of pure chance”.3
Nevertheless, it turned out to be a felicitous one, at least for the majority of the 400 plus years the hospital stayed there. “It was…well-placed…beside the highway which linked the City with the Great North Road and ran on southwards to London Bridge…for the original purpose of offering a base and accommodation for members of the Order of Bethlem”, according to the hospital’s published history, as well as being “a good site for a hospital, as alms could be sought from passers-by” and “quite substantial sums to the income of the Hospital” could be solicited from intending visitors.4 On the downside, the hospital was “built over a regularly blocked common sewer”, and by 1674 it had become, in the words of its own Governors, “very old weake and ruinous, and too small and streight for keeping the greater number of Lunatikes as are therein at present”.5 Eventually these drawbacks precipitated a move away from the land originally given to the bishop of Bethlehem by Simon fitz Mary in hopes of ensuring “prayers for the sake of his own soul” (as well as currying favour with the King, a friend of the bishop).6 Yet, as its subsequent history would show, with this relocation Bethlem did not move far from the centre of the English imagination.


1 Nicholas Vincent, ‘Goffredo de Prefetti and the Church of Bethlehem in England’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 49, no. 2 (April 1998), pp. 213, 228.
2ibid., p. 224.
3 Jonathan Andrews et al, The History of Bethlem (Routledge, 1997), p. 80-82.
4ibid., p. 36.
5ibid., pp. 206, 233.
6 Nicholas Vincent, ‘Goffredo de Prefetti and the Church of Bethlehem in England’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 49, no. 2 (April 1998), pp. 224-225.