Posts Tagged 'dome chapel'

Under the Dome: Notes on the Chapel

The recent Open House London weekend saw us once more ‘under the dome’ at the Imperial War Museum, where we welcomed a record 142 visitors on seven very crowded tours of the former dome chapel (later museum reading room) and board room. There was also a rare opportunity to see some of the original hospital fittings – a small amount of office space still contains the distinctive ceilings and windows of Victorian Bethlem, most of which were destroyed during the Blitz.

Open House 2011 3

Visitors who have heard about the history of the Chapel, and the oft-mentioned partition dividing male and female patients, might be interested in the following extract from the Hospital magazine, Under the Dome, written by the Chaplain in 1895:

“But what was this partition, of which officials and attendants know nothing? There was nothing for it but to interview the oldest inhabitants on both sides, and some very interesting reminiscences I gathered from their lips. Some of our friends can remember the building of the dome (services were then held at the schools), and the use of part of the hospital as a Broadmoor.

“But as to the partition, which has disappeared from these notes as completely as from the chapel, we have still with us three or four who remember it running from the grating under the gallery, down the centre aisle, till it came within a foot or so of the communion rails. It stood so high, that the ladies could never see over it; and indeed, when it was removed for some Sundays many of the gentlemen refused to go to church, on the ground that their wall of protection had been taken away, and they didn’t know what might happen to them now! In those days we had two classes of patients, and accordingly on each side of the partition there were two divisions of men and women. How should we have managed one of our surpliced processions with such prison-like arrangements?”

The partition must have been removed before the early 1880s, when Superintendent R. Percy Smith joined the Hospital as Assistant Physician, a fact which might surprise anyone who assumes the segregation of the sexes to have been a feature of late Victorian life.

Open House 2011 2BedlamFemaleCorridor

Two photos, taken a hundred years apart:

the distinctive ridged ceiling can be seen in both images.


Victorian Bedlam at the Imperial War Museum

Here are the final details for our involvement in the Imperial War Museum’s event for Open House London on Saturday September 17. These free tours of parts of the Imperial War Museum usually only accessible to staff will open up Victorian Bethlem. The building housed the Bethlem Royal Hospital from 1815 until 1930

General access with tours on the hour on museum history, with admission to the Dome (formerly the Reading Room and Hospital Chapel) and the Board Room (the only room in the building still used for its original purpose). Staff from Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive and Museum will be present, with historical casebook material and photographs of 19th century Bedlam.

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ, tube: Waterloo/Lambeth North

Satursday 17 September, 10am-6pm. Admission free. Tours on the hour, starting at 11am, with the last tour beginning at 5pm. Pre-book tours by email (stating preferred time) to or sign-up on the day at the info desk. Tours will start from the info desk.


Back Under the Dome

Members of the Archives & Museum’s staff recently returned to the Imperial War Museum’s Dome, formerly Bethlem Hospital’s chapel, to see a site-specific production on particular moments in the history of the building which had been devised and performed by students at London’s famous Brit School for Performing Arts and Technology. A large part of the students’ inspiration had come from material available on the Archives & Museum’s website. Images from the collection of lantern slides formerly used by Geoffrey O’Donoghue, Hospital chaplain from 1892 to 1930, and stories of real Victorian-era patients gleaned from its historic casebooks were weaved into the production. One young actor took the guise of Revd. O’Donoghue leading a chapel service in 1844 with remarkable aplomb, while four others played the part of named patients with seriousness and dignity.

It may seem churlish to point out that neither O’Donoghue nor any of the patients would have been born in the chosen date of 1844, that the hymn that was sung as part of the ‘service’ was only written some twenty years later, and that the tune to which it was set was composed in the 1980s. None of these facts spoilt the appreciation of the invited audience for the students’ efforts, notwithstanding the presence of at least one pedantic archivist within their midst. We understand that this is the first of several outputs of an innovative collaborative effort between the Brit School and the Imperial War Museum. We wish both parties every success in their joint endeavour, and will be keeping an eye out for the talented performers whose work we were privileged to see. As previously noted, and as advised in the most recent issue of our quarterly email newsletter, we expect to be back under the Dome in September to assist with the Museum’s 2011 Open House Weekend efforts. For further details, keep an eye on this blog, and to subscribe to our newsletter, email your request to

Dome (2) Brit School

Photo by Ta’Kara Grant-Nguyen (The BRIT School)

Inside the Dome: Photographs

You might remember that, last September, the Imperial War Museum opened up the dome (formerly the chapel of Bethlem Hospital) for Open House weekend. We’re hoping the same event will go ahead this year. In the meantime, however, we were lucky enough to be back in the dome for an event at the beginning of April, and would like to share some of our photographs with those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to visit.

It was a gloriously sunny day, with plenty of light spilling through the high windows: the perfect conditions for viewing the bright, white room. The dome has required much restoration over the years, particularly after a devastating arson attack. However, it is still easy to picture the former uses of the room, from chapel to reading room, as you can see in the images below.


Inside the Dome, a set on Flickr.