Posts Tagged 'Geoffrey O’Donoghue'

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.


In the Frame for March 2012

This month for In the Frame, our Friends Secretary has chosen to highlight an anonymous sketch, which forms part of the lantern slide collection put together in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Bethlem Chaplain, Geoffrey O’Donoghue. She writes:

“While researching my PhD, I’ve recently been reading through early copies of the Bethlem magazine, Under the Dome, and uncovered some interesting background about a sketch that has long interested me. The drawing, used by O’Donoghue in his lectures on the history of the Hospital, depicts the distinctive, dome-topped St George’s Fields building as a birdcage. The image is double-edged. One obvious interpretation is its representation of the loss of freedom for certified patients (patients are depicted inside the cage while the staff, one of whom holds a large key, are outside). In addition, however, the birdcage became a widely-used symbol of asylum life in the period. Many hospitals, including Bethlem, kept birdcages on wards, representing the keen interest many Victorian psychiatrists held in the importance of domestic life to therapeutics. The asylum was intended to provide a sanctuary that, nonetheless, was reminiscent of home, and the birdcage was both decorative and provided “natural” companionship through domestic pets; the parrot on male ward 3 received a veritable plethora of mentions in Under the Dome until its sad obituary in September 1895.

“Since I first encountered this image a few years ago, I’ve remained interested in the variety of associations within it, as well as its potentially subversive nature. What surprised me in my recent discovery was to learn that the artist of the sketch was female. The vast majority of asylum art, poetry and other artefacts of the period retained by (male) doctors was created by male patients, making this sketch by “Kentish Scribbler” (the artist’s pseudonym) unusual to say the least. Two additional points are also of interest, and might suggest some re-evaluation of asylum life in this period. O’Donoghue describes the sketch as having been drawn “when the artist was a patient”, which must have been in the mid-1870s given the medical officers she depicts. Within the birdcage are “are the figures of the artist, and other well-known patients of the period.” The artist herself is presumably the female bird depicted in one of the circular windows of the dome: most of the other “well-known patients” are, however, male, which puts a question mark over the strict segregation of the sexes we often assume in this period. What’s more, Kentish Scribbler gave the sketch to O’Donoghue more than twenty years after its completion, at which time she was apparently no longer a patient. Nonetheless, her association with the Hospital was ongoing: she began contributing puzzles and poems to Under the Dome in its first printed issue in 1893, and appeared in every issue until her sudden death in May 1902 (when a short obituary, retaining her pseudonym, was printed). Having depicted the Hospital as a cage in the 1870s, why did Kentish Scribbler remain associated with it into the twentieth century? Did she regularly visit, or even work in the 1890s Hospital? It seems the more I learn about this sketch, the more intriguing it becomes…”

Kentish Scribbler sketch

The four staff members on the outside of the bird-cage are (clockwise from top-left): Mr Haydon (Steward 1853 – 89), Rev. Vaughan (Chaplain 1865 – 91), Dr Williams (Superintendent 1865 – 78), Dr Savage (Assistant Medical Officer 1872 – 78)

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)