Posts Tagged 'Under the Dome'

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.

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


Location, Location 4

By the start of the twentieth century, “Bethlem was a respectable and neatly gardened enclave in the midst of poverty, overcrowding and traffic congestion”, according to its published history, albeit one with an old-fashioned layout, unsatisfactory sanitary arrangements and an expensive maintenance bill. In the 1920s the Hospital’s Governors concluded that “for a hospital for the educated middle classes Southwark was not an ideal location”, and began looking for an alternative.1 They duly found one, a 334 acre country house estate that straddled the boundary between Croydon and Beckenham, Kent that had remained unsold at auction in 1920. The land was obtained via a second exchange of the 999-year leasehold which was originally granted by the City of London in 1674 in respect of the Hospital’s Moorfields site, and transferred to Southwark in 1815. There a new hospital was built according to the ‘villa system’ pioneered on the Continent, with separate blocks for “administration, occupational therapy, refractory patients, convalescent patients, treatment and research, along with a nurses’ home, chapel, reception hospital, mortuary, workshops and a laundry”.2
In anticipation of the move, the hospital magazine Under the Dome (soon to be restyled Orchard Leaves) devoted space in several issues to depicting the new site in Elysian terms. In 1928, for example, it published an imaginary letter of a patient to his wife dated May 2000, which began:
“When I arrived here yesterday, I found that I was just in time to wash and dress for dinner… The fare here is pretty good, but the oysters were not quite up to the mark, and the butler had not iced the champagne in just that way, you know, Clara, in which one expects it to be. All went well during the evening, except that the only bath salts they had here consisted of Parma Violet, and you know how I have always used Rose at home… Each bed has its own wireless set, but I am asking for an extension from mine to be put in my own bathroom here, as I hate to miss anything.”
The perceived advantages of the Hospital’s new situation were, however, parodied by Samuel Beckett in his satirical novel, Murphy.
“The Magdalen Mental Mercyseat [Beckett’s fictional version of Bethlem] lay a little way out of town, ideally situated in its own grounds on the boundary of two counties. In order to die in the one sheriffalty rather than in the other some patients had merely to move up, or be moved up, a little in the bed. This sometimes proved a great convenience.”3
In the event, the fact that Bethlem’s grounds were bisected by the boundary between Beckenham (subsumed into the London Borough of Bromley in 1965) and Croydon proved an administrative headache in circumstances that required the attention of a coroner. At the time of the relocation, it also led to some purposeful lobbying of the Postmaster General on the part of Bethlem’s Governors, anxious to ensure that the Hospital was given a postal address in ‘respectable’ Beckenham rather than in Croydon. The Governors duly got their way, but it was not until the 1990s that the borough boundary was redrawn to take the entirety of the site into Bromley and in, terms of mental health service provision, the Hospital’s present links with Croydon are as strong as, if not stronger than, those it maintains with Bromley.
1 Jonathan Andrews et al, The History of Bethlem (London, 1997), pp. 546-547.
2ibid., pp. 549-550.
3 Samuel Beckett, Murphy (Clader, London, 1993), p. 90.

 photo aerialview_zps03888ccb.jpgAerial view of Bethlem in 1948

Billiards at Bethlem 2

Dr Jane Hamlett of Royal Holloway, University of London, continues her guest post, in association with the ESRC-funded At Home in the Institution project.
Following on from our previous post, we now consider what the game of billiards meant to patients.
As we saw, watching play allowed doctors to monitor behaviour. But the green baize tables were also very popular with patients.
In 1894, the Bethlem magazine Under the Dome published a lengthy article, “The Philosophy of Games”, that was probably written by a patient. The piece pointed out the special value of games like chess and billiards to patients who were too unwell to go outside.
But the value of billiards went beyond such practicalities.
The anonymous author went on: “these pastimes may be so utilised as to furnish a wholesome and absorbing interest, and therein, I imagine, lies their efficacy, as it is not sufficient that the mind should cease from its ordinary avocations; it must find something else to thoroughly attract its attention, and this I would say is more readily found when a man aims at the highest possible to him, and always endeavours to do his best.”
So games like billiards were thought not just to distract, but to offer a means of achievement. Playing demonstrated the right attitude to life, and the correct kind of masculine spirit and behaviour. As the anonymous author put it: “the philosophy of games seems to me to form part of the philosophy of life.”
Performing well at billiards was equated with masculinity. This was highlighted in a report on a 1908 tournament.  Language used to describe the game echoed that of heroic masculinity. The piece conjured up a chivalric vision of jousting knights, with cues “crossing swords”, opponents “unhorsed” and the winner donning a “victor’s helmet”.
Doctors and patients sometimes played together, and this could be a channel for communication.
William A., a forty-three year old patient and former book-keeper from Finchley, wrote to the superintendent Dr. Hyslop from his ward in 1900. Seeking an informal opinion on his return to sanity, A. requested “five minutes conversation, or a game at billiards.” The game clearly provided an informal setting, allowing doctors and patients to broach difficult subjects.
But perhaps the most powerful role of the game in the asylum was in allowing a patient to progress back to mental health.

Movingly, the writer of “Philosophy of Games” notes: “Many of you my friends and fellows “under the dome” will have seen a man, who had been reduced to dwell for weeks of months, or even years, in a dark dreamland world of grotesque emotional shadows and incoherent forcible-feeble ideas, brought once more to take an interest in life’s ordinary avocations by knocking balls about on an old billiard table.” And even if someone was not going to get better, “at least there is temporary illumination amidst the decay”.

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Billiards at Bethlem 1

Here is the first of two guest posts by Dr Jane Hamlett of Royal Holloway, University of London, produced in association with its ESRC-funded At Home in the Institution project.

As has been previously noted on the Bethlem blog, games such as billiards played an important part in the lives of Bethlem’s Victorian and Edwardian era patients. Here we take a look at closer look at Bethlem’s green baize tables in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Billiards was well established in Victorian Britain. By the later part of the century, the billiard room was a common feature of upper class homes. Billiard rooms and the games that were played there were particularly associated with the men of the house (although we do know that women sometimes joined in). Often decorated in dark colours, adorned with stags heads and even tiger skin rugs, these rooms conveyed elite masculinity.

This image, taken from a domestic advice manual published in 1910, shows an idealised version of the room in the art nouveau style of the early twentieth century.1

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Billiards were found in many asylums but were particularly popular in private establishments like Holloway Sanatorium and Ticehurst, and may have been viewed as especially suitable as they were an accepted upper class pursuit.

At Bethlem there were tables on some male wards, and there was also a billiard room.

In 1909, the hospital magazine Under the Dome noted that Arthur Ward has acquired a table of a very high specification: “This has been carefully levelled and there should be no excuse for missing the balls, provided they are round, since the illumination of the table is equivalent to nine hundred candle power.”

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Bethlem’s billiard room, shown here, wasn’t quite as lavish as some at other asylums. But it was carefully decorated. The image shows a rich carpet, highly polished mahogany furniture, and framed prints. A number of well-tended aspidistras are elevated on ornamental pedestals. A glass fronted bookcase at one end of the room, topped by a couple of busts, aligns it with the opulent libraries found in wealthy houses.

But while billiards made institutions seem more like high-end homes, the meaning of the game was transformed within the walls of the asylum.

Patients’ success at the game was often monitored at an institutional level. In 1896 (again, as previously noted), the magazine announced that: “In order to keep a permanent record of the “form” displayed by numerous billiard players in our small community, we propose to keep a quarterly return of all breaks of over 20 made on any of the hospital tables”.

At Bethlem and other private asylums, doctors took a keen interest in patients at play. The game required motivation, concentration, dexterity and some memory, so it is easy to see its practical value as an indicator of mental health. In some asylums, there are even quite lengthy comments on the game in patient case books. It could be a means of making sure that patients followed an established moral code, by refraining from cheating.

But what was the value of this sport for patients?

To be continued

1 Photograph of Billiard Room from copy of Mrs C.E. Humphry, The Book of the Home, vol.4 (1910), from author’s private collection, not to be reproduced without permission.

Biography and Psychology V: Henry Francis Harding (1826 – 1896)

In September 1896, the editor of Bethlem magazine Under the Dome had “a very serious loss” to report: the death of the un-official “Sub-Editor”, Henry Francis Harding, at the age of seventy. Harding had contributed regularly to the magazine since its foundation, compiling a regular column, Notes Apropos, (which related articles in the outside press to events in Bethlem and vice versa), writing a variety of articles on historical and other topics (signed X. or H.F.H.) and compiling the index to each annual bound volume.1 In addition, Harding received credit in publications going beyond the Hospital. When Theo Hyslop’s Mental Physiology was published in 1895, he thanked “his friend, Mr. H.F. HARDING, for revisal of the proof-sheet”.2

It would not be obvious from either of these sources that Henry Harding was,throughout this time, a patient at Bethlem, although Harding himself made no secret of this fact. Indeed, he often took it upon himself to remind others of the need to avoid the potential separation (at least to outsiders) between the official function of the hospital and its therapeutic one. For example, in a lengthy report of the opening of the new recreation hall in June 1896 by the Duke of Cambridge, Harding listed the many prestigious persons present, before concluding:

Last but not least (seeing that the raison d’être of the Recreation Hall and of the Hospital, generally, is the patients, and which, it should be added, is practically and in kindly form recognised by those governing, or otherwise controlling the inner life of the Hospital), we were pleased to see present a fair contingent of the said patients, with nurses and attendants..3

In one of his earlier columns, Harding commented that “we who write these notes are of the genus patient (species: “Voluntary”) – and very patient, if a somewhat lengthy abiding in Bethlem be taken – and should it not? – as evidence thereof.”.4 When he wrote these lines in 1893, Harding had indeed been at Bethlem for an unusually lengthy period, following his admission in December 1886. His casenotes state that the former Law Stationer (who had left work the previous March, feeling “overworked”, perhaps not surprising at the age of 60), came to Bethlem “because he felt his misery & agitation would make him lose control.” Nonetheless, he was never certified, and it is entirely possible that it was Harding’s personal situation, rather than his state of mind, that led to his lengthy stay. Elderly and un-married, Henry seems to have come to regard the Hospital as the family he never had, emphatically stating of Bethlem: “therein are we not a happy family! We are, we are…”.5

While it is obvious to see the benefit to the Hospital of such an enthusiastic advocate, Harding also reminds us that life within the Hospital was varied, and one person might have multiple roles. Henry Harding was not “just” a Bethlem patient, but also Sub-Editor, social campaigner, chronicler, companion and friend: someone who could legally have left Bethlem at any point, but chose not to. An unusually personal note in the usually factual Physician’s Weekly Report of 19 August 1896 records that “Mr H Harding VB has died of natural causes & his loss will be much felt.”

HF Harding1

Photograph of Henry Harding, c. 1886

1 “Mr H.F. Harding”, Under the Dome , vol. 5, no. 19 (Sept 1896)
2 Hyslop, T.B. Mental Physiology, London (1895)
3 Harding, H.F. “Opening of the Recreation Hall by H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge” Under the Dome, vol. 5. No. 18 (June 1896)
4 Harding, H.F. “Notes Apropos” Under the Dome, vol. 2, no. 8 (Dec 1893)
5 Harding, H.F. “Notes Apropos” Under the Dome, vol. 2, no. 7 (Sept 1893)