Posts Tagged 'Victorian Bedlam'

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.


Christmas at Bethlem

In a recent post, we highlighted a fact about admission to Bethlem Hospital in the eighteenth century which is not as well known as perhaps it should be: that admission was commonly for a period of no longer than twelve months. What was true of the Georgian and Regency Hospital in Moorfields also held good for the Victorian and Edwardian Hospital at Southwark. There were, however, always a few exceptions that proved the rule – people who stayed longer than twelve months – especially after the establishment of the Hospital’s incurable ward.

Each Christmas season, the Hospital had to tackle the question of how to sustain its patients in positive (perhaps even festive) mood. This question could be particularly acute in the case of those who faced more than one successive Christmas as inpatients. Its first strategy appears to have been to send convalescing patients home on temporary leave.

Emma Lane was admitted in May 1893 after having spent twenty years of savings in a matter of weeks on unneccesary food, baby clothes and theatre bookings. Her husband kept in close contact with the Hospital throughout her extended stay, at one stage writing ‘I am anxious to see her resume her old place, but fear she is not yet well enough’. Emma was granted temporary leave to spend time with her family a number of times, including at Christmas 1893 and 1894, but matters did not run smoothly, and on each occasion she was returned to the Hospital. Christmas 1893 seems to have been particularly stressful, the family’s report being that Emma had been ‘giving trouble’, Emma’s version of events being that she had ‘just bought a few things’. Emma was discharged uncured in January 1895; the story of her hospital stay may be read in Presumed Curable: An illustrated casebook of Victorian psychiatric patients in Bethlem Hospital by Colin Gale and Robert Howard (Wrightson Biomedical, 2003).

Of course, not everyone could be sent home for Christmas, and the Hospital’s second strategy to maintain seasonal morale seems to have been to bring Christmas to the majority of patients and staff that remained in residence throughout. The photograph below offers remarkable evidence of one attempt to do so. It shows a statue that stood in one of the Hospital’s galleries (shared ward space) dressed as St Nicholas for the Christmas season of 1907. To our contemporary gaze, the visual effect is unusual, even a little unsettling. Yet the intention must have been to lift the spirits, and we may hope that the display succeeded in doing so at the time. In any event, all the staff of the Archives & Museum wish the readers of this blog a very happy Christmas and safe and prosperous New Year.

Xmas 1907

Under the Dome: Open House London at the Imperial War Museum

The large green dome above the main façade of the Imperial War Museum has been one of the most distinctive features of the building since it was added to the Bethlem Royal Hospital during improvements completed in 1846. As part of Open House London last weekend, we ventured inside to see how much of nineteenth century Bethlem remained.

Now the dome is no longer the Imperial War Museum’s reading room (it has been transferred to the fully accessible new Explore History Centre), opportunities to visit are rare. However, 130 lucky visitors (and us!) made it up the three flights of stairs into the dome last Saturday, to hear about the history of the building and the Imperial War Museum from their Archive team, and browse some nineteenth century casebooks: records of patients who may well have attended services when the dome formed the Hospital’s chapel.

Evidence of the room’s former use (carefully restored following an arson attack in the 1960s) still remains, including the Ten Commandments displayed on the wall, above where the altar would have stood, and the gallery, which used to house the choir. The Hospital Chaplain was an important part of daily life at Bethlem; as well as providing religious and spiritual counsel for patients (and staff), he was also heavily involved in the programme of entertainments. Rev. Edward Geoffrey O’Donoghue (Chaplain from 1892 – 1930) organised fortnightly “Working Parties,” in which female patients were “encouraged to forget their own maladies in working for others.” He also wrote a history of the hospital, and gave regular lectures to staff and patients on the topic: over 700 lantern slides he used to illustrate his talks remain in the Archives, and can be accessed online. Why not go to our catalogue to see how much you can discover about life under the Dome?

Bethlem Hospital Chapel, c. 1900-1907

Photograph of interior of hospital chapel at St George’s Fields, decorated for a festival, with Rev Geoffrey O’Donoghue, chaplain (1892-1930)

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:

Chance Encounters in the Museum 3 – and temporary closure notice for next Monday, 5 July

Since writing last fortnight’s blog post about recent visitors to the museum from Norway and Austria, the Archivist has continued in reminiscing mood. One visit that stands out in his mind was made some years ago by Peruvian documentary film-makers interested in the visit made to Bethlem by the French socialist and proto-feminist thinker Flora Tristan in 1840. She signed Bethlem’s visitors’ book (now held in the Archives) and later wrote of her experiences in Promenades dans Londres (published in English translation under the title Flora Tristan’s London Journal 1840).

In it she makes the ostensibly unflattering observation that ‘it is generally accepted that England is the country with the greatest number of insane’. But an explanation is offered for this: England is, according to Tristan, ‘the country where free inquiry gives rise to the greatest number of religious and philosophical sects…[and] the more a people is inclined, by its religion and its philosophy, to resignation, the fewer madmen there are in its midst; whereas those peoples who by reason govern their religious beliefs and their conduct in life are those among whom one finds the greatest number of insane’ (London Journal, pp. 159-160).

Following in the footsteps of those Peruvian documentary makers, another film crew is coming (at short notice) to the Archives & Museum next Monday, 5 July. Please note that the Archives & Museum, which is ordinarily open to the public on weekdays between 9.30am and 4.30pm, will have to close at midday on this day to accommodate them.