Posts Tagged 'victorian'

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:


Life in a Victorian Asylum 2: Clerks and Governesses

While certainly connected to moral treatment, improvements at Bethlem were presumably also related to the changing patient profile: throughout the nineteenth century the Hospital became increasingly middle class – by the 1860s, the majority of patients tended to come from lower middle and “educated” working class backgrounds. As Hood lamented in 1854, “The records of all Asylums show how liable are clergymen, authors, artists, governesses, professors and similar persons to be attacked by this terrible calamity. None are more subject to this visitation, none are less able in a pecuniary point of view, to struggle through the trial of such an affliction, yet none are less cared for by the many charitable institutions of our country.” This changing patient profile is indicated in the admissions: 10% of male admissions to Bethlem in 1845-55 were clerks (compared to just 0.01% of the population), while 7% of female admissions were governesses or school mistresses (again, just 0.01% of all women were governesses).

In reflection of this changing class of patient, the Hospital’s wards increasingly came to resemble the Victorian domestic ideal: as the Illustrated London News put it, “that which was once a prison-cell has now become a cheery, domestic room,” while Freeman’s Journal later described photographs of the late nineteenth century hospital as “luxurious” and of “hotel-like magnificence.” This was in line with similar changes described at St Luke’s by Charles Dickens, in his article A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree. Nonetheless, most contemporary observers were aware that these changes might be little consolation for many patients. As the correspondent from the Illustrated London News concluded: “I thought of the luxuries and the comforts, the plants and the pet animals, the books and the periodicals, the billiard and the ball room, the skill and tenderness of the physician; but all these, to my mind, would not fill up the vast abyss of human mental misery yawning beneath the lofty dome in St George’s fields…”

female ward

Life in a Victorian Asylum 1

Following investigation and subsequent reform in the early half of the nineteenth century (1815 and 1852), Bethlem Hospital increasingly became a very domestic environment, as pictured in the Illustrated London News in 1860. The accompanying article attributed the changes in the Hospital entirely to Bethlem’s new “skilful and benevolent” resident-physician, W. Charles Hood, appointed in 1853; however, the published annual reports show that a large number of changes had already been made under the previous charge of Sir Alexander Morison and Edward T. Monro, the visiting physicians. In 1845, they reported that “much attention has been paid to the amusements of the patients during the past year. The library, billiard and bagatelle rooms are very generally occupied on the male side by the better classes, and much interest excited by books, cards and games.”

These additions to activities in the Hospital, and improvements in the therapeutic environment, were continued by Hood, who adhered strongly to the twin ideals of moral treatment (cure through re-education, with a clear emphasis on environmental and occupational, rather than strictly medical, therapies) and non-restraint (complete abandonment of any type of mechanical restraint, including straps, straight-waistcoats etc. Seclusion, however, was permitted).

male ward

Hallucinations and Delusions 2: “Annoyed at Night by Telephones”

Many delusions can be regarded as an attempt by patients to explain the odd sensations and hallucinations caused by their illness. From the industrial revolution on, rapid technological change seemed to many to account for the symptoms of their illness. Modern psychiatrists might be very familiar with the idea of the control of the body by a machine, but Mike Jay has suggested this was unusual prior to the “Air Loom” of James Tilly Matthews, admitted to Bethlem in 1797. In late nineteenth century Bethlem, the most common apparatuses of control suggested were wires and telephones.

While electrical wires had been used for experimental purposes by eighteenth century scientists, it was only in the late nineteenth century that they came into more common use, as indicated by the introduction of regulations for the installation of electrical wiring in England and Wales in 1881. Widespread use of the electric telegraph for the transmission of messages meant that the presence of wires might seem a likely explanation for hallucinations of hearing. Wiring in institutions might serve a practical purpose – in 1884, George Savage reported the trial of electric lighting to the Medico-Psychological Association. It might also be therapeutic: Galvanism, the application of electrical currents, was still in common use as one treatment for a variety of illnesses, including insanity and “nervous” illnesses, such as neuralgia. When John Jacoby declared in 1886 that the Doctor had put telephones and telegraphs on his bed, his delusions may in fact have had born reference to previous treatments he had undergone.

Following its invention in 1876, many patients connected the disembodied voices of the telephone with both their hallucinations, and the electrical control of the telegraph. Joseph Haskill was “annoyed at night by telephones and electronic arrangements,” while Annie Payne thought that her doctor “attendend her professionally through the telephone.” Moreover, the adoption of such explanations by patients indicates the intense interest provoked by such progressive seeming inventions; many patients, like Annie, adopted their ideas despite the fact that “there is no telephone in the house.”

Further Reading: The Air Loom Gang Mike Jay, 2003.