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Updated on September 30, 2012


Bedlam - " a place of uproar and confusion."

This was the derogatory name given to The Priory of St. Mary of Bethlehem, a hospital opened in London in 1247, run by the brothers and sisters of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem. Other names given to it over the years are Bethlem and Bethlehem, but mostly Bedlam was the name that stuck.

It was first located at Bishopsgate in central London where Liverpool Street Station is now situated. The brothers and sisters of the order gave succour and comfort to the poor and needy and it was eventually given Royal Status when it was taken over by the Crown, in 1357. It was then that the hospital started to take patients who were mentally ill.

From Hogarth's 'A rakes progress'


Early Days

In those early days, the hospital was run by a warden, called a Keeper, and his assistants. Medical treatment was non - existent and the patients were restrained, the dangerous ones being manacled and chained to the walls or floor, where they had their treatment - whipping and beating. Hygeine was also non - existent with huge pits being dug for the human waste. The inmates lived in disgusting conditions on bare stone floors, with stone walls, no heating and sometimes no windows, as at one time it was thought that the "disagreeable effluvias" had to be released. The noise from the constant hysterical screaming, bellowing and crying, the whippings and the bone crunching blows, was said to be enough to drive anyone mad.

New Premises

For over two hundred years this was the way that Bedlam was managed, with no improvement in the way the mentally ill were treated, and the buildings being allowed to fall into disrepair. When it was so squalid and almost falling down, something had to be done. In 1675 the hospital was moved outside the city limits to Moorfields, now Finsbury Circus. A new hospital had been built to accommodate the patients and the entrance gates were sculpted with half naked, raving figures to welcome the patients as they arrived. The figures depicted the two forms of madness, Raving and Melancholy. The hospital became a tourist attraction and featured in guide books.

In 1700 the premises were divided into two wards. They were labelled 'Curable' and 'Uncurable.' It was then opened to the public who, for a penny, could see the patients in their cells and laugh at their antics. It was recorded that 96000 people visited in 1815. Also in this year the hospital was again moved, this time to St. George's fields in Southwark.

Final Move

There was a gradual improvement in the way that patients were treated over the next hundred years: they were no longer called lunatics and the different sexes were allowed to mix in the evenings. They could dance together in the great ballroom, and could attend chapel. A library was also opened and it was well used.

In 1930 the hospital was moved to its final location, an outer suburb of London near Beckenham and Eden Park. The St. George's buildings were sold to Lord Rothemere who presented them to the London County Council. The main parts of the buildings now house the Imperial War Museum.

Bethlehem hospital now has its own museum which is open to the public on weekdays. The museum displays items from the hospital's art collection, specialising in the work of artists who have suffered from mental health problems.Other exhibits include the pair of statues known as Raving and Melancholy Madness from the gates of the 17th century Bethlem Hospital.

Bethlehem Royal Hospital is now part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. They provide the most extensive portfolio of mental health services in the United Kingdom, and they are world leaders in research, working in partnership with the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London.

Bethlehem Royal Hospital


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    • scarytaff profile imageAUTHOR

      Derek James 

      7 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks for the comment, Amanda. It was a terrible place to be in, and he was lucky.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      7 years ago from UK

      I believe the artist Richard Dadd was at Bedlam for a while, before being moved to Broadmoor. He was well treated there, and given paints and canvases so that he could continue painting. Obviously he was one of the lucky ones!

    • scarytaff profile imageAUTHOR

      Derek James 

      7 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks for your comments, hello,hello. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      7 years ago from London, UK

      That is a fascinating article about something we don't think about it neither mental illness nor the hospital. I also never knew where the word 'Bedlam'originated from. I really loved reading it. Thank you.

    • scarytaff profile imageAUTHOR

      Derek James 

      7 years ago from South Wales

      Yes, indeed. Cruelty seemed to be accepted as normal behaviour in those dark days.

    • Gaizy profile image


      7 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

      Interesting stuff - (I was once a Psychiatric Nurse)It's amazing how much things have changed (for the better) since those dark days.


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