Vic Keegan’s Lost London 47: Bedlam’s progress

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 47: Bedlam’s progress

Many years ago I worked in the City office of the Guardian newspaper in Salisbury House, between London Wall and the lovely garden of Finsbury Circus. I had no idea until decades later, when I looked at an old map, (see below) that it was the office was the site of the second Bedlam lunatic asylum.

A monumental building, which included parts of the original London Wall, it was designed by that amazing polymath Robert Hooke, whose only sin was to have been a contemporary of Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, who outsmarted him in fame though not in talent. 

The original Bedlam (or Bethlehem) Hospital, built in 1247, was around the corner in Bishopsgate where Liverpool Street Station is now located. It had gained a terrible reputation because of appalling living conditions and a dreadful practice whereby members of the public paid to see the inmates suffering. 

It was, however, the first institution of its kind in Britain – and possibly anywhere else – so it was at the start of a long learning curve. The management sought “people of quality” to visit as well as “the lower orders” in a kind of primitive business plan to generate compassion and increase donations. 

In the eighteenth century, according to some estimates, anything up to 90,000 Londoners a year paid a penny to visit the asylum and watch the antics of the inmates, who were often chained to a wall in their cells, as depicted by William Hogarth in A Rake’s Progress, in which the louche son of a rich merchant ends up in Bedlam. The satirist Jonathan Swift suggested that “as all the politicians were mad, they should recruit for Parliament from inside”.

Bedlam was moved to St Georges Fields in Southwark where it lasted until 1930 in  a building that was taken over a few years later in 1936 by the Imperial War Museum, which is still there.  Today, Bedlam exists in its fourth home as the Bethlem Royal Hospital and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust in Bromley, where it is a world leader in the treatment of mental illness.

Read previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London here.

Categories: Culture, Lost London

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