The Horrors of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, London
TODAY’S BREW: Dutch Chocolate blend
This March Madness episode is dedicated to the victims of The Bethlem Royal Hospital.
This London asylum is the oldest in the world, opened in 1357, and has one of the most terrible histories of any asylum I have ever heard of. While we are familiar with the stories of terrible living conditions and treatment in mental asylums throughout history, what struck me hardest about this story is the cruelty that the entire community and even international visitors not only turned a cheek to, but applauded.
This hospital actually is the origin of the English word ‘bedlam,’ meaning confusion and noise. One man who lived in the area of the hospital attested to the “cryings, screechings, roarings, brawlings, shaking of chains, swearings, frettings, [and] chaffings to be heard from the outside.
The managers of the facility were known as Keepers, and were seemingly as frightening as they sound. One such Keeper, Helkiah Crooke, a member of the medical department of the royal household, took over in 1619, ousting the former for being “unskilful in the practice of medicine.” It could be assumed that he would then handle the medical inattentions to the patients, but no records were ever made of any medical needs of the patients. He himself referred to the patients as “the poore” or “prisoners.”
Crooke did not only ignore the medical needs of the patients, but did nothing to improve the conditions either. On a grander scale, the hospital itself went over 40 years without an inspection! One subsequent visit ordered the purchase by the Keeper of clothing and eating utensils, to give an idea of the animal-like conditions these people were kept in. A poorly funded government facility, the hospital relied heavily upon donations from the families of the residents and the community, which were in short supply. In 1598 Bethlehem was declared “not fitt for anye man to dwell in wch was left by the Keeper for that is so loathsomly filthely kept.” (We must remember, this was also in a time with very different standards of hygiene, where it was common to urinate in the street and defecate the fireplace.)
Built over a sewer, the overflow of waste actually blocked the entrance often. One wooden cistern in the back yard was the only wanter supply to the large facility, and water had to be carried in a bucket into the building, to provide water for the patients and for all cleaning purposes. There were pots in the rooms for the residents to use as toilets, but as they were generally left unattended to roam the hospital (and even the streets of the neighborhood, unclothed and filthy), the buckets usually ended up smeared and thrown at staff, passersyby out the window, and each other.
The disturbed were chained up to walls and posts like dogs. They slept on beds of straw only as the water supply did not allow for washing of linens. The rooms had exposed windows, leaving the patients in damp conditions at the mercy of all weather and utter darkness at night. The hospital itself was actually noted as “a crazy carcass with no wall still vertical,” offering only leaking, caved in roofs, uneven floors and buckling walls.
Under Cooke’s Keeping, the residents were not only filthy and unclothed, but malnourished to the point of starvation using a “lowering diet,” of intentionally slim portions of plain food only twice a day. It was meant to deplete and purge the madness out of the victims, while helping to conserve money. There were no fruit or vegetables to be had. Mostly bread, meat, oatmeal, butter, cheese and plenty of beer was the menu.
While all of this is terrible, the true horror was in the moneymaking scheme that kept it running at all. Originally, the hospital was open to the public in hopes that food would be brought to the inmates from the community. Quickly, money was charged, creating a sideshow where the public was invited to watch patients displayed in cages, laugh at them as they banged their heads repeatedly on the walls, and even to poke them with sticks and throw things at them.
Stereotypically, it would be assumed that this would be the pastime of children and unschooled lower class citizens. However this was a favorite visiting place of government officials, the wealthy and educated more than anyone. The surrounding community did participate in the terrible tours, but saw plenty of the inmates as they wandered the streets. Largely supported by the upper class, the sideshow even becoming part of London tours that also featured the Tower, London Bridge, and the zoo. It was referred to by the Governor and the wealthy as “the frisson of the freakshow.” It became a circus-like tourist attraction to humiliate the patients, extremely popular during holidays. It had its highest traffic during Easter and Christmas weeks, swarms of hundreds coming from all over to gawk at the poor, mistreated souls.
The wealthy and educated saw the patients as nearly being at fault. One such 18th century visitor used these words to describe the learning experience of the paid sideshow: “There is no better lesson to be taught us in any part of the globe than in this school of misery. Here we may see the mighty reasoners of the earth, below even the insects that crawl upon it; and from so humbling a sight we may learn to moderate our pride, and to keep those passions within bounds, which if too much indulged, would drive reason from her seat, and level us with the wretches of this unhappy mansion.”
In 1930 the hospital was moved to the suburbs, the grounds made into a park and the central part of the building moved to the Imperial War Museum.
In 1997 there was actually a plan for a 750th anniversary celebration of this dungeon. A sit in was held outside the Imperial War Museum supporting against the celebration. The psychiatric community called it a celebration of “a symbol for man’s inhumanity to man, for callousness and cruelty.”
I cannot possibly tell enough the horror that I felt reading about the hospital, how deep the government connections went, the contributions that literally the entire world made to torturing these people, some of which lived in these conditions for 25 years. The thought of the suffering of these disturbed people will never be forgotten by me.
Both of us were so moved by the story of Bethlem Royal Hospital we’ve each incorporated it into our books.