Deadly Ever After

The Horrors of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, London

TODAY’S BREW: Dutch Chocolate blend

by Julie

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.

Julie–Running Away
Kristen–The Fire Dancer


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32 thoughts on “The Horrors of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, London

  1. That was great, Julie! And the terrible thing was, that many of the ‘inmates’ weren’t even insane? Lots of poor and homeless people were placed in there as well as members of the upper classes who were “disappeared” for various, unscrupulous reasons. You should check out the history of Newgate Prison in London…that’ll make you hair curl too! Dave

  2. Yeah, maybe a ‘like’ isn’t the most appropriate reaction here. We just don’t appreciate how the poor lived in those days – massive accumulations of population with no drainage system or food hygiene standards. Even if you kept out of prison unless you had work you were compelled to forage for food: the Thames smelt so bad at one stage parliament had to be moved for fear of their health, yet there were shanty-type settlements along the river-shore because there was a living to be made from the river. Once the River Fleet, effectively an open sewer, ran through a part of the City. It had an evil reputation for smell and disease and everything, including bodies, was thrown into it.

    Prisons of all kinds were bad. You could be imprisoned for debt, and if you were truly poor with no way of paying, you were simply forgotten. In truth, the poor did not usually live very long, so there was a lively trade in cadavers from these resources.

    • Thank you, sir. The amount we take for granted is mind blowing, and to be reminded of how people lived and thought and treat one another in desperation is troubling. That this place was even considered for celebration is terrifying to me.

  3. Some of the real horrors mankind has faced leave fiction in the dust.

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  5. Rebecca Gaut on said:

    This indeed is a deplorable way to help the people that are classified as insane,however, it was also the only way that the rich felt they would not be harmed by them. Do you ever think that this type of treatment lead to the views on how we as a society look at mental illness?

    • It’s said that people who were not even mentally ill were committed to Bethlehem. I think if treated like an animal, eventually you will become one. I think the views that society has of the mentally ill as almost second class citizens absolutely erupted from this kind of treament. While these patients were treated as subhuman circus freaks, now we instead put them on TV shows to exploit their mental illnesses. OCD, eating disorders, hoarding, shchizophrenia; they have all seen their fair share of being used for entertainment value. While it is more and more acceptable to acknowledge needs for things like anxiety medications and depression meds, challenged people are still exactly that; challlenged in society. They can carry on life more acceptably now than then, but will never be given the same opportunities or treatment as “normal” people, due in part to deep seeded views like those of this time.

      Thanks for your comment, Rebecca.


  6. Warina Kinomoto on said:

    It’s been a while since you posted this, but I wanted to drop by and say that this is an excellent article, and it saddens me so much how bad mental patients were treated. Bethlem reminds me of a psychiatry hospital in Brazil that the patients lived under very bad conditions as well. Many of them didn’t have beds so they slept on hay beds, and because of that there were lots of insects. The water very often mixed with the open sewer, many patients weren’t even mad, they were single moms, alcoholics, paupers… Children was thrown in with adults, they had nothing to do, some were beaten. Just a really sad thing. And the ironic thing: it was consider one of the references for mental treatments. Fortunately, for this asylum, things got better after a big reformation in the 80’s and now it’s a very good hospital, and it treats its patients really well. Now they have a museum to remember its awful past and to let people know what patients went through.

    There is one room that is only filled with photographs from patients. There’s nothing written on this room, there is only the pictures. There is only this written on the door to this exhibition room that reminded me now of your post: “Before you grimace and feel nauseous towards the grotesque faces and bodies ruined by the asylums and by the hardships of life, you should know that inside out they speak of beauty, health, happiness, well being, and hope. Compare yourself to this people (yes, they are people! Members of the same species as you and me__homo sapiens__generated in human wombs) and discover that your occasional unhappiness is insignificant, and that your short lived sadness is brief , that your wrinkles are beautiful, and that the boring world you live is a paradise. Those unfortunates exist to remind you that your happiness is more real than you think. Sometimes, try to feel like them. You’re only one side of the story…” – Edson Brandão.

    Another thing that made me reflect as well was a letter written by a patient to her mother, that also shows us just how badly the patients suffered:

    “Barbacena, July 1979

    Love is acceptance. The distance will never be a separation, because for us, the ones who truly loves, there is no time, no space. And this love of long years will not be defeated by the hands of ingratitude. A greater force separated us physically, but it failed to reach our souls, because I can’t forget you for a minute, because I love you so much. If in certain moments I don’t cry it’s because my tears are too small to fit the size of the pain I feel. I always picture a little bit of you in me, you who gave me life and guide me to do good (I never forgot your words and advices). Before, I didn’t recognize peace is not found on the outside, in this hellish world, but it is found in our homes, in our families, and in the greater of all of this: you! While I think about you, my heart caressing you, I suffer because I experienced love with disbelief.

    Tomorrow will be yesterday inside my being, and yesterday and today won’t make a difference: [illegible] will be to live by the simple fact of living. And, since we were prepared do double destination, just as the physical life and spiritual one, and this last is what will make my eternal destiny come true, that’s all I await for myself due to the present circumstances. If the machinery of life I have inside me exploded, thus bringing my end in this Earth, I would want that moments before it, for the last time, you, mother, gave me a long loving kiss.

    Therezinha Campo,

    Pavilhão Galba Veloso.”

    Thank you for you post really. It’s very important that we remember the horrid things patients suffered (and some still do), so that those things won’t happen in the future.

    • What an absolutely beautiful quote, and such an amazing response. I can’t thank you enough. I appreciate that you felt this is deeply as we did. I read your comment about 4 times, and think it deserves a post of its own.


  7. Thanks for your response, Warina! It’s horrible to think these things went on for so long all over the world, and probably are still happening in some countries. Imagine what these people could have accomplished if they were treated like human beings.


  8. George smith on said:

    This article is great. One thing also is that the ‘prisoners’ we’re sometimes randomly selected from local towns when there wasn’t enough inmates for a good ‘show’, these people were not crazy, but being among people who were made them so. Basically not only were the inmates threated like animals, it also made sane people insane.
    Something else to look up 🙂
    Great article though, very informative 😀

  9. The madness lies in those who hurt others. I shutter to think of how it was. Thank you for this homage to unthinkable intolerance.

  10. it’s so sad to see that today’s stress or posnatal depression and anxiety were reffered to as madness , can you imagine most of us women now would have been all thrown up in such lunatic asylums . thank for this artcile it gave me goose bumps !

    • catadoodle on said:

      Great Job! It makes me so angry that people were treated that way. Even if they were crazy or not no one should be treated that way! Reading this article made me get chills and I had to look around the room to see if someone was watching me!!

  11. SB_Australia on said:

    What is even more disturbing is what actually constituted “insanity” back then…didn’t want to have sex with your husband? Then you were a “willfull woman” & your behaviour needed to be corrected! Most women in insane asylums right through to the 1960s weren’t mentally ill, they just didn’t want to take shit from the men in their lives.

  12. the rebel on said:

    Thank you Julie for making people aware of what happened in that hospital. I came to know about “Bedlam Hospital” ftom psychology books, but very few read books nowadays. That makes your article very important. Incidentally, I am from India and many people labeled NCL ( non criminal lunatics ) suffer in prisons in my country for decades, without any medical inspection. A year ago it was reported in a newspaper that a ” Home” for mentally ill women, in Calcutta, were beaten up for menstruating and making the floors dirty. The staff are mostly men and the inmates are kept naked. There was a lot of hue and cry after the news were published but I don’t know wheter anything has changed.

  13. Pingback: Histórias assustadoras do Bethlem Royal Hospital, o primeiro hospital psiquiátrico do mundo | Super Curiosidades

  14. those days are not past.. last year the management and channel 4 scooped a few bucks and a bafta by filming acutely ill patients in distress without consent in the acute admissions triage ward at Lambeth. I was one of them. never at any time did I sign any consent. there was no follow up and no warning about my personal life being broadcast in a most anguished and private moment. I believed I was in a place of safety.
    So… my children, (who had been protected from the reality of my breakdown by going to stay with their dad), and myself, were horrified to be confronted in the very first opening moments of the episode by a scene of me in mental and emotional extremis calculated for its impact and immediately after the BEDLAM titles. I have since complained to channel 4. they removed the scene, but never apologised or admitted liability for personal injury or breach of human rights.. never offered any support for the problems they created for me.. to this day i do not know who saw it and recognised me.. i am self employed and well known locally and concerned about the impact this may have had on my business, which is not something I can quantify because no one talks about it… finding legal representation and advocacy is a nightmare.. all messages to slam, pals, channel 4 meet with silence or terse letter explaining they’ll need to access my records… but still no support, or concern, or acknowledgement that they have acted so disgracefully against the interests of extremely vulnerable patients in their care. I have to keep going over and over it.. bu t I am determined this must never be allowed to happen again.. its a bloody disgrace. it wasn’t enlightening. it was a freak show. and it caused irrevocable damage to me, my recovery and my children which is still ongoing today. we are facing eviction proceedings due to a 16 week ESA delay. they got a bafta and summer with their children in the south of france.

    “…this is my life…”
    penny greenhough.

    • I am so sorry 😖😭😣 that will never fix what u had to go through, u did not deserve this. None of the residents did. I hope that after this life u have a beautiful infinity…

  15. Pingback: Great Words: Bedlam | "You must suffer me to go my own dark way"

  16. And now I really, really want to stay the night there.

  17. bethlem royal hospital omg i remember this place i was there 5 times in the 90,s trying to detox off drink and drugs, never such a horrible place have i ever encounterd, crewl staff that took pleasure in talking you into taking tablets that did nothing 4 opiate/methodone withdrawl, in fact i did it cold 4 times there, worse i was talked into an injection with threw me into such bad withdrawls that i threw up countless times so frozen cold yet unable to even do up my coat-no they dont turn on any heating , 2 weeks with no sleep yet not alowed a single bit of help like a tablet 4 that either, and staff that made u at ur most vounerable and sick talk about any abuse u had been through out load so u cried 4 hours yet that was theropy- sorry bout my spelling. The place has not changed except it cleaner where they made us clean 2 times a day no matter what pain we were in…..i could say sooooo much more but wont, it had the saddest feel to it , now i know why when i was there those 5 times in my 20,s i felt the pain and suffering in the air allong all the corredoors of the awfull past. they also earned the same 4 thousand pounds if u stayed a day or the whole 4 weeks so offen threw u out without reason if it was a buisy time of year. never once did i get clean there, yet years later i had a child and did get off it all on my own! i would never recomend this place off horrors to anyone and still remember the chills it gave me 20 yrs later. great historical post by the way.

  18. Pingback: Bethlehem Hospital, Bradshaw’s Hand Book, (No.92) | London Life with Bradshaw's Hand Book

  19. Sandria on said:

    Terrible things have happened from the begining of time, and I don’t think they will ever stop, thankGod I had a most wonderful councilor, who respected me, and helped me to change, and I am now very happy and blessed.

  20. Margaret Griffin. on said:

    My grandparents lived in Brook Drive which backed onto Bedlam as they then called it. This was in the early 1900s . I can remember my father telling me that as children they would go to the top floor of their house and through the window would watch the patients in the grounds. This was before their parents forbade them to do so. He said there were some sorry sights, and most people were relieved when the building was turned over to the Imperial War Museum. As kids we always called the park Bedlam, but it’s real name is Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park.

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  23. Bruno on said:

    Doctor Who, Season 3, episode 3 brought me here. I´m a brazilian with a infinite passion for history from all around the world. Such a sad and horrifying piece of history. But at the same time, very intriguing.

    What such a beautiful comment from Warina Kinomoto. I used to live less than 5 miles fron this mental hospital. I remember when I was a kid, seeing patients taking their sunbathe at the top floor of the bulding, praying for God to comfort their souls.

  24. Peter chappell on said:

    What happened to the two statues that stood either side of bedlham Institution entrance , I understand they were so frightening they had to be taken down .

  25. Oh my god… This article tore my heart out, this is the perfect example to why I really do hate people. I have become barely tolerant of them due to the fact no one can step out their door with out interaction. I am disgusted by mankind… This article definitely painted the picture for me. I will never understand why or how we are programmed to being that cruel even today to each other. U did a great job writing this I wonder how we can get things like this out there and drill it into their thick heads.. life is not a gift it is a punishment… We are sent here to prove our worth to our higher universe and until we do we have been cast down here on earth to suffer how fate sees fit to hurt and kill each other.. that’s all…

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