Bedlam: London and its mad

Many people nowadays, all over the English speaking world, use the word "Bedlam" to describe a scene of uproar and confusion. "God, it's like Bedlam in here!"

Bedlam is, in fact, a London mental hospital. Its real name was Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam was its Cockney name) and was at one point, especially in the 18th and 19th century, probably the world's most notorious "loony bin."

"Bedlam" has been part of London since 1247 when it was built as a priory.

The lunatics were first called "patients" in 1700, and "curable" and "incurable" wards were opened in 1725-34.

In the 18th century people used to go to Bedlam to stare at the lunatics. For a penny one could peer into their cells, view the freaks of the "show of Bethlehem" and laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature or violent fights! Entry was free on the first Tuesday of the month.

Visitors were permitted to bring long sticks with which to poke and enrage the inmates! In 1814, there were 96,000 such visits!!

"Bedlam" is still around today, but is nothing like what it was in its heyday. But its name today is synonymous with a place of chaos, uproar and confusion.

Now a new book, "Bedlam: London and Its Mad" has just been published.

Bedlam: the brutal truth

BEDLAM: LONDON AND ITS MAD by Catharine Arnold (Simon & Schuster, £14.99)

By Maureen Waller
12th August 2008
Daily Mail

Foreigners have always known the English were mad. They put it down to the dreary climate, the rigours of nonconformity and the tedium of the English Sunday. Long before that, the gravedigger in Shakespeare's Hamlet spoke of sending the Prince of Denmark to England, where his madness would not be noticed.

Shell shock sufferers in Bedlam

England was enough to drive people mad, another asserted: 'There you shall see many discontents, common grievances, complaints, poverty, barbarism, beggary, idleness, epicurism - cities decayed, base and poor towns - the people squalid, ugly, uncivil.'

Londoners flocked to Bedlam to laugh at the antics of the inmates: a visit to the madhouse was a good day out, ranking with a public execution and featuring in all the popular tourist guides.

The freak show at Bedlam was a mirror of the city's disordered psyche. London itself was mad, with law and order on a knife edge, and gambling fever, prostitution and alcoholism rife.

It was inevitable that in The Rake's Progress, Hogarth's Tom Rakewell should end up in Bedlam, driven to madness by debauchery and surrounded by a cast of grotesques.

Madness was a reflection of the state of the nation. Where better to recruit the nation's politicians, the satirist Jonathan Swift suggested, than Bedlam, since they could not be any more insane than the ones in power.

Political cartoonists Gillray and Rowlandson suggested that contemporary politicians belonged in Bedlam and depicted Charles James Fox raving in a straitjacket — the standard restraint for the poor inmates of Bedlam, but for the poor inmates of Bedlam, but also for George III, the victim of a rough, misguided doctor.

William Blake understood that industrialised London, a city of darkness inhabited by miserable, sickly natives and rootless migrants who had left their pastoral idylls for a life of hardship in overcrowded slums, was enough to drive anyone to madness.

In Catharine Arnold's elegantly written and richly anecdotal study, it is salutary to learn that it was not until 1890 that the status of lunatics was changed, by Parliamentary legislation, from prisoners to patients.

Asylums were prisons disguised as hospitals, where the poor and incurable could be swept out of sight. It was a far cry from the charitable intentions of Simon FitzMary, who founded Bethlem in Bishopsgate in 1370 as a priory offering asylum to London's mad paupers.

During the Crusades, he had been led to safety by the star over Bethlehem: the motif appears on the hospital's crest to this day.

Traditionally, the medieval Church equated health and madness with good and evil. The mad were possessed by evil spirits, which could be driven out by beating, immersion in freezing water and periods in isolation. Sir Thomas More was as much in favour of thrashing the insane to bring them to their senses as he was of flogging heretics.

Bedlam was racked by scandals. One inmate died after his intestines burst, having been chained in a confined space for years. Others slept naked on straw in the cold, tormented by sadistic keepers.

There was money to be made out of the misery, hence the rise of the private madhouse. As the materialistic Victorian era gathered pace, Bedlam pushed its pauper inmates into new county asylums, making room for a burgeoning market of shabby, genteel inmates, driven to insanity by the pressures of middle-class life.

A seen from "A Rake's Progress" (1735), depicting Bedlam, by Hogarth. Hogarth was an 18th Century British artist who painted any scenes of British 18th Century life

Private madhouses were convenient dumping grounds for unwanted wives. Defoe noted that if they were not mad when they arrived, they certainly ended up so.

By ancient tradition, the possession of a womb predisposed a person to insanity. Virgins and menopausal women were particularly vulnerable. One Victorian doctor advocated applying leeches to the labia, while another maintained that removing the clitoris saved a woman from insanity.

It was no wonder, then, that the medics were perplexed when 80,000 ostensibly fit and active men suffered mental breakdown during World War I. They were not women, so why the hysteria? It was a further blow to conventional belief that most of the victims were officers, the elite drawn from the public schools. Accused of malingering, they were subjected to a new, barbarous electric shock treatment, before a more enlightened approach emerged.

This is a thought-provoking book on a melancholy subject, with many parallels to the present. The mentally ill, like the poor, are always with us. The closure of asylums in the 1980s in favour of 'care in the community' proved disastrous. Many took to the streets, sleeping rough, as riddled with lice and despair as the medieval Bedlam beggar; others killed innocent citizens.

In a final irony, some MPs want to overturn the Elizabethan legislation which bars those who have suffered mental illness from the House. How Swift would have loved that.

MAUREEN WALLER'S Sovereign Ladies: The Six Reigning Queens Of England is published by John Murray at £11.99.

Scott Free
I still use the term lunatic.

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