25 Portraits of Patients and Living Conditions at London’s Notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital

Museum of the Mind

The Bethlem Royal Hospital, also known as St. Mary Bethlehem and Bedlam, is an infamous psychiatric hospital in London. It is Europe’s first and oldest institution to specialize in mental illnesses.

The hospital was founded in 1247 as the Priority of the New Order of our Lady of Bethlehem in the city of London during the reign of Henry III. The original structure was built atop a sewer, which frequently overflowed, forcing patients to live in swamps of excrement. During this time, control of the facility transferred from the Church to the Crown.

John Haslam, who was appointed to head of Bedlam in 1795. Haslam believed that mental illness could be cured only after breaking the will of the patient. Quaker philanthropist Edward Wakefield 1814, visited Bedlam. Wakefield witnessed naked, starved men chained to the walls, including one man harnessed with chains running into the walls and into an adjoining room. Staff would periodically pull on the chains, slamming the patient into the wall.

One of Bedlam’s many controversial treatments, rotational therapy, invented by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), involves sitting a patient in a chair suspended from the ceiling. The chair is then spun by an orderly, the speed and duration dictated by a doctor. The treatment could rotate 100 times per minute, for hours at a time.

Other treatments during the 18 and 19 centuries were ice baths, starvations, and beatings. Bloodletting and leech therapy were also common treatments. Bedlam treatment methods were so horrific that admission was routinely refused to patients deemed too frail to handle the treatments. As early as 1758, the conditions and treatments in Bedlam were described as archaic by other asylum management.

Eliza Camplin was discharged in October 1857, having ‘continued to behave well and rationally’ for some weeks. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust
Eliza Camplin, a laborer’s wife, was admitted to Bethlem aged 36 in February 1857 suffering from ‘acute mania’. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust.
Eliza Josolyne was seen to be beginning to improve her spirits in 1857 and 1858, but by May 1859 it was observed that her mental state varies considerably and she was transferred to the hospital’s incurable list. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust.
Eliza Josolyne, a domestic servant, was admitted to Bethlem aged 23 in February 1857 suffering from acute melancholia. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust
Harriet Jordan was discharged in October 1858, having become convalescent, quiet industrious and well-behaved. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust
Harriet Jordan, a cloak and mantle maker, was admitted to Bethlem aged 24 in May 1858 suffering from acute mania. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust
Patient Eliza Crapp – no information on her condition remains in the archives. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust
Sarah Gardner, a domestic servant, was admitted to Bethlem aged 26 in August 1857 suffering from ‘great mental depression’. She was discharged in October 1857. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust
The artist Richard Dadd is shown here working on his masterpiece, Contradiction: Oberon, and Titania. Ricard Dadd was a well-known artist who was admitted to Bethlem after killing his father, whom he believed to be the Devil. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust
William Green, a Grenadier Guard, was admitted to Bethlem aged 33 in March 1857 suffering from ‘paroxysmal and intermittent mania’. Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust
This unnamed female patient (left) was diagnosed with acute mania and was treated at Bethlem Royal Hospital, which was nicknamed Bedlam, in London. Daily Mail
A notorious aspect of Bethlem was its availability to the public and wealthy patrons would often pay a shilling to gawp at the unfortunate souls locked in the asylum. Daily Mail
Advertisement