Ever heard of the expression "Bedlam" meaning an uproar and confusion? Well, that expression comes from the historical and controversial Bethlem Royal Hospital - a psychiatric hospital in London. The mental asylum has inspired many horror books, films, and TV series.
Unlike eerie and abandoned asylums like Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts, Bethlam Royal Hospital remains a functioning psychiatric hospital today. There is so much to see and do in London that any two-day London itinerary is going to be packed and one will not have scratched the surface of this great city - but try to squeeze Bedlam into the itinerary.
History and Origins Of Bethlam Royal Hospital
Bethlem Royal Hospital is very old having been founded in 1247 originally near Bishopsgate. At the time it was just outside the historic walls of London. In 1676, it moved a short distance to Moorfields and again to St. George's Fields in Southwark in 1815. Finally, it moved to its current location in Monks Orchard in 1930.
- "Bedlam:" An Uproar and Confusion - Derived From The Hospital's Nickname
- Founded: In 1247
Bethlam (like so many old hospitals) began as a religious order and was dedicated to St Mary of Bethlehem. In medieval times a "hospital" was not so much a place for medical care as it was a refuge that strangers needed. It was a place for those with nowhere else to go. Over time Bedlam started to specialize in those incapable of caring for themselves - those considered "mad" instead of the poor.
- Old Building: Once Compared to The Palace of Versailles
Adding to its colorful history, the building it was housed in from 1679 appeared so opulent that people would compare it to the Palace of Versailles. One writer even stated in 1815, “it was for many years the only building which looked like a Palace in London.”
But the building was different on the inside. The hospital was built on rubble next to the old Roman wall and didn't have a proper foundation. When it rained, the walls ran with water. Eventually, that building was torn down in 1815.
The Dark History of Bethlem Royal Hospital
Bethlem Royal Hospital (or Bedlam) has been representative historically of some of the worst excesses of asylums during the era of lunacy reform. Once upon a time in the bad old days, Bethlam was so famous, that tourists would visit it alongside Westminster Abbey and the zoo. Its notoriety has entered the lexicon with the word "bedlam".
But by the 1600s, Bedlam had become a popular attraction - and this was encouraged by the hospital itself. The hospital wanted the visitor's donations and charitable contributions. It was acceptable to use the mentally ill patients as spectacles (just as the people of the day attended hangings). It was thought that a visit to the asylum would be a reminder to keep one's "baser instincts in check.”
- Public Spectacle: Wealthy Londoners Paid To Have A Public Spectacle of the Mentally Ill
In addition to using and provoking the mentally ill for entertainment, there were many infamous "therapies" over the years. These could include beatings, starvation, ice-cold baths, strait waistcoats, being suspended in a chair and spun around, bloodletting by leeches, cupping glass therapy, and the inducing of blisters.
Visiting Bethlem Royal Hospital Today
Fortunately, the era of mistreating the mentally ill has passed, and today the hospital continues to function and is dedicated to understanding and caring for its patients. The Bethlem Royal Hospital is based in over 200 acres of green space and is home to a number of specialist services (like their Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit).
One is permitted to visit the historic hospital by visiting their Gallery and Museum and exploring their grounds using their walking trails.
- Address: Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, BR3 3BX, London
- Closed: As of The Time Of Writing (April 2022) Bethlem's Grounds are Closed Due To The Pandemic
Visitors are invited to tour the stunning orchards and gardens on which the facility sits. There have been orchards here for centuries with the site being formerly Monks Orchards House before the asylum moved in in 1930.
Bethlem's Walking Trails:
- Traditional Orchards Nature Trail
- Wood and Meadow Nature Trail
- Garden and Evergreen Nature Trail
Under normal (pre-pandemic) circumstances the hospital's walled garden is open for visitors for a couple of hours during the weekdays.
- Days: Monday to Friday
- Hours: 12 noon to 2 pm