…or so said Donald Lupton. In 1632. About the residents of Bethlem, the mental hospital founded by monks in 13th century London. One of the oldest institutions to focus on housing the insane, Bethlem gave us the word Bedlam (until the 19th century it was known mostly for its depraved residents and brutal conditions). Until 1770, it was also a place for Londoners to amuse themselves by touring, and gawking, at the residents…some of which were chained by the neck or leg and naked. One famous resident crowed like a rooster.
“A Rake’s Progress,” by William Hogarth, 1735, shows wealthy visitors touring Bedlam and fanning themselves while the mad writhe in the foreground. Fifty years later, a visitor wrote to his priest: “In those days, when Bedlam was open to the cruel curiosity of Holiday ramblers, I have been a visitor there. Though a boy, I was not altogether insensible of the misery of the poor captives, nor destitute of feeling for them. But the Madness of some of them had such a humorous air, and displayed itself in so many whimsical freaks, that it was impossible not to be entertained, at the same time that I was angry with myself with being so.” Other visitors compared the residents to wild beasts, the stench to kennels. By the mid 19th century though, things were improving. The heavy metal restraints were gone. And there was light and air in the wards. And animals. Lots of animals.
The Men’s Ward in 1860, The Illustrated London News. Note the dogs and bird cages. Photo: Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archive
The Women’s Ward in 1860, The Illustrated London News. Note the bird cages in the patients’ hands. Photo: Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archive
While it was likely that there were always animals living at Bethlem (whether they were food animals, rats and mice, cats to keep down the rats and mice, squirrels who lived in nearby trees, horses used for transportation, or city dogs) by the mid 1800s dogs and birds were inside the wards as pets and perhaps an early version of animal-assisted therapy. Whether or not there were any animal residents thought to be mad, I do not know but my initial searches haven’t turned anything up.
Today, Bethlem remains a working hospital treating a range of psychiatric disorders. And while you can (thankfully) no longer tour the wards and taunt the patients, you can visit the Museum and Archives. They have a range of fascinating objects on display…from the key that locked the front gate of the hospital to a selection of art work by previous patients. There is an additional gallery at the hospital, which is also open to the public, and focuses on living artists (treated at the hospital or currently in residence). Called the Bethlem Gallery, it is right now showing the work of a man named Albert and his large-scale drawings of imaginary buildings.
Photos from top: Bethlem Gallery signage; literature on the side of the art therapy studios; Bethlem basketball court; cat mosaic tribute to Bethlem artist Louis Wain.
Thank you to Colin Gale of Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archive and Jason Holt.