Bethlem Hospital is the world’s most famous mental hospital. Its name derives from the Church of St Mary of Bethlehem to provide a link to the “holy land”.
It’s name today; Bethelm and it’s nickname; Bedlam (a word commonly used today to describe a scene of chaos) are both medieval variants of the original name “Bethlehem” It has also been referred to as Bedlehem, Betleem, Bethelem and Beddeleem.
Site 1 – Liverpool Street
On 23rd October 1247, Simon Fitzmary, an English Sheriff (county official) founded the site of the first hospital on Bishopsgate, London. The hospital was known as the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem. During this time the hospital is known as a hospice or hospital of the sick and has no relation or any known links to psychiatry. The term psychiatry is not known to have been used until early 1800’s however it has been documented that there were 6 insane men admitted to the hospital during the 1400’s the word “lunatic” descends from much earlier time, even being used in the Bible. The word lunatic uses “lunar” relating to the moon and its constant phases of change. This was in turn put upon to describe those suffering from a mental decline or manic phases.
The site of the Priory of St Mary of Bethlehem is located on Bishopsgate near the entrance to Liverpool Street Station and adjacent to Liverpool Street Underground station, and today is a hotel and restaurant. The building itself is not the original building however is very impressive looking from the inside and sits on the original site.
The English Heritage has introduced blue plaques commemorating historical sites, buildings and people. London has so many to look out for. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques/search/
Bethlem Hospital has 2 plaques. The first can be found near Liverpool Street Station at 1901 Andaz.
POSTCODE – EC2M 7QN
Map showing location of first site of Bethlem and location of blue plaque.
Book a table at this restaurant at :
Early last year (2011) archeologists found remains of bodies whilst digging under Liverpool Street. Thought to be that of the Bethlem burial ground, the bodies have now been removed for study.
Bethlem remained at the Liverpool Street site for 400 years until 1676 when it is moved almost not very far from its original site to Moorfields. The decision was made after the 1666 Great Fire of London and even though Bethlem was unscathed by this tragedy, its sister site Bridewell Hospital suffered some damage and had to be restored. A decision was made for Bethlem to be moved and rebuilt.
Site 2 – Moorfields
The Moorfields site opened 1676 and is possibly the most well known of the 3 sites through its depiction in art. Opening as a hospital for the insane, a first in England, and remained on this site until 1815. During this time the hospital opened up 2 wings for ‘incurable patients’.
Map showing Bethlem Hospital on ‘Moorfields’ site. Picture from Wikipedia.
POSTCODE – EC2M 5QD
The plaque for the second site is here at Finsbury Circus, London, a short walk from its original site at, now Liverpool Street Station. Clue – the blue plaque can be seen whilst you EAT but not whilst you eat pizza.
William Hogarth “A Rakes Progress” (1732-33) picture from Wikipedia.
One of the most famous depictions of Bethlem is in the painter, William Hogarth’s “A Rakes Progress”. Over 8 paintings we follow the heir of a rich merchant; Tom Rakewell as he spends his money on gambling, drink and prostitutes, after being incarcerated at Fleet Street Prison, he is thrown into Bethlem Hospital. (Fleet Street Prison was demolished in the late 1800’s, the site of the prison is now Farringdon Street). The original “Rakes Progress” series can be viewed at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn.
POSTCODE – WC2A 3BP
The Sir John Soane’s Museum can be found here. Nearest tube station – Holborn. If you are walking from the second site/second plaque at Finsbury Circus here’s the route (approx. 30 mins walk) :
Website link to Sir John Soane’s Museum.
It is in the “art gallery” room and to see them you must wait around until they are “exposed” from within the secret walls!
Robert Hooke designed the building at Moorfields and was a well known and established architect and designer. He also helped famed architect Christopher Wren design the monument commemorating the Great Fire of London. The height of the monument represents the distance from the site of the bakery in Pudding Lane where the Great Fire began.
POSTCODE – EC3R 6DB (MONUMENT)
Monument directions from Finsbury Circus.
There are a few Robert Hooke plaques around London. One at Westminster Abbey and another at St Paul’s Cathedral (look for it in the crypt!)
The bas relief (the chiseled scene at the bottom) of the Monument was carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber. Cibber, a Danish sculptor had come to London around 1660. His relationship with Robert Hooke does not end with the Monument. With Hooke’s designs for the second site of Bethlem in place, Cibber created 2 grand statues to place on the front gates of the hospital. Now known as a place for the insane, he created “Melancholy” and “Raving”. These were 2 men in appearing in the 2 states of madness – Melancholy, a melancholic, subdued state. Looking anxious and in a state of thought, he sits next to “Raving” who is chained by the hands and feet to control his ‘mania’ or ‘manic’ state.
After being presented at the V&A gallery for some years, their home remains, quite rightly, at the 4th and final site of Bethlem, now known as The Bethlem Royal Hospital. I’ve purposely not used pictures of the sculptures for 2 reasons – one in keeping with the Hospitals “no photography” policy on site. 2 – these statues have to be seen in real life to appreciate their grandeur and unbelievable size. I must have stood underneath them looking straight at their eyes for a long while! There’s something quite unnerving about Melancholy that, when stared at, could almost move and look right back at you.
Alexander Pope references them in one of his literary works; The Dunciad:
“Close to those walls where Folly holds her throne,
And laughs to think Monro would take her down.
Where o’er the gates, by his famed father’s hand
Great Cibber’s brazen brainless brothers stand….”
Monro refers to Dr James Monro, a Bethlem physician. Later on his son, and in turn, some of his grandchildren worked at the hospital. They gained a reputation as “mad doctors” because of suggested antiquated and abusive treatment of patients.
Alongside Caius Gabriel Cibber’s “Madness” statues are almsboxes (like charity money boxes). The ones in the museum are copies of the originals (now part of the Wellcome Collection) are on display at the Science Museum in Kensington.
POSTCODE – SW7 2DD
The best way to get here is on the tube – South Kensington and follow the tunnel to the museums.
Site 3 – St George’s Fields, Southwark
Before its residence in Bromley, Bethlem moved again in 1815 to St George’s Field, Southwark. Today, part of the administration block remains and houses the Imperial War Museum. The other buildings belonging to the hospital were demolished however its surrounding areas are preserved as a park and hold in its centre a grand building that was once the infamous Bethlem Hospital. A year later in 1816 it opened a whole section accommodating the criminally insane – The State Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Most patients at Bethlem stayed for only a short while, around a year or so of their lives were spent in either the female wards or the male wards. Those pronounced criminally insane were often “lifers” and remained at the hospital until their deaths.
Bethlem Hospital at St Georges Fields. Seen here before architect Sydney Smirk changed and embellished the top of the dome.
POSTCODE – SE1 6HZ
The Imperial War Museum is south of the river. It is easy to get to by bus or by tube (Lambeth North). I recommend going to see Robert Hooke’s plaques at Westminster Abbey then jumping on the 148 bus (Bus stop ‘R’) and getting off at Lambert North Station. It is a 5 minute walk from here ( and a beautiful scene to walk to – make sure you spend some time in the sun in the surrounding grass areas of the museum and remember it was once ‘home’ for many patients at Bethlem!)
Link to The Imperial War Museum’s website.
The hospital was designed by James Lewis who worked as a hospital surveyor for the Moorfields site. Later on a ‘cuppola’ was added to the top of the front building by architect Sydney Smirke. He also added extra ‘wings’ (buildings/wards) since demolished.
Site 4 – Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Estate, Bromley
In 1930 the fourth and final site of the hospital opened. It was on Monks Orchard Estate, in the London Borough of Bromley. Here, the hospital is still in use and is still known as one of the most famous psychiatric hospitals in the world. On the beautiful grounds of the hospital are small museum housing Caius Gabrial Cibber’s sculptures (Meloncholy and Raving) amongst a history of the hospital and a huge amount of artwork created by patients of the hospital including one noted artist and painter – Richard Dadd.
Richard Dadd spent a number of years at Bethlem after killing his father, whom he thought was the devil. He was a professional artist and skilled painter. A number of his works can be seen at the Bethlem Museum and a portrait of his can be seen at Tate Britain.
The museum itself is small and, I am told, only displays what it can, however a mountain more art work and history is stored away simply out of the unavailable room. As well as the museum, an archive room for those wanting to learn more about the records and history of the hospital.
POSTCODE – BR3 3BX
Link to Bethlem Museum and Archive website.
In 1997 Bethlem has provided a place for patients to present their work. Working closely with the Occupational Therapy Department it houses an intimate but worthwhile gallery displaying solo exhibitions, group shows and installations created by patients, ex patients of the hospital and those experiencing mental distress in their lives. The occupational centre alone is worth the trip. The building has been brightly coloured and decorated and looks beautiful inside the hospital grounds amongst the hospital buildings.
Link to Bethlem Gallery’s website.
The best route to the hospital is by taking the Overground from Charing Cross Station to Eden Park Station (Hayes Kent train) this takes 30 minutes. It’s a short (approx. 15 minutes) walk from the station to the hospital.
I hope you’ve not only enjoyed this article, but it has inspired you to go out and explore the city and see the sights of Bethlem! There is so much information and history – I have barely scratched the surface! I would be interested in any feedback, stories and/or photos of your explores.