Entertainment at Bedlam
you find yourself in a long and wide gallery, on either side of which are a large number of little cells where lunatics of every description are shut up, and you can get a sight of these poor creatures, little windows being let into the doors … On the second floor is a corridor [and] this is the part reserved for dangerous maniacs, most of them being chained and terrible to behold. On holidays numerous persons of both sexes … visit this hospital and amuse themselves watching these unfortunate wretches, who often give them cause for laughter. - Saussure’s account of Bethlem during his 1725 tour of London.
Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, also known as Bedlam, is Europe’s oldest institution for the treatment of the mentally ill. Currently an NHS run hospital the facility has become synonymous with ‘the worse excesses of asylums in the era of lunacy reform’, and a major contributing factor to this legacy is the hospital’s visiting policies during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Visits by friends and relatives were allowed, however Bethlem is famous for having also allowed, for a small ‘donation’, members of the public access to the wards to have a good old gawp at the patients within. Records suggest that as early as 1610 Lord Percy paid 10 shillings to have a look around, then, following the relocation of the hospital around 1681, the governors observed a noticeable increase in the ‘quantity of persons that come daily to see the said Lunatickes’. The hospital became an especially popular attraction during public holidays with ‘one hundred people at least’ visiting during one Easter week during the mid-18th century. The governors attracted the wealthy and well-bred particularly and would present the most sorry patients to them in an attempt to procure handsome donations, though it is likely that most of these donations found their way into the hands of staff.
The spectacle also provided a kind of moral instruction to visitors who could see first-hand the supposed outcome of giving in to one’s vices, as one mid-18th century commentator wrote: ‘[there is no] better lesson [to] be taught us in any part of the globe than in this school of misery. Here we may see the mighty reasoners of the earth, below even the insects that crawl upon it; and from so humbling a sight we may … to keep those passions within bounds, which if too much indulged, would drive reason from her seat’.
Ultimately, however, Bethlem served merely as entertainment similar to that of the Victorian freakshow. Alongside other popular London attractions, Bethlem became a must-see feature on the tourist trail.
[Sources: Image: William Hogarth’s ‘The Madhouse’ from A Rake’s Progress, 1733 | Bethlem Royal Hospital]