Bethlem Museum

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The art and artefacts of ‘Bedlam’

Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham

Decorative plates made in the creative workshops at Bethlem Royal Hospital
Dec­o­ra­tive plates made in the cre­ative work­shops at Beth­lem Roy­al Hos­pi­tal

Most Lon­don­ers will be aware of the insti­tu­tion that was the ori­gin of the word ‘bed­lam’ but few know that it has sur­vived to the present day, albeit in a very dif­fer­ent form and set­ting.

The pri­o­ry of St Mary of Beth­le­hem was found­ed out­side Bish­ops­gate in 1247 and 130 years lat­er it began to pro­vide shel­ter and care for the men­tal­ly ill. When Hen­ry VIII dis­solved England’s reli­gious orders and con­fis­cat­ed their prop­er­ties he gave the pri­o­ry build­ings to the City as a place of incar­cer­a­tion (but very lit­tle treat­ment) for London’s lunatics.

In 1675 a new hos­pi­tal was built in Moor­fields, where it gained noto­ri­ety through its pol­i­cy of allow­ing those who could afford an admis­sion fee to amuse them­selves by wan­der­ing the halls and, quite lit­er­al­ly, mock­ing the afflict­ed.

The insti­tu­tion put its unsavoury past behind it and relo­cat­ed to Lam­beth in 1815, to the build­ing that now hous­es the Impe­r­i­al War Muse­um, and in 1930 it moved to its present site in the leafy sub­urb of Monks Orchard, which lies on the south side of Beck­en­ham.

Since 2015 the hospital’s muse­um and gallery have shared the easy-to-find admin­is­tra­tion block at the end of the short entrance dri­ve.

The muse­um pos­sess­es a mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tion of mate­r­i­al relat­ing to men­tal ill­ness and the his­to­ry of the Hos­pi­tal of St Mary Beth­le­hem and its suc­ces­sors. How­ev­er, only a lim­it­ed selec­tion can be dis­played at any one time. Its most prized pos­ses­sions are the stat­ues Melan­choly and Rav­ing Mad­ness (shown below), by Caius Gabriel Cib­ber (see also the stat­ue of Charles II), which were orig­i­nal­ly mount­ed on either side of the gate­way to the Moor­fields hop­si­tal.

The gallery con­tains a lit­tle mis­cel­lany of art, most­ly the work of the hospital’s res­i­dents and ex-res­i­dents. Exhi­bi­tions and events are pro­grammed through­out the year. The paint­ings and draw­ings on dis­play range from the whim­si­cal to the dis­con­cert­ing and some­times down­right dis­tress­ing. On a lighter note, there are Bed­lam-brand­ed sou­venir items for sale – mugs, pen­cils and the like.

Melancholy and Raving Madness by Caius Gabriel Cibber

The Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham BR3 3BX
Phone: 020 ​3228 ​4227
Websites: Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Bethlem Gallery
Open: Wednesday–Friday 10am–5pm and on the first and last Saturday of each month (also open on Mondays and Tuesday to pre-booked groups only)
Closed: bank holidays and other (NHS) statutory holidays
Admission free
Nearest stations: Eden Park and West Wickham (both National Rail and two-thirds of a mile from the hospital)
The picture of Bethlem Museum of the Mind on this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright surprise truck, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of that licence.