Bedlam and War!

The Bethlem Royal Hospital (otherwise known as Bedlam) dates back to 1247 and was established as the ‘Priory of the New Order of our Lady of Bethlehem’ on a site just outside the city walls, where Liverpool Street Station is today.

The word “bedlam”, meaning uproar and confusion, is derived from the hospital’s nickname. Although the hospital became a modern psychiatric facility, historically it was representative of the worst excesses of asylums in the era of lunacy reform.

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Drawing of Bedlam when it was at Moorfields.

It moved a short distance to Moorfields in 1676 and was situated right on the city walls.  Whilst it was here, the governors of the hospital opened it up to visitors to pay and watch the patients.  One of those visitors was the artist William Hogarth, who went on to base his series of eight paintings called ‘A Rake’s Progress’ on his visit.  Published in 1735 the series shows the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a rich merchant, who comes to London, wastes all his money on luxurious living, prostitution and gambling, and as a consquence is imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately Bedlam.

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The final painting in Hogarth’s series shows Tome Rakewell in Bedlam Hospital.

In 1815, Bedlam moved again, south of the river to a building still in use today.  That building is now the Imperial War Museum.  When Bethlam Royal Hospital moved to West Wickham, Kent in 1930 (where is still exists today), the empty building left behind, which was owned by Lord Rothermere, was purchased by the Government for a ‘National War Museum’.

The buildings two extensive wings were removed and the resulting space named Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, after Lord Rothermere’s mother.

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