diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 07, 2013

Europe's oldest mental hospital held a fete yesterday. You've definitely heard of it. You've probably been.

Its name is Bethlem Royal Hospital, but you'll know it better by its alternative name of Bedlam. It was founded in 1247, and spent several centuries as home to about 20 insane inmates. And it was located just off Bishopsgate, on a site now occupied by Liverpool Street Underground station. Told you you'd probably been. In 1676 the hospital was rebuilt at Moorfields, enlarged to accommodate 120 patients, and opened up to inquisitive visitors. It was located on the northern edge of London Wall, where there's now a Starbucks and a Pizza Express. You might have been. In 1815 the hospital moved to grander premises in Southwark, part of which survives today as the home of the Imperial War Museum. You've very likely been. And then in 1930 the whole organisation upped sticks and headed out to the Monks Orchard estate, on the eastern edge of what's now Croydon. It's a large wooded site, with wings and houses and units scattered across several green acres. And you probably haven't been there, certainly not for psychiatric reasons, but it's a most interesting site.

The Sunfayre is Bethlem Royal Hospital's annual open day and fair. Hundreds turned up yesterday for a look around, and to join the current live-in patients on an afternoon of celebration. Stalls were set out on the central lawns - most of them tombolas from what I could see, because that's a dead easy way to organise contributory fund-raising. A teacup ride spun, a land train chugged round the grass and visitors sat in tents with cool drinks to assuage the heat. A small stage had been set up, and various patients took turns to come up and sing. Some sang sweetly, others nigh professionally, while others let's just say performed with passion. Thank you Sandra, that was lovely.

I joined a walking tour which left from the central marquee. We saw the brightly coloured Occupational Therapy building, unusual for the 1930s, where patients can try their hand at woodwork and ceramics. We passed the main administrative building, which it's hoped to turn into a museum and gallery next year. We noted daycare units for obsessive compulsion, built on the site of the original grand house whose lands these were. We circuited the newest facility on site, a medium secure wing with high fences which houses 89 not-quite Broadmoor-type residents. And we ended up in the walled garden, where patients enjoy horticultural therapy and which brimmed with lavender. It seemed strange walking amongst the campus of a residential psychiatric hospital, but compared to Bishopsgate it's a very pleasant spot.

There is currently a museum on site, tucked away in a tiny building on the far side of the catering block. One cramped room provides just enough space to display some of the artworks bestowed into the museum's care, including one by the man who set fire to York Minster, and others of haunted faces by troubled minds. Two reclining statues of chained naked men are the sole surviving artefacts from the Moorfields site, and once topped the gates by the entrance. Elsewhere there's an even tinier art gallery, this crammed in beside the patients workshops, currently with artworks from local schoolchildren on show. Both museum and gallery will benefit greatly from the proposed move into Bethlem's new Museum of the Mind, scheduled to open late next year. But you can still look inside every weekday, and on one Saturday a month, should you wish. A most illuminating insight into Bedlam, now Bethlem - a forgotten but essential service.

Bethlem Royal Hospital: history, visiting, museum, gallery, lecture, blog, photo 1, photo 2

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