The Bethlem Royal Hospital is a hospital in London for the treatment of mental illness. It has moved three times from its original location, and is Europe’s first and oldest institution to specialise in mental illnesses. It has been known by various names including St Mary Bethlehem, Bethlem Hospital, Bethlehem Hospital and, informally and most notoriously, Bedlam.
It was founded by Christians in 1247 to shelter and care for homeless people, but gradually began to focus on those considered ‘mad’.
It had 12 cells for patients, staff accommodation, and a small exercise yard. The compact building covered two acres, and was built over a sewer, which served the hospital and the immediate buildings around it. The drain would often become blocked, resulting in overflows of waste invading the main entrance. The building was gradually expanded throughout the years, and by 1667 it was able to accommodate 59 patients.
The hospital changed hands once again in 1546 when the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Gresham, petitioned to have Bethlem granted to the city. The ruling monarch, Henry VIII declared that whilst the Crown would retain possession of the hospital, the City of London would be in charge of its administration. The running of the hospital was passed to the Governors of Bridewell, and they appointed keepers to take charge of the ‘mad folk.’
Roland Sleford resigned from his role of ‘keeper’ in 1598, after his two decade reign over the hospital. After his departure, the Governors of Bridewell performed an inspection of Bethlem to ensure it was ready for public visiting. However, they soon realised that it was in a serious state of disrepair: “It is not fit for any man to dwell in which was left by the keeper, for that it is so loathsomely filthily kept that it is not fit for any man to come into the sad house.” The committee found 21 resident inmates, the majority of whom had been locked up for over eight years. One inmate had been there for over twenty years, and was in a dire need of care.