Posted by: Didapper PJ8 MAY 2013
Few visitors to the Imperial War Museum, just a short walk from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Lambeth headquarters, are aware that it occupies a building that was once a lunatic asylum. And the grassy park that surrounds the museum was once the asylum’s extensive and secure grounds where inmates exercised.
The institution in question was the famous Bethlem Royal Hospital, otherwise known as Bedlam, which occupied the site for well over a century.
Bedlam has its origins in 1247, when it was founded within the City of London as a priory of the Order of the Star of Bethlehem — hence its name. In 1337 it became a hospital and in 1357 it began admitting mentally ill patients, gradually becoming a dedicated psychiatric hospital.
Conditions in those days were appalling, and the patients could be brutally treated. Potentially violent patients were manacled and chained to the floor or wall.
In 1675 Bedlam moved to new buildings just outside the city. Conditions by then had improved somewhat. In the 18th century the hospital gained some income from visitors who would pay a penny to laugh at the antics of the inmates in their cells.
In 1815 Bedlam moved again to the building that has housed the Imperial War Museum since 1936. The grounds were then surrounded by high walls, but because Londoners still wished to be entertained by the lunatics, several taverns opened just outside the walls, with rooftop terraces from which patrons could peer into the grounds and watch the lunatics on the grass (cue “Brain damage” by Pink Floyd). Only one of these taverns still remains, at 111 Kennington Road. Now inexplicably called Grand Union, it still has a roof terrace with views into the park.
In 1930 Bethlem Royal Hospital moved again, to a site in Bromley in south London. It is now a major centre for psychiatric research and is still recognised as the world’s oldest institution specialising in mental illness.