Bethlem Royal Hospital

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Bethlem Royal Hospital

The world’s first institution for the insane (popularly known as Bedlam), Bethlem began in 1247 as a priory for the Order of the Star of Bethlehem, from whence its name. It became a hospital in 1337 and began admitting the mentally ill in 1357; some time thereafter, due to dialectic, its name became known as Bedlam.

Bedlam was notorious for the brutal treatment of its inmates; treatment consisted of restraint well into the 19th century. Outpatients were allowed to come and go and licensed to beg; particularly active inpatients were kept from wandering the halls by manacling or chaining them to the floors or walls. They were first dignified with the label of patient in 1700 and parsed into curable and incurable wards in the 1730s; they also provided a source of entertainment for the locals—for a penny, one could go to Bedlam and stare at the patients.

In 1815, Bedlam was moved into more substantial facilities at St George’s Fields, complete with a library, ballroom and windows. It was moved again in 1930 to a London suburb, with the Imperial War Museum taking over the St George’s Fields site.
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The paintings are loaned out by the Royal Bethlem Hospital in Beckenham, south London.

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