Monday, 28 October 2013

Bethlem Royal Hospital and Archive

I am very fortunate to have access to two archives in the London Borough of Bromley and a lengthy association with Bethlem Royal Hospital through work as a psychiatric social worker, as well as a genealogist.
I pursued a suggestion from my late uncle in recent years to research a distant relative he recalled from childhood. I found a fascinating history as a result. The person my uncle recalled was a civil servant (additonally a marathon runner in the first two decades of the 20th century) but it was his father that interested me. I established at Lambeth Palace Library that he had been ordained in the Church of England and had moved from a curacy at an estate church in the Midlands to an appointment as chaplain to the Surrey County Asylum (later known as Springfield Hospital). I can only imagine what that appointment meant to him leaving a rural living with his family to enter London and adjust to meeting the needs of  those with mental health problems in an institution.
I researched the Asylum records and other items referring to his lengthy ministry in the Asylum and additionally to staff outside the recorded hours praised by the Board. He lived initially close by the Bethlem Royal Hospital and worked with the chaplain there in visiting other asylums at Colney Hatch and Friern Barnet and advocating improvements to the then institutionalised care of those with mental health problems. He was mentioned in parliamentary debates as petitioning on behalf of staff and inmates alike and was therefore at the fore front of changing conditions of Victorian work house infirmaries and Asylums in caring for those with a range of health problems. He was very clearly committed to serving long hours over many years as there are written references to evening staff meetings as late as the year of his death. What emerged was an uplifting human being who clearly had a great influence upon many  people through personal commitment.
In researching material I discovered that asylum staff received a daily alcohol intake not unlike the Naval rum ration. This was ended after a suicide at Springfield when an attendant was found asleep and intoxicated and criticism by the Coroner and others who carried out more rigorous inspection of staffing and conditions lead to withdrawal of this allowance to staff.
The Bethlem Heritage blog is also linked to a Facebook page.
During the next year the existing Museum,gallery and archive buildings are being developed to create the new "Museum of the Mind" and an accompanying oral history project is under way. I am happy  to support both.
For decades I have enjoyed the rich art heritage of Bethlem Royal Hospital. The Imperial War Museum now occupies the most famous of the various sites in London which were in use prior to the 20th century relocation to Monks Orchard Road in Beckenham of the Hospital.  The word "Bedlam" is derived from the Bethlehem Hospital original name when the hospital was sited just outside the walls of the City of London. In the 17th century it moved to Moorfields until it's 19th century relocation to St.George's Fields in Southwark;the site familiar to my ancestor and now occupied by the Imperial War Museum. The move to Beckenham took place in the 1930's and it was to that site that I travelled to support people who were receiving treatment.
The online gallery of the Bethlem Art and History Collections Trust conveys some of art work in the collection and since the 1970's I have visited art exhibitions  now conserved by the Trust. I was very pleased to see that the Tate Gallery chose for a London wide poster campaign one of the William Dadd Fairy paintings. Dadd is one of many celebrated artists associated with the hospital art collection.
In October I was able to visit the current exhibition at Bethlem Gallery and learn of the larger sculpture works  loan during building work associated with the Museum development in 2014. See Raving & Melancholy Madness on Tour
The Archive is of interest to a Kent Online Parish Clerk,since it is possible that transfers and records of them between Asylums in Kent or Surrey may include those from parishes in the Bromley or South Bromley area.
There are hints in transcribing parish burial registers that coroner's verdicts or local clergy attitude to suicidal behaviour was compassionate and the  burial of suicidal persons varied. The Keston Burial registers record a higher than average suicide rate through various means in or on the banks of the River Ravensbourne but also the death months after an attempt at suicide by a retired army officer later befriended by the rector who died months later of infection from sword wound attempt at cutting his throat. There is clear care of the man and detailed record that he was offered christian burial at Keston.
I continue to research with the archivist for documentary evidence in the Bethlem Archive of local people linked to any parishes in Kent.
Copyright Henry Mantell 2013