The history of mental health and madness is something that fascinates me. That is what influenced my walk on a darkening Thursday late afternoon, a walk I undertook after I had a therapy session. I decided to put myself in the area of those who were once in asylum, to explore whether the institutions of madness still remains and haunts the area of the old sites of Bethlem or Hoxton House, in a similar state that the patients were in.
I started along the original site of the Bethlem Hospital, which is now covered by Liverpool Street station. The institution of Bethlem (often shortened to Bedlam) has a long standing history, starting from 1247 and still exists today as a part of the NHS. This video provides a brief history of the Bethlem Hospital. There is a plaque that commemorates the old Bethlem site in Liverpool Street station.
Walking along London Wall, I spotted a church that had been converted into a workplace for a charity. The church used to be All Hallows, a church that has a history since 1455. It is a church known to have its religious anchorites, particularly Simon Appulby who wrote ‘The Fruyte of Redempcyon’, a book about the life of Christ. The idea of anchorites is particularly interesting as they follow a similar action to those who are placed in Bethlem, they remained a social recluse, and enclosed themselves in cells located in the church. This is similar to Bedlam, who were placed in cells to prevent them from being a danger to themselves or society. Today, however, it is difficult to be a recluse in London as you will always be surrounded by people, day or night.
Passing All Hallows, I turned left onto Bishopsgate. The street bustling with the suits on their way home, scowling at me as I broke the norm of the human current. That’s what being ‘mad’ is, breaking the norm. I was mad for not following suit. Bishopsgate has a mixture of new and old buildings, either brand spanking new buildings or old buildings containing new ideas, similar to All Hallows church. It is ever changing. The city looked bright and full of life, something that is the complete opposite of madness and its institutions, and the opposite of how I felt during the walk.
Walking towards the City of London dragon, the dragon that indicates the start of the City, I noticed that the area became darker, both literally and atmospherically. There was a clear distinction between the rich and poor. Businesses were shut down and the homeless were everywhere. It is a known fact that there is a correlation between mental illness and homelessness. The Bethlem used to provide shelter to the homeless in 1247, until it shifted to the treatment of madness.
Turning left onto Great Eastern Street and then right onto Curtain Road, I noted the amount of pubs and clubs that situated in the area, none of them containing any particular history. I thought of Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street paintings and how the notion of alcoholism caused a moral panic in the Georgian era, that continued through the Victorian period and through to today. There was a panic that alcohol affected British values, such as the institution of family. Dr Mitchell from Boston discussed in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published in 1904 the different forms of madness caused by alcoholism, such as delusional alcoholic insanity, and alcoholic dementia.
Shoreditch today is known for its clubbing atmosphere, with many flocking there on a Saturday night. But luckily, it was Thursday and I would not be tempted by the idea of drinking, preventing me from falling into the pit that is my inevitable dependency on alcohol. There is also a moral panic about binge drinking in today’s culture, as alcohol is often blamed for various crimes such as property damage and racism.
Heading closer towards my destination, I noticed an Osteopathy clinic offering various treatments for physical health. Some of the treatments, such as acupuncture, can also help with various mental health disorders too. Present day treatment of madness is significantly more humane in comparison to that of Bedlam. Previously, patients used to have lobotomies, shackled to the walls, visited by the public as though they were animals, and much more.
The streets were starting to fill up with workers heading towards the Old Street tube station, so I walked faster to my end destination, eager to get the walk finished so that I could go to a place of safety to deal with my own madness. The sky was dark now, the streetlights guiding my path through madness.
Onto Hoxton Street, past another club and a school, I stood by where the Hoxton House asylum stood until it was demolished in 1911. Hoxton House was a private asylum, owned by the Miles family, the Navy had a contract with the family to look after their lunatics. In 1798, a Dr Blair visited the site, and found it to be a positive place for the patients, stating that ‘these accommodations have greatly the advantage of Bethlem Hospital’. Not only did it have a contract with the Navy, it looked after fee-paying lunatics and pauper lunatics. Charles Lamb, sister of Mary Lamb, was a notable resident in 1796. Mary and Charles, writers, both had a history of madness, Mary often resided in the Bethlem and her brother was not too far away. Charles wrote a letter to his friend Coleridge explaining where he had been recently:
your very humble servant spent very agreeably in a mad house at Hoxton—I am got somewhat rational now, and don’t bite any one. But mad I was—and many a vagary my imagination played with me, enough to make a volume if all told. – May 27th 1796
The idea of madness is quite terrifying for many. Perhaps that is why my walk did not contain as much history as I hoped, as it changed in order to steer itself away from its terrifying history. But madness cannot go away, for it is remains in everything and everyone. It is in the people who walk the streets and the pubs they reside in. In the therapies they undertake and the houses they sleep in. The ghosts of the mad will never truly leave.
All sources are hyperlinked