Bedlam : London and its Mad, Paperback Book

Bedlam : London and its Mad Paperback

4.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


'Bedlam!' The very name conjures up graphic images of naked patients chained among filthy straw, or parading untended wards deluded that they are Napoleon or Jesus Christ.

We owe this image of madness to William Hogarth, who, in plate eight of his 1735 Rake's Progress series, depicts the anti-hero in Bedlam, the latest addition to a freak show providing entertainment for Londoners between trips to the Tower Zoo, puppet shows and public executions.

That this is still the most powerful image of Bedlam, over two centuries later, says much about our attitude to mental illness, although the Bedlam of the popular imagination is long gone.

The hospital was relocated to the suburbs of Kent in 1930, and Sydney Smirke's impressive Victorian building in Southwark took on a new role as the Imperial War Museum.

Following the historical narrative structure of her acclaimed Necropolis, BEDLAM examines the capital's treatment of the insane over the centuries, from the founding of Bethlehem Hospital in 1247 through the heyday of the great Victorian asylums to the more enlightened attitudes that prevail today.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 320 pages, 8pp b-w
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Social & cultural history
  • ISBN: 9781847390004

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Showing 1 - 2 of 2 reviews.

Review by

This has been hovering on my radar for a while and on my wishlist for months, so when I spotted it in the library I had to pick it up. It's a terrifying book but I am so glad to have read it. As the title suggests, it is predominantly a history of the Bethlehem asylum in London, soon contracted to 'Bedlam' in local slang and quickly fixing the term in our language as a byword for chaos.Bedlam's history is a horrifying tale swimming with chains and straitjackets, ice baths and purging, bleeding and starvation, mania and despair. Arnold draws the reader through the years from Bedlam's conception, into different locations and grand buildings, through the reigns of monarch after monarch. Doctors and superintendents come and go, treatments fluctuate and metamorphose, knowledge grows and changes for the better... eventually. Through the sweep of Bedlam's history, Arnold has included the stories of some of the saddest, quirkiest and most notorious patients to haunt its cells, as well as extending her research to offer the reader a wider historical context and a broader look at the treatment of madness across the country. There is also an interesting chapter on mad women as a cultural construct, including a look at Miss Havisham and Bertha Mason as literary representations of contemporary stereotypes.As a manic depressive, all I can say is, thank heavens I'm not living my life any time but now. Right up the mid-20th century, people suffering from mental illness have been 'treated' with a host of remedies from the ridiculous to the barbaric to, just occasionally, the hopeful and enlightened. I found this book by turns sad, wry, mind-boggling, thoughtful and plain horrific. I feel like I've come away from it having been educated and enlightened, not to mention harbouring a profound feeling of gratefulness that today's medicine has, for the most part, finally rejected the attitudes and approaches to mental illness that made elements of this book so painful to read. Highly recommended!

Review by

A history of the infamous lunatic asylum that operated in London for hundreds of years and became a byword for chaos. Arnold traces all aspects of the institution, from its founders, doctors, policies, patients and reputation. The author does take some asides, such as including King George III's history of insanity and treatments (he was not an inmate of Bedlam), but the added information creates a more complete picture of the place and time. A solid read for its subject and history of London in general.

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