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The Mystery of Bedlam Revealed

If you ever heard the phrase “It’s like Bedlam in here", you may wonder what the expression really meant or where it came from. Here’s the story.

Most dictionary definitions include:  ‘(fig) uproarious assembly, pandemonium. (adj) fit for a madhouse, resembling a madhouse’. However in the 1932 ‘The New Standard Encyclopaedia and world atlas’, published by Odhams press Ltd., it gives only the following definition:

”Popular name for Bethlem or Bethlehem Hospital. It was founded in London in1247 as a religious house and went on to become a home for the insane, the first one in the country, in 1403. In1676 it was moved from Bishopsgate to Moorefield and in 1815 to Lambeth. There it remained until 1930, when new buildings were erected at Monks Orchard, Beckenham….”

No mention of ‘pandemonium’ or ‘state of wild uproar and confusion’.

So how did ‘bedlam’ come to mean uproar and confusion?

It is most probable, and widely believed that over the years there has been a verbal corruption of Bethlehem to Bethlem to Bedlam. The word was used in the 1500s by William Tyndale to mean a madman. (Source: New Advent)

In 1247, just outside the walls of the city, the monks from the order of St Mary of Bethlehem founded a priory on land given to them by merchant Simon FitzMary.

It is thought that around the early 1300s the poor and the sick were being cared for there – Bethlehem being Hebrew for “house of bread”.

In1330 it was granted a license to collect alms as a hospital.

By 1405 it’s known that the ‘insane’ were being cared for there, through a reference in a Royal Commission

From this caring start it would appear that from around the middle of the 16th century, when it was handed over to the City of London, some of the Keepers (managers) were somewhat patient-care less orientated. There are descriptions of the inmates making a terrible noise described by one source as “so hideous, so great that they are more able to drive a man that hath his wits rather out of them” and of patients being restrained with chains.

Even when it moved to new premise in1675 things didn’t get any better, and by the 18th century it became a form of entertainment to visit the asylum to view the poor wretches. One source quotes that the visitors could “laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature or violent fights” or even poke them with sticks.

The financial accounts show that in one year alone visitors generated £400 at one penny per visitor. Pre decimalisation, there were 240 pennies in the British pound, so that equates to 96,000 visitors in one year!

Thankfully things have changed over the years.

From 1851 there have been regular government inspections and the Royal Bethlehem Hospital continues to this day with the highest standard of mental health care.

So the next time somebody says “it’s like Bedlam in here”, poke them with a stick!


  1. The Rakes Progress by William Hogarth
  2. Bethlehem Hospital 1675
  3. Inside The Hospital from the Museum of London
  4. Picture by David Beales- patient Image Source

Also by C.Jordan

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User Comments
  1. Lauren Axelrod

    On September 21, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Wow, this is interesting. I never knew.

  2. Lucas DiƩ

    On November 16, 2008 at 10:26 am

    I enjoyed that a lot :)

  3. lindalulu

    On November 16, 2008 at 11:30 am

    I liked this a lot. Great info. I came here from a friend of yours posting this for you on my post Read them forward. The old will once again become new, I hope!

  4. Cleverdick

    On December 10, 2008 at 6:07 am

    No mystery to solve really…just an explaination……what you didn’t point out in your piece was that Bedlam hospital Building is now the Imperial war museum in London, (The hospital has moved elsewhere)……quite fitting really.

  5. Rick

    On December 10, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Very interesting.
    Unfortunately we haven’t come as far as we think. Now we watch disturbed people make spectacles of themselves, and poke at them in a different way, on things like the Jerry Springer show. A lot of “reality” shows aren’t much better. No matter how you look at it it’s a pathetic form of entertainment.

  6. Geri

    On December 17, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Very good article chris

  7. Patrick Bernauw

    On January 22, 2009 at 5:12 am

    Being a history freak and an Anglophiliac (or something like that)… this sure was my cup of coffee! (I don’t drink tea.)

  8. live and lovin life

    On November 2, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    very interesting…..

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