Of all the ancient and haunted buildings in London, there is none that conjure up more sinister connotations than Bethlem Hospital, or as it’s more commonly referred to, Bedlam. It has sat in several places around the city but in 1815 it found its final site in Lambeth, now the Imperial War Museum. For years it was the largest psychiatric hospital in the world; but back then there was little understanding of the mental illness and the treatments for such afflictions were barbaric. So what is it that makes the haunting of Bedlam so terrifying?
In the Georgian and Victorian eras it was common for the patients to be chained in their cells, beaten and tortured by their hard-hearted guards. For a small fee the public were allowed in to gawk, stare and mock those poor wretches that were condemned to live out their days in this place. And what constituted mental illness in those days? Not just the truly mentally ill but anyone who was different from the norm of society, women who wouldn’t do as they were told, those stricken with grief or disease. And the place where the government sent those soldiers who had lost their minds through the horrors of war, or what is now known as PTSD. In to Bedlam they went to be locked away from the eyes of the world.
Some of those confined within its grim halls were infamous for their time. Edward Oxford, who had treid to shoot Queen Victoria in 1840; Jonathan Martin, who had set fire to York Minster in 1829; James Hadfield and Margaret Nicholson who had both tried to kill George III on separate occasions and who both spent the rest of their miserable days inside a Bedlam cell.
It was a place of great pain and suffering, even if its intended purpose was to help and repair. Perhaps this is what turned it into such a haunted and terrifying location; one that sparks the imagination and fear. When it was open people would report the horrid sounds of crying and moaning, the rattling of the chains that restrained the denizens of this mad madhouse.
Eventually the hospital was moved once again from its Lambeth location and the building was redeveloped into the Imperial War Museum. But if that were the end of the story then this wouldn’t be a tale worthy of telling. Indeed it is still said today that the spectres of those who suffered in Bedlam still roam the hallways and rattle their chains in remembered anguish.
During the Second World War, a detachment of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was stationed inside the Imperial War Museum with barrage balloons. Much of the museum has parts that date back to Bedlam and it isn’t hard to imagine them as cells full of the damned inmates. Many of the young girls who were garrisoned inside had never heard of the buildings sordid past, so had no reason to fear it. Yet soon complaints began to flood in as during the night many found they couldn’t sleep, kept up by strange moaning and the rattling of chains. The long passed inmates of Bedlam made their displeasure well known. Eventually the complaints became so bad the entire detachment had to be rehoused nearby.
Possibly the most famous ghost of Bedlam is the sad spectre of poor Rebecca. At a merchant’s house by London Bridge lived a lovely young girl by the name of Rebecca. She fell head over heels in love with a handsome young Indian man who had come to lodge with the family. So besotted was she that when he packed up his bags to return to India she was shocked that he hadn’t loved her quite nearly as much as she’d loved him. She helped him to pack his things, hoping all the while that he would change his mind and agree to stay. But all she received was a gold sovereign that he slipped into her hand before leaving forever.
The grief of her spurning was too much for her mind to handle and she snapped, soon being admitted to Bedlam Hospital. The golden sovereign he had given her was gripped firmly in her fist for the remainder of her short life, the final token from her lost love, never to be given up. When she finally wasted away into death it didn’t go unnoticed by one of the guards who prised the coin from her hand and then buried her without her most prized possession. It was after that the guards, inmates and visitors all began to report a strange sight indeed. A wan and ghostly figure began to roam the halls of Bedlam, searching for her lost love token, her spirit refusing to be put to rest until she had it back in her hand. It is said that she still wanders the halls to this day, looking for that stolen coin to make her whole once more.
PS: Here is our favourite quote about Bedlam, by playwright Nathaniel Lee, incarcerated in Bedlam when it was in Moorfields in 1689: “”They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me”.