By Haydn Brown.
The complete history of the former Bethel Hospital is too involved to appear here. Instead, today’s blog is confined to its very beginning, prefaced by a summary of the periods which led up to the time when Mary Chapman shared her ideas with her husband, Reverend Samuel Chapman of Thorpe Parish Church. He died before their project was implemented and it was left to Mary to forge ahead – when the time was right!
There is evidence to suggest that the site of the Bethel – and that was its original name – had been settled as early as Saxon times. We know this through extensive archaeological excavations which took place on the site of the former Norwich Central Library prior to its construction in 1960; the library then lay almost next door to the ground on which the Bethel was built back in 1713. This pre-1960 excavation unearthed a large collection of finds; significantly, the discovery of Saxon postholes confirmed that the area had been settled well before Norman times, whilst a rare Viking gold ingot, the first of its type found in the UK, could be roughly dated to the Viking occupation of East Anglia in the late ninth century.
During the Medieval period, Over or Upper Newport, as Bethel Street was then known, stretched from St Peter Mancroft to St Giles Gate, or New-port, close to the surviving church of St Giles. The Norfolk historian, Francis Blomefield, wrote in 1768 that this street was:
“the ropery, where the cord and ropemakers formerly dwelt’.
During this period the Bethel site also fell under the shadow of St Mary-in-the-Fields, a chapel and hospice founded by John Le Brun in 1248, the crypt of which survives below the Assembly House grounds, which itself still faces towards the south-west of the earlier Bethel and later renamed Bethel Hospital.
The Committee House and The Great Blow:
Blomefield also noted that part of the Bethel was located on the site of the former ‘Committee House’, a meeting place and store for the County’s armoury; the house was rented to Norfolk’s County Committee. Significantly, the building’s importance was reflected in the naming of the road outside as Committee Street, which linked Over or Upper Newport Gate (Upper St Giles’) to St Peter’s Street by St Peter Mancroft Church.
Little is known about the Committee House, but it is recorded as having been the house of Francis Wyndham (1525-1592), who is ‘immortalised’ in a memorial at St Peter Mancroft. He had no children and left his property to his wife, Elizabeth, with the exception of the Committee House, which was valued at £400 and was to be sold to pay his debts.
The Committee House’s demise is recorded in an incident known as the ‘Great Blow’ which took place on 24 April 1648. The background to this incident is that Norwich, on the eve of the Second English Civil War, was a hotbed of dissent. This was exacerbated by high taxes levied by Charles I and objections to the King’s High Anglicanism, which stood in contrast to the Puritan values prevalent in Norfolk at the time. It was said that tensions ran particularly high when a death warrant was apparently placed on the head of the City’s Mayor, John Utting. A crowd of residents, ‘having a strong affection for the Mayor’, attempted to prevent the official’s imminent capture and, to prove their point further, a number of rioters plundered the houses of his suspected enemies.
It was around 2pm on the same day when crowds converged on the Committee House, a symbol of Parliament’s power over the city, emphasised by it being the arsenal for the County Arms Magazine. The crowd broke through the bolted doors and ascended to the armoury above where Samuel Cawthorne, the armourer, was assaulted for having shot a boy in the scuffle. By 4pm three troops of Colonel Charles Fleetwood’s parliamentarian cavalry regiment converged on Norwich. Riding down the crowd, they sent many of the inhabitants scurrying indoors, while a firefight developed around the Committee House during pouring rain.
Amongst the excitement, the rioters were careless with the gunpowder, ‘one sweeping it from the stairs, another taking a hatful home’! In the midst of the violence and clear confusion, the rioters accidentally detonated ninety-eight barrels of gunpowder. It was reported that around 100 people were killed or seriously injured as a result, along with total destruction of Committee House and adjacent properties. The blast also blew out all the windows of both St Peter Mancroft and St Stephen’s Churches, along with most other glazed buildings in the Market Place. Total damage was later estimated at the colossal sum of £20,000. Subsequently, fragments of glass were “gathered” from the site of the former Committee House and later set in St. Peter Mancroft church’s east window.
The Founding of the Bethel:
Given Committee Street’s history, it is not perhaps surprising that in 1712 the Guardians described the site on which the Bethel Hospital was built as a ‘wast peece of ground’. Thomas Cleer’s map, produced in 1696, was the first professionally surveyed scale plan of Norwich; it showed the site of the Bethel, seventeen years before the building was construction. The row of buildings fronting the street were broken by an empty plot. It appears very likely, therefore, that this plot was the site of the former ‘Committee House’ that had been destroyed 50 years earlier. The south side of the site was undeveloped at this point and backed on to a street, to the south of which were gardens adjoining ‘Chapply Field’ – known today as Chapelfield Gardens.
Mental Health Care in the 18th Century:
Before the eighteenth century the only dedicated facility in England for the care of those suffering from mental illness was the Bethlehem Hospital in London, which admitted its first mentally ill patients in 1407. Hence the Bethel, once built, would be the first purpose-built asylum in the country outside London.
Before the Madhouse Act of 1774, treatment of the Insane was generally carried out by non-licensed practitioners, who ran their asylums as a commercial enterprise with little regard for the inmates. With the establishment of the Mad House Act, licensing was required for each property if it was to house mentally ill patients, with yearly inspections of the premises taking place.
As the century progressed, ideas surrounding the treatment of patients changed. One notable Georgian development was the belief that regular bathing in hot and cold water would help alleviate symptoms of mental illness. In 1797 the Master of Bethel was responsible for ‘properly preparing the Bath and bathing of the patients, when ordered by the physicians’, reflecting the adoption of bathing as a medical practice.
The part dereliction of this area of Committee Street does offer an explanation for why the City was willing to lease the land to Mary Chapman for the establishment of her lunatic asylum in 1712. Mary Chapman came from a background of wealth and influence; the daughter of a former Mayor of Norwich and wife of Samuel Chapman, Rector of Thorpe. Although the Bethel was opened 14 years after her husband’s death, Mary’s Will suggests that the project was the joint charitable venture of Mary and her husband, both of whom had experienced the effects of lunacy in their own families. The name ‘Bethel’, meaning ‘House of God’, was apparently chosen by Samuel Chapman for its biblical connotations. His widow reinforced this sentiment by having a quotation from the book of Hebrews inscribed above its eventual door:
‘But to do good and to communicate forget not; for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’
Mary Chapman (1647 – 1724):
At this point in the story, a little must be said about the driving force behind the building of the Bethel, Mary Chapman. She was born on 24 of March 1647, during the English Civil War, and was the third daughter of John Mann and Hester nee’ Baron. Her father had made his fortune as a Worstead weaver, before going on to become Sheriff of Norwich in 1649 and Mayor four years later; in 1671 he took up the position of High Sheriff.
It was on 10 of May 1682 when, at the age of 35, Mary became the second wife of Rev. Samuel Chapman, Rector of Thorpe St Andrews; however, the marriage was childless. The couple, nevertheless, had the possible compensation of both sharing a concern for the treatment and welfare of the mentally ill. However, only 18 years of marriage passed before Samuel Chapman died, leaving money in his Will for Mary Chapman to build their dream of a house for the ‘habitation of poor lunatics’. In this, Mary was to devote herself to its foundation – somewhere in the city.
It was Mary’s staunch faith that was the driving force behind success in eventually building what became the Bethel in 1713. It was so named in accordance with the ‘advice and desire of Samuel Chapman’. Once founded, Mary Chapman continued to dictate the running of the Bethel; from specifying rules for admittance to carefully appointing her trustees, It was only later when the Bethel, became known as the Bethel Hospital, maintaining ‘several poor lunatics therein at her own expense during the time of her life and at her decease’.
Mary Chapman was a very religious women and in her Will she wrote; ‘First and before all things I humbly dedicate most heavenly devote to God….…’ and requested a plaque with the inscription ‘To do good and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’ from Hebrews 13th chapter and 16th verse. As well as inscribing this quotation above its door, Mary ensured that biblical texts were placed throughout the building, such as “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom” and “Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad”. According to Dylan Read:
“Mary Chapman became aware that ‘abuses of several kinds’ were taking place at the Bethel towards the inmates. She devised a system to regulate the abuses and instructions were given to deal with reducing the amount of abuse at the Bethel……”
Mary died in 1724, leaving most of her possessions and her wealth to the Bethel, as well as directions of its future running. It was her intent that, even after her death, the Bethel would continue to serve the purpose for which it was founded. In this, she also left it under the direction of seven trustees; John Hall, William Cockman, Richard Cooke, John Lombe, John Thompson, William Lombe and Timothy Gaming. In her Will, Mary also said that she wanted everyone with lunacy, whether from Norwich or not, to be placed in the Bethel and for the trustees to be paid by the families and friends of those living there. She also requested that a percentage of the earnings would go into the improvement of the charity through the payment of rent, maintenance and the employment of doctors. It was also requested that the trustees elected a treasurer.
Mary Chapman’s body was buried in accordance to her Will in the grounds of the Old Parish Church of Thorpe St Andrews, next to her Husband – without disturbing him. She asked for a plain coffin with only the letters M.C and that it would be carried to the by six parish clerks. Her tombstone survives in the chancel of the now ruinous church. It reads,
“She built wholly at her own expense the house in Norwich called Bethel for the reception, maintenance and cure of poor lunatics, to which and other charitable uses she gave all her income while she lived and her estate at her death.”
The Design of the Bethel:
After securing a 1000-year lease on the site of the proposed building at a peppercorn rate, Mary Chapman and her trustees commissioned Carpenter Richard Starling and mason Edward Freeman to build the Bethel, at a total cost of £314 2s. 6d; one trustee, John Morse, was responsible for overseeing the work. The only surviving image of Mary Chapman’s Bethel can be found on the Hospital’s seal, which depicts the building’s north façade and shows a two-storey range with two adjoining wings.
A copy of the original building agreement in Bateman and Rye’s History of the Bethel Hospital sheds further light on the building’s original design. In it, the trustees ordered the construction of a building measuring 89 foot in length with two 27-foot wings, as well as two cellars at the south-east and south-west corners of the main range. Staircases ran from these cellars to the second floor. Internally, the Hospital was to be divided by a passageway running:
“from the dore in the middle of the fore front of the said building to the dore in the midle of the back front of the said house”.
Each side would then be partitioned into three rooms. Every door was to include a six-inch square hole covered by an iron grille and shutter, presumably as a means of ensuring proper ventilation whilst also enabling the observation of patients. Three of these seem to survive in an altered form on the second floor of the western 1753 wing. The agreement specified that ‘good clear glass’ was to be used for all windows except for the cellar and attic windows, which were to be glazed with:
‘quarrell (kwor′el} glass’ – a square of glass placed diagonally – a diamond pane of glass. Windows were also to be fitted with ‘two iron bands of three-quarter inch barrs’.
Whether or not these plans were enacted in their entirety, they nevertheless help to shed light on the building’s function as a place of confinement. Mary Chapman herself stated that:
“those put…into the said House shall be kept close and not suffered to wander abroad during their disorder”.
However, it was the inmates’ care rather than their confinement that was at the forefront of Mary’s vision for the Bethel. In an inscription on the Hospital’s foundation stone, now repositioned at the entrance of the building, Mary laid out the Bethel’s purpose:
“This house was built for the benefit of distress Lunaticks Ano Dom. 1713 and is not to be alienated or employed to any other use or purpose whatsoever. Tis also requir’d that the Master, who shall be chosen from time to time, be a Man that lives in the Fear of God and sets up true protestant Religion in his Family and will have a due Regard as well to souls as bodies as those that are under his care.”
In his history of the Hospital, Bateman describes how the Bethel was “bounded west by a house and east the school house of Bernard Church”. These buildings on either side of Bethel Hospital are shown on Kirkpatrick’s 1723 map of Norwich, with Mary Chapman’s House clearly set back from the street.
Another terrace fronting Theatre Street falls within what is now the south west wing of Little Bethel Court. Produced four years later, James Corbridge’s 1727 map clearly illustrates the U-plan of the Bethel, showing the main range with its two adjoining north wings. Aside from this detail, the area around Committee Street appears relatively unchanged from Kirkpatrick’s map published three years earlier.
Little is known about the Hospital’s early years, other than that Mary Chapman lived at the Bethel until her death in 1724. In her Will, dated 22 October 1719, Chapman mentions that one Henry Harston was the master of the house at the time. The presumption that Harston was a layman with no medical qualification gives an indication of the type of care provided to those patients at the Bethel during its early years. Chapman’s Will also specified that seven trustees were to be appointed to run the Hospital on the occasion of her death. This wish was enacted in January 1724, when a group of appointed trustees presided over the newly formed public charity for the first time.
Footnote: (Mental Health Reform):
For a century, the Bethel was the sole public facility specifically for the mad or insane in Norwich. Andrew Halliday reported to the 1807 Select Committee that Norwich had 112 ‘lunatics and idiots’, of whom only 27 were detained in poor law or penal institutions. In 1808, the County Asylum Act was passed, which allowed counties to levy a rate in order to fund the building of county asylums. The intention was to remove the insane from the workhouses and provide them with a dedicated care system. Despite this legislation, only 20 county asylums were built around the country.
One such institution was the Norfolk Lunatic Asylum, opened in 1814 with beds for 104 patients. However, the city’s provision of care for the mentally ill was severely inadequate. Of the few patients that were sent to Bethel Hospital, hundreds more were left in workhouses. Until the Lunatics Act of 1845, the number of patients at the Bethel remained between seventy and eighty, while those in the new asylum increased. This was sped up by the transferral of a number of Bethel’s pauper patients to the County Asylum in 1814.
By 1845, the Lunatics Act had brought public asylums into line with each other. It made the provision of accommodation for pauper patients compulsory and required mental healthcare institutions with more than 100 patients to have a medically qualified superintendent at their head. It also took into account the moral treatment pioneered by William Tuke and saw the care of the lunatics being funded by the individual county.
William Tuke (1732 – 1822) was a prominent mental health reformer and philanthropist. Born into a leading Quaker family, Tuke embraced social activism in his youth, campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade. Towards the end of the century Tuke increasingly became involved in mental health reform and raised funds to establish his own Quaker asylum in 1796. The York Retreat was a religious and humane hospital for Quakers suffering with mental illness.
Tuke’s model of moral treatment was adopted by asylums across the country and went on to become one of the most influential practices in 19th century asylums. Chains were removed from inmates, accommodation was improved, and patients were engaged in occupational work as a form of ‘moral therapy’.
For those who have an appetite for more, several documents which relate to Mary Chapman are held at the Norfolk Record Office; NRO, BH21-23 -‘A Short Account of Mrs Mary Chapman and of her founding and embowering the house called Bethel in the city of Norwich’, this includes information on Mary Chapman as well as a copy of her Will. This can also be viewed on the microfilm at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, NCC will register Lawrence 219). NRO, MC 2018/1, 895X6 is a Work book which contains transcript and notes on Mary Chapman amongst other information on the Bethel Hospital.
Francis Blomfield, An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: History, Volume 1. (W Miller: London, 1805), 235
Christopher W Brooks, “‘Wyndham, Francis (d. 1592)’”, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004),
Anonymous, The History of The City and County Of Norwich: From The Earliest Accounts To The Present Time, Volume 1 (1768), 267
Sir Frederick Bateman and Walter Rye, The History of the Bethel at Norwich (Gibbs and Waller: Norwich, 1906), 6 and 166.
Bethel Hospital Conservation Management Plan
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