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Photos by © Bethlem Museum of the Mind

T

he swooping downward trajectory of Anerley Hill is like a free fairground ride down through Victorian South London. But just past the ribbon of Croydon Canal and just before Beckenham Crem (where WG Grace bats at his perennial crease) the postcode slips from sooty SE20 to leafy BR. Lying ahead – confidently pebbledashed and mock-Tudored – is a different era. Here, less than fifteen minutes from Upper Norwood, deeper into hushed suburbia, passing gabled Sunday carvery pubs and through a cloister of chestnuts along the evocatively named Monks Orchard road, the humble gateway to one of South London’s most discreet medical institutions appears. A flash of NHS blue signage delivers a visual jolt beneath the green canopy. It wasn’t always this modest. In the public view at least Bethlem Royal Hospital has had an hysterical reputation, fraught with terrifying narrative and grotesque imagery. Once infamously sited at the corner now occupied by the Imperial War Museum – imagine that taciturn baroque exterior being the very last thing you saw before being dragged to the end of your days – it eventually came to this pastoral estate in West Wickham in the 20s. Its mainly art deco cottage buildings are testament to a more enlightened approach to mental illness that has continued to evolve. In 1997 the Museum of the Mind was founded, re-launching in the hospital’s exemplary main building in 2015. The frankly stunning central staircase cleaves effortlessly upwards behind the vast stone memorabilia salvaged from the institution’s previous less savoury incarnation: twin statues – entitled

Raving and Melancholy Madness from Bedlam’s 17thcentury entrance – writhe with gigantic internal agony in the lobby. Above, the clean and streamlined aesthetics of the very best deco design draw the visitor inward, with calm marble hues and open ceiling reminiscent of another circular masterpiece of the era in South London, the lounge at Eltham Palace. Instantly engrossing, the exhibition’s most precious asset is the testimonies of the psychiatric patients over the centuries to the present, as witnessed in writing and painting. Their commentaries are both distressing and compelling, officially validated in the open registers that are like macabre visitors’ books inscribed in the elegant copperplate of the day. The entries combine the mundane with the startling: ‘bodily condition’ of a new arrival – healthy; ‘form of disorder’ – maniacal. Another log has a poignant entry briskly noting death on discharge from ‘exhaustion following puerperal mania’ – postpartum infection, sepsis after childbirth. In a brilliantly conceived architectural extension, with an inspired drop window that completely frames a whole tree that must be more than fifty feet tall, are the recordings of the accounts of those treated under the Mental Health Act, from a ‘patient’ in 1897 to a ‘service user’ in 2008. All the while the listener is aware of a robust section of padded panel and accompanying slotted door, displayed nearby, that was in use not so very long ago. There are many other ghastly pieces on display such as a straitjacket or ‘strong dress’ from the 19th century, plus a selection of evil restraints for ankles and wrists, a ‘belt and braces’ contraption and the brutal ‘female 25

The Transmitter Issue 40  

A South London Magazine

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