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Bedlam bodies found beneath Crossrail

Rob Sharp
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  • Last updated: Friday, 8 April 2011 at 10:29 am

rake in bedlam 300x243 Bedlam bodies found beneath CrossrailOpened in 1247, London’s St Bethlehem Hospital was the world’s first institution dedicated to mental illness. An abbreviation of its name produced the modern word “bedlam”.

Archaeologists have now discovered as many as 1,000 bodies at the hospital’s former burial site near London’s Liverpool Street station, as part of the capital’s Crossrail development. While some of the remains will ultimately go on display in the Museum of London, Government regulations demand the bodies are ultimately reburied locally – though indecision still surrounds the exact location.

“We are talking about several hundreds, possibly thousands of sets of remains,” said Crossrail archaeologist Jake Carver. “We have made a larger hole at the site than anything previously created here.”

The discovery dwarfs the recovery of 400 bodies at the site during the 1980s as part of the development of the Broadgate Centre. Many of those remains were reinterred beneath the Centre itself, though Mr Carver predicts the larger numbers of corpses this time around will make that impossible.

“We need to agree a suitable place to rebury them,” continued Mr Carver. “In similar situations it has been the East London Cemetery which has had the space. But we will not finish the work for another year or two. Prior to the corpses’ re-internment we will try to undertake analyses to find out more about those buried there. What genders were they, what ages, and did they suffer from particular pathologies?”

The site lies beneath the location of Crossrail’s future ticket hall at Liverpool Street. It was once occupied by a cemetery identified in historical records as the “Bethlehem Churchyard”, part of Bethlehem Hospital’s land holdings. “Bedlam” was an old abbreviation of “Bethlehem” and became associated with the institution, which for much of its history was known for its inhuman treatment of patients.

Recent controversy has surrounded archaeologists’ requirements to rebury corpses. The Ministry of Justice, which controls the exhumation of human remains from ancient graves, introduced legislation in 2008 decreeing that all human remains dug up from burial sites, no matter how old they were, needed to be reburied within two years. Last October, archaeologists complained that this gave them insufficient time to study their finds. However Mr Carver claims archaeologists dealing with more modern burial sites have always had to look at reburying any bodies discovered.

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  • Robert_Miller5

    Just a small correction. The first mental hospital in the West was probably built early in the eighth century in (guess where!) Baghdad. My source: Ibrahim B. Syed PhD, “Islamic Medicine: 1000 years ahead of its times”, Journal of the Islamic Medical Association, 2002 (2), p. 2-9. There may well have been mental hospitals in China much earlier than this.
    Robert Miller


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