Next month will be probably the last chance to visit an old museum in the grounds of the Bethlem hospital before it closes for good.

For once, this is a good thing, for the rather small and tired old museum is to be replaced with a much larger building, and also still within the grounds of the hospital.

Situated in deepest south London, the Bethlem hospital is one of many such philanthropic institutions set up in the City of London that later migrated further out to the edges of the city. Occupying for a while what is now the Imperial War Museum, the hospital has been down near Beckenham since the 1930s.


It’s a modest walk from the nearby train station, or in my case a slightly longer wander down from temporary lodgings in Crystal Palace. Nearing the hospital, a striking sight of a row of heavily pollarded tree stumps looking more like they were the stunted remains of a nuclear winter.

Doubtless the deep foliage that pollarding causes turns them into a veritable hedge during summer, but at the moment, they are a line of silent sentinels keeping watch on passers by.

Despite the forbidding image of a mental hospital, entry is through wide open gates, although a sign warns that photography is strictly forbidden. For once, an acceptable condition of entry, as it is a hospital where patient confidentiality should be respected.

A sign notes that the museum is open — as it is on the first Saturday of every month, and a brisk walk to a small shed like building. Ring the doorbell and a cheerful chap opened up and an introduction to sign the guest book.

There are usually talks on the day, although I turned up unawares and really a bit too early to hang around long enough, for this is a very small museum. Tiny in fact.

Actually, more an art gallery — for one of the more famous side effects of mental disturbance, and also one of its best treatments is a propensity for art. Written, sculpted or painted.

So within a small room stand a few works of art with small detailed cards explaining why they were chosen and the suffering of the person who created them. A few bits of historic artifacts and a few boards explaining the history of the hospital, and well, that’s about it.

A small gallery that might be worth popping into if somewhere convenient, but hardly worth the effort, even if passing on the nearby railway line. However, it is closing soon, so museum-completists may wish to pay a visit while they still can — and go back again next year when the new museum opens, for comparison.

We appreciate the new better when we have experienced what it replaced.

The next time it is open on a Saturday is the 6th December, 11am-5pm. Entry is free, and they have a small collection of books, and to my personal delight, a cup to add to my collection.


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  1. Zoe says:

    It is tiny and it’s good news to learn that a larger museum will be built, there must be so much material that isn’t currently on display due to lack of space. You don’t mention the marvellous life-size sculptures by Cibber, Melancholy and Raving Madness, once displayed over the entrance of Bethlem when it was in Moorgate and that could do with a larger space to show them better: have they been moved already?

  2. Paul says:

    Zoe – your answer is here – penultimate para – a sublink off the link kindly provided by Ian.

  3. James Hooton says:

    Tiny though the present museum is I still felt it a worthwhile visit but look forward to visiting the larger replacement at some point.

  4. Graham says:

    The sculptures were the highlight for me, but they are currently on tour, which is presumably why Ian wasn’t as bowled over by them as Zoe and I were.

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