"they paid to see the play in Bedlam"
by cm
Scene of Bethlem Hospital from A Rake's Progress (c. 1732-35)
Public DomainScene of Bethlem Hospital from A Rake's Progress (c. 1732-35) - Credit: William Hogarth

A reference to London’s Bethlehem Hospital, the oldest public hospital specialising in the treatment of insanity, whose origins dated back to the 14th century. Its name was soon contracted to Bethlem, which became in familiar speech the notorious ‘Bedlam’. Here, inmates not only suffered brutal ill-treatment, but, until long into the 18th century, were put on show for the amusement of fashionable society and for the profit of the proprietors.

For a penny per head, people could pay to see 'the play in Bedlam’, while hucksters sold fruit and nuts, and obliging keepers brought in beer for a small charge. It is estimated that the hospital brought in about £400 a year through this means. It was only in 1770 that the first restrictions were placed on visitors to Bedlam. From then on admission was granted only by special permission of one of the governors of the asylum.