The Bethel Hospital in Norwich, founded by Mary Chapman, was opened in 1713 and was the first purpose-built asylum in the country. In 1712, the site, a 'wast peece of ground,' in Committee Street ( later re-named Bethel Street, because of the hospital) near to St. Peter Mancroft Church, had been leased to Mary Chapman for one thousand years at a peppercorn rent. Carpenter Richard Starling and mason Edward Freeman were contracted to build the hospital, at a total cost of £314 2s. 6d. The original building faced south, with two wings, and was best viewed from the garden at the back. From 1713 to 1814 (when the local county asylum was opened), the Bethel was the sole public facility for the mad or insane in Norwich. There were alterations and additions to the building in 1807 and Edward Boardman remodeled the Bethel Street front in 1899. An inscription on the re-positioned foundation stone reads,
'This house was built for the benefit of distrest 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.'
Mary Chapman (1647-1724), founder of the Bethel, was the daughter of John Mann, an alderman of Norwich. In 1682, she married Samuel Chapman, the rector of Thorpe. Samuel died in 1700. The Bethel was the charitable idea of Mary and her husband, both of whom had immediate experience of lunacy in their own families. They wished to establish a building for the habitation of 'poor lunatics, and not for natural born fools or idiots.' Before 1700, the insane were rarely locked up in madhouses. England's only public madhouse, Bethlehem Hospital, in London, housed little more than a hundred lunatics.
After Mary's death in 1724 her will, dated 1717, changed the private institution into an independent public trust managed by committee and regulated by specific instructions within the will. For its endowment she settled all her personal estate on seven trustees giving to them the sole power and management of 'this asylum for as many distressed lunatics as the revenues will afford, the city of Norwich always to have preference.' The hospital trust was at first, virtually alone in attempting to treat forms of mental illness or disorder in a period when sufferers were frequently de-humanised and incarcerated. For the patients, there was 'care, maintenance and relief of them for clothes, food and physick, and all other necessaries.' They were also given facilities for recreation and worship.
The patients were to be protected against 'exploitation, fire, self-injury or assault, excessive physical restraint and escape. The rules and orders reflected a humane attitude to the mad but at the same time, for example in 1743, when there were twenty-five residents on average, an inventory included five pairs of handcuffs, ten padlocks and two chairs and staples. In 1758, three strait waistcoats for 'disorderly lunatics' were ordered. No records of restraint exist although it seems that restraint was a part of eighteenth-century therapeutic wisdom.
Between 1760 and 1880, records suggest that one third of the inmates were pronounced cured or relieved, although over the first half of the nineteenth century the average stay of those who died in the Bethel was fourteen years. In 1845, White's Directory records that 'the hospital has accommodations for 70 patients, of whom about 35 are free, and small weekly sums, varying from 3s. to 8s. are paid for each of the others by their friends or parishes.
In 1931 there were 128 people in the Bethel Hospital. The Bethel had survived as a product of local wealth, position, politics and religion. After the Second World War, with the introduction of the 1948 National Health Service, the Bethel became an annexe to Hellesdon Hospital, Norwich. The Bethel housed 122 patients in 1960 and in the Hospital Plan of 1962; the Bethel was stated to be:
''the oldest surviving hospital in the country specifically founded for the care of the mentally ill and currently the oldest building in the U.K. to have been in continuous psychiatric use.'
In 1974 the In-Patient facilities were closed and the Bethel became an Out-Patient Unit for disturbed children. By 1995 the hospital had been shut and discussions were underway for the conversion of the building. At the time of writing (2007), the western wing has been converted for residential use and the eastern block has still to be completely re-developed.
Mary Chapman is buried in the churchyard of Thorpe St. Andrew's church.
Winston, M, 'The Bethel at Norwich: an eighteenth-century hospital for lunatics,' Medical History, January, No 38, (1), 1994, pp. 27-51.