The word bedlam came about as a contraction of the name of a hospital in London. This hospital started out in 1247 as a priory for the order of St. Mary of Bethlehem.
This priory eventually became the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem and was meant to serve sick poor and homeless people. However, by 1405, the hospital was under royal control and had begun to be partly used as an insane asylum, the first of its kind in England.
The name of the hospital had already been slurred to Bedlam in popular speech, helped along by the variant spelling Bethlem and soon an inmate of the asylum started to be called a bedlam as well.
Bedlam was not always the most well run or inspected of establishments and there were periods of great brutality and there were descriptions of “miserable creatures in chains” in John Evelyns 1657 diary. The hospital became known as a place of noisy, raving lunatics and wealthy people even took to visiting it to be entertained by their antics.
It is estimated that around 100,000 people a year visited the institution for this purpose and the hospital was a model of the kind of excesses and cruelty that the “madhouse” came to be associated with.
After this, any insane asylum or madhouse came to be called bedlam and the meaning of the word became extended to mean any riotous noise or scene of noisy confusion.
However, after 1857, St. Mary of Bethlehem came under regular government inspection and today it is known as the Bethlem Royal Hospital, although not located in the same place. Despite it’s checkered past, it is now a modern psychiatric research institution.