Alms boxes, c 1675.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
These roughly life-size alms box figures, one male and one female, were used to collect donations for the Bethlehem ('Bedlam') Royal Hospital in London when it was situated at Moorfields. The hospital had previously been situated in nearby Bishopsgate. When it admitted its first patients in about 1377, the hospital was one of the world's earliest mental asylums. In many asylums conditions could be harsh and chaotic; hence the origin of the word 'bedlam'. Bethlehem housed hundreds of inmates in the mid 18th century, a time when new asylums were opened, some with more humane regimes. In many asylums however, viewing the 'lunatics' remained a source of entertainment for groups of well-to-do visitors.