A look back at the life of Mary Chapman - the woman who took pity on those in need

At risk - parts of the former Bethel Hospital in the heart of Norwich that the council are hoping to

At risk - parts of the former Bethel Hospital in the heart of Norwich that the council are hoping to save. Photo: Steve Adams - Credit: Steve Adams

She was the pioneering woman who welcomed some of the most vulnerable people in society into a safe place - and she was born in Norwich 370 years ago.

Mary Chapman, founder of Bethel Hospital. Photo: Archant Library

Mary Chapman, founder of Bethel Hospital. Photo: Archant Library - Credit: Archant Library

Rarely a week goes by without the worrying subject of how to look after people with mental health issues making headlines, and today we pay tribute to a woman who built the first hospital of its kind in the land and called it The House of Bethel in Norwich.

She was the visionary Mary Chapman (nee Mann) who was born in 1647 and despite the savage demolition schemes and 1942 blitz, the building she paid for herself still stands proud. It is a Grade II Listed architectural gem and a memorial to a remarkable woman.

Unlike many of the leading citizens of Norwich who have been forgotten about, Mary does have roads and developments named after her but people still ask, who was she?

Mary was an extraordinary woman who dedicated her life to looking after others in a cruel and vicious world.

The south front of Bethel Hospital. Photo: Archant Library

The south front of Bethel Hospital. Photo: Archant Library - Credit: Archant Library

Modern medicine and methods have done much to alter the public's attitude towards the mentally ill and we owe a big debt to Mary who, more than 300 years ago, built at her own expense what was described as 'a house called Bethel for the reception and care of poor lunatics.'

Mary's father was Alderman John Mann, a wealthy weaver.

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He was Sheriff in 1649 and Mayor in 1653. It was said the family lived in one of the houses standing in St Andrew's Hill – a stone's throw from the Bridewell, the prison for women and beggars where often people described as 'lunatics' were also locked up and left to die.

She said some of her own relatives were afflicted with 'lunacy' and as a girl she must have seen the appalling way others, with no family or friends to care for them, were treated. Beaten and mocked with nowhere to live.

Mary Chapman Court, UEA. Photo: Google Maps

Mary Chapman Court, UEA. Photo: Google Maps - Credit: Google Maps

Mary would have led a comfortable life compared with most other people in Norwich at the time and some of her friends were leading citizens of the time. One of her sisters married a cousin of Samuel Pepys and others were involved with the theatre and arts.

A devout Christian, she married the Rev Samuel Chapman, Rector of Thorpe St Andrew, in 1682.

When Samuel died in 1700 he left money in his will he left money in his will to build a hospital for the habitation of 'poor lunatics, and not natural born fools or idiots.'

He wanted it to be called Bethel. The site chosen was where The Committee Room was destroyed during the riots known as the 'Great Blowe' in 1648. It was a place Mary would have known all her life.

Bethel Hospital in Norwich. It has been included on SAVE Britan's Heritage buildings at risk registe

Bethel Hospital in Norwich. It has been included on SAVE Britan's Heritage buildings at risk register. Picture: SAVE Britain's Heritage - Credit: Archant

She dedicated the rest of her life to building and developing the first hospital of its kind in the world where patients were treated with dignity and respect.

It was open by 1713 and she lived there, making sure everything was done properly. Her home was in the central Queen Anne section of the hospital she had built – other parts were added by Victorians.

The first recorded patient to be admitted free was carpenter's apprentice Philip Lewis, whose brother could no longer afford to look after him.

When Mary died she made sure in her will that the hospital would continue and she would not allow cruel treatments or patients to become a peep show as they did at Bedlam in London.

When Mary died in 1724 she left instructions and money to make sure the Bethel carried on the good work. She was buried at St Andrew's Church, Thorpe St Andrew.

She had given all her income and then her estate to her beloved hospital.

After the Second World War it became an annexe to Hellesdon Hospital, then an outpatient unit and a centre for child and adolescent psychiatry before closing in the 1990s after being open for more than 280 years.

Dear Mary is remembered by Mary Chapman Court, accommodation for UEA students; Mary Chapman Close in Dussindale, complete with another Mary Chapman Court care home – and Mary Chapman House – a child and family centre.