Did you know Norwich’s Bethel Hospital apartments used to be an asylum?

Bethel Hospital.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Bethel Hospital.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

The little-known story of one of the great women of the city has been retold by a health worker who discovered her heroine was also a relative

Mary Chapman Picture: Archant Library

Mary Chapman Picture: Archant Library - Credit: Archant Library

The Bethel Hospital is now city apartments, but for 282 years it was a refuge for people struggling with their mental health, and a dream-come-true for an inspirational Norwich woman.

Mary Chapman hoped her Bethel Hospital for the "poor lunaticks of Norwich" would last 1,000 years. It was not to be. But now her story has been retold by a woman who not only once worked in an asylum, but also discovered Mary was her aunt, eight generations removed.

"I was shocked that so few people, even in Norwich, had heard of her," said Kate Wilby, who lives near Wymondham. "Two years ago I sat in the library, carefully turning the pages of a rarely requested book on the history of Bethel, and I was drawn to the portrait of Mary and the little annotations in pencil added by another unknown reader. I originally intended to write a history of the Bethel Hospital, however, I became fascinated by Mary and how a woman, in those times, could build such a place."

Mary was born in Norwich in 1647. Her father was a wealthy weaver and became both sheriff and mayor of the city. The family lived comfortably in St Andrew's Hill, from where one of Mary's sisters married a cousin of Samuel Pepys. But Mary, until she wed the Rev Samuel Chapman, rector of nearby Thorpe St Andrew, at the comparatively late age of 35, cared for relatives, some with mental health problems.

Kate Wilby

Kate Wilby - Credit: supplied

Together Mary and Samuel planned to create a sanctuary for the people they called the 'poor lunaticks' of Norwich. When Samuel died, in 1700, he left her money to fulfil their dream. The Bethel Hospital opened in 1713. Mary died 11 years later, but her hospital lived on for more than 275, years, only closing in 1995.

It was built on the site of city centre buildings flattened by what was, at the time, England's biggest ever man-made explosion. In 1648 Royalist rioters accidentally ignited at least 80 barrels of gunpowder stored in a building known as the Committee House. The enormous explosion became known as the Great Blow and briefly threatened the Parliamentarian hold on Norwich during the Civil War. A rumour had spread that the Royalist mayor was about to be arrested and 2,000 of his supporters marched on the Committee House, on today's Bethel Street, to find weapons. A gun was fired at the mob, killing a boy. Furious attackers stormed the building, which not only contained guns, but gunpowder too. A spark ignited the gunpowder and the explosion killed 40 people, destroyed the building, and blew out all the windows of nearby St Peter Mancroft and St Stephen's Church. Today all that remains of that medieval glass in St Stephen's is some fragments collected together in the east window.

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More than 60 years later Mary Chapman's hospital began to take shape on the flattened site. Her lease on the land was to run for 1,000 years.

"Mary was certainly a woman ahead of her time," said Kate. "She specifically desired that the Bethel would admit people for treatment with the hope of a cure and the expectation of release, rather than be used simply as a place of incarceration."

It was the first public psychiatric asylum outside London, where the Bethlehem, or Bedlam, Hospital, became known for its cruelty. Mary was adamant that, unlike Bedlam, her hospital would not put its patients on display.

Kate said: "Mary and Samuel's intention was that people who had no one else to care for them or did not have the means to pay for treatment could be admitted to the Bethel - their admission would be based on need not on their ability to pay. In one sense, their vision was similar to the principles on which the NHS was founded in 1948 - free healthcare for all, at the point of care."

Kate has worked for the NHS for 35 years, including in an old asylum in Birmingham during the move to community care. "There were some people who had been there for the whole of their lives and had become so institutionalised it was decided that it was cruel to try and move them. Some had been put there for spurious reasons and I was struck by such a waste of life, and also by the kindness of the staff who cared for them."

After finding out about Mary, and inspired by her determination and achievements, Kate set out to tell her story, drawing on as many facts as possible, and helped by Mary's very detailed, seven-page will.

Her fictionalised life of Mary Chapman is published as First, and Before all Things. The title comes from the opening words of Mary's will: "First, and before all things, I humbly dedicate and devote to God myself, Soul, Body, and Spirit…"

"The phrase is open to many interpretations," said Kate. "For Mary it refers to her faith though I think that above all, Mary's story was about love.

And what might Mary think of her story being told?

"I doubt she would like the attention!" said Kate. "I think she might look rather sternly at me, though I hope she would also understand that her story deserves to be told, in recognition of her great achievement and also as an inspiration to others, not least those who work in our mental health services. I hope she would feel I have stayed true to her character, which I based on her own words taken from her will where her love for her beloved husband, her faith, and her desire to 'do good' for the 'poor lunaticks' of Norwich, shines through."

First, And Before All Things, by Kate Wilby, is published by the Book Guild, for £9.99.

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