In medieval England the concept of care for the mentally ill was completely non-existent. The relatively harmless "village idiot" might get looked after by family or relatives; those more seriously disturbed were usually left to fend for themselves, something they were obviously unfit to do.

However in 1247 a sheriff of London founded a hospital for the insane. As with all charitable duties the church was responsible for looking after the inmates, in this case it was nuns from the priory of St Mary of Bethlehem which did the work. The hospital soon became known as Bethlehem's Hospital, and after the passage of time had worked its games on the english language this became abbreviated to Bedlam.

For many centuries Bedlam was the only institution caring for the mentally ill in Britain; although "care" is perhaps the wrong word, as during the 17th and 18th centuries members of the public could come in and gawk at the lunatics and madmen chained up in there (for a fee of course).

Due to its position the word "bedlam" became a synonym for mental institution and later for any kind of hubbub or ruckus. These days it would not be uncommon for a teacher to walk into a rowdy classroom in Britain and cry out "Will you lot calm down, it's absolute bedlam in here".

There is a plaque on the wall of Liverpool Street, just outside the old city boundaries, that marks the location of where the original Bedlam stood. It's now offices and a major railway terminus.