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For, people then paid to see the play at the Old Bailey, just as they paid to see the play in Bedlam…

Bethlehem Hospital of London, popularly called “Bedlam,” is identified by Baedeker’s London and Its Environs (1908) as “the oldest charitable institution for the insane in the world” (381). During the period in which A Tale of Two Cities is set, Bedlam was located in Moorfields (in north-eastern London); its earlier location, in Bishopsgate Street, had been pulled down in 1675. However, by the time Dickens was writing the novel, Bedlam – though still an insane asylum, and still a landmark in London – had moved again (in 1812), this time to St. George’s Fields, Lambeth (Baedeker 381). The Bedlam in A Tale of Two Cities is thus the second Bedlam – the one standing in Moorfields from 1675-1812.

Until 1770, Bedlam was open to the public, who could tour galleries of the insane for a penny. The hospital realized about £400 a year through this means (Sanders 62), but – as is noted in the passage below – the practice of making a spectacle of the mentally ill was cruel and medically detrimental, and was ultimately discontinued. However, it is this possibility of touring Bedlam that Dickens refers to as “[paying] to see the play in Bedlam.” By 1780 – the year in which this portion of the novel takes place – admission was granted to outsiders only by special permission of one of the governors of the asylum. Harrison’s New and Universal History, Description and Survey of … London (1776) gives an account and illustration of the building as it appeared at the time:

This hospital … was founded for lunatics, near the north-east corner of the Lower Moorfields, in Bishopsgate parish; but that becoming ruinous, as well as too small to answer the purposes of the charity, the lord-mayor, aldermen and common-council granted the governors the spot of ground whereon the present edifice stands, the foundation of which was laid in the month of April 1675: but the wings on each side were not erected till some years after the building was completed.

This magnificent structure is 540 feet in length, and 40 feet in breadth. The middle and ends, which project a little, are adorned with pilasters, entablatures, foliages, &c. and, rising above the rest of the building, have each a flat roof, with a handsome balustrade of stone, in the center of which is a handsome turret. That in the middle is adorned with a clock and three dials, on the top of which is a gilt ball and fane. The whole is built of brick and stone, and [e]nclosed by a handsome wall, formed of the same materials, 680 feet long. In the center of this wall, which goes in with a grand semicircular sweep, is a large pair of fine iron gates, supported by stone piers, on the top of which are two images, or statues, in a reclining posture; one representing Raving, and the other Melancholy, Madness. These figures are finely expressed, and were executed by Mr. Cibber…. This wall encloses a range of gardens neatly adorned with walks of broad stone, grass-plats and trees. In the east division, which is separated by the entrance into the hospital, those of the lunaticks, who are well enough to be suffered to go about, are allowed to walk there, and enjoy the benefit of the fresh air.

The inside of this building chiefly consists of two galleries, one over the other, which are 193 yards long, 13 feet high, and 16 feet broad, exclusive of the cells. These galleries are divided in the middle by two iron gates, in order to separate the men from the women; the latter being confined to the western part, and the former to the eastern part of the hospital. At the entrance between these two gates, on the right hand, is [a] handsome apartment for the steward, who is the manager, under the direction of the committee. On the left is a spacious room, in which the committee sit to receive and discharge patients. Below stairs is a good kitchen, and all necessary offices for keeping and dressing provisions, washing, &c. and at the south-east corner is a bath for the use of the patients.

There are about two hundred cells, or rooms for patients, which are furnished with beds, when they are found capable of using them; or with clean straw every day, when they are mischievous.

The hospitals of Bethlehem and Bridewell being made one corporation, they have the same president, surgeon and apothecary; yet each hospital has its steward and inferior officers, and a particular committee is chosen out of the governors of each. Out of that appointed for this hospital, there are six who meet every Saturday, to examine the steward’s accounts, to inspect the provisions, receive and discharge patients, and to direct all other affairs belonging to the charity.

This hospital was formerly open for the admission of the public, to the great prejudice of many of the unhappy patients; but by a wise regulation lately made, no person is admitted without a ticket signed by one of the governors. (459-60)

Bedlam, in Moorfields, is visible on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784), at the upper right.  It is indicated by the dark rectangular shape under Moorfields, labeled “Bedlam Hosp” (at the top of the map, directly to the right of the crease, above “London Wall”).

Click on map for larger view

“…he’ll be drawn on a hurdle to be half hanged, and then he’ll be taken down and sliced before his own face, and then his inside will be taken out and burnt while he looks on, and then his head will be chopped off, and he’ll be cut into quarters. That’s the sentence.”

Francis Henry de la Motte, upon whose trial Darnay’s is based, was sentenced to this punishment. According to the Annual Register of 1781, he was to be “hanged by the neck, but not till dead; then to be cut down, and his bowels taken out and burnt before his face, his head to be taken off, his body cut into four quarters, and to be at his majesty’s disposal” (184-5). In actual fact, he was hanged for fifty-seven minutes before being disemboweled, and was the last convict to be publicly disemboweled in England (Gatrell 317).

…and his hair, which was long and dark, was gathered in a ribbon at the back of his neck: more to be out of his way than for ornament.

In the late 18th century, men’s hair was worn long, often powdered, and usually tied back, often with a ribbon, into a pigtail. Wigs, simulating elaborately-dressed long hair, were also worn. Not everyone wore wigs, of course – the poorer classes did not, and though many amongst the fashionable did, wigs apparently went in and out of vogue (Fairholt 314). In the middle of the 18th century, it was discerned that

Wigs had become less ‘the rage’; and in 1763 the wig-makers thought [it] necessary to petition the king to encourage their trade by his example, and not wear his own hair: a petition that was most unfeelingly ridiculed by another from the timber merchants, praying for the universal adoption of wooden legs in preference to those of flesh and blood, under the plea of benefiting the trade of the country. (326)

Happily for the wig-makers, the early 1770s saw a resurgence of wigs (of rather absurd proportions) with an immensely tall powdered wig known as the macaroni.  Darnay, wearing his real hair, has hair of decent appearance and the customary length, but does not participate in the vogues of the very wealthy.

…an indictment denouncing him [Darnay] … for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King, by reason of his having, on divers occasions, and by divers means and ways, assisted Lewis, the French King, in his wars against our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth; that was to say, by coming and going between the dominions of our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, and those of the said French Lewis, and wickedly, falsely, traitorously and otherwise evil-adverbiously, revealing to the said French Lewis what forces our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, had in preparation to send to Canada and North America.

“Lewis, the French King” is Louis XVI (r. 1774-93); and “our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King” refers to George III (r. 1760-1820). Darnay is accused of traitorous activity with respect to the American War for Independence, the stirrings of which were already discernible in 1775. (Lucie Manette met Darnay on a boat in 1775, traveling between England and France, and had a conversation that she is expected to represent in court as treasonous on Darnay’s part). By 1780, the time of Darnay’s trial, Britain was losing the war with its American colonies (British forces would surrender the following year, and American independence would be recognized in 1783); moreover, in 1778, France had signed a treaty of alliance with the American colonies, throwing its weight in against its old rival, England (Roberts 345). The accusations leveled at Darnay are thus to this effect: Originally a citizen of France, and moving back and forth between France and England without a disclosed purpose during the initial phases of the American War for Independence (in which France would eventually become involved), Darnay is supposed to be a traitor to England. His native affiliation with England’s continental enemy, as well as his supposed sympathy for the cause of England’s colonies, are critical points against him in his trial.

The court was all bestrewn with herbs and sprinkled with vinegar, as a precaution against gaol air and gaol fever.

Gaol fever is a “virulent type of typhus-fever, formerly endemic in crowded jails, and frequent in ships and other confined places” (OED). In 1750, there had been such an epidemic of gaol fever in Newgate Prison that the city decided to start from scratch and build a new Newgate. This new prison would have just been completed in 1780 when Darnay stands trial.

Mr. Attorney-General had to inform the jury, that the prisoner before them, though young in years, was old in the treasonable practices which claimed the forfeit of his life.

The Attorney-General, being “the first law officer of the government, [is] the official empowered to act on behalf of the state in a trial for treason” (Sanders 63).

…his Majesty’s Chief Secretary of State...

The Secretary of State – an office abolished shortly after the period represented in this part of A Tale of Two Cities, in 1782 – could have been one of three gentlemen at this period. One ran the American Department, and two the Home Department (Sanders 64).


The Solicitor-General in England was next in rank to the Attorney-General (Sanders 65).

“He tried to explain to me how that quarrel had arisen, and he said that, so far as he could judge, it was a wrong and foolish one on England’s part. He added, in a jesting way, that perhaps George Washington might gain almost as great a name in history as George the Third.”

The “quarrel” that had arisen by 1775 – the period in which Lucie met Darnay on a boat traveling between France and England (when she was taking her father home to England after his release from the Bastille) – refers to the initial stirrings of what was, by the time of Darnay’s trial (1780), the full-blown Revolutionary War in America. 1773 was the year of the “Boston Tea Party” (a demonstration of colonial resistance to British taxation); in 1775, the first skirmish of the war occurred when British soldiers sent to requisition arms being collected by colonists at Lexington were fired upon; and in 1776 (the year following Lucie’s first encounter with Darnay), America issued its Declaration of Independence. By 1780 (the date of Darnay’s trial), the British were fairing badly – they would surrender in 1781 at Yorktown, and would officially recognize America’s independence in 1783 (three years after Darnay’s trial) (Roberts 345).

George Washington (1732-1799) commanded American forces in the Revolutionary War, and Darnay’s jest to Lucie – that “perhaps George Washington might gain almost as great a name in history as George the Third” – is considered treasonous by the British court in 1780 because it compares a colonial upstart with the reigning monarch of England. In 1780, when England was losing the war with its colonies, such a remark would have seemed flagrantly unpatriotic to English ears. By the time Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities (1859), however, he could refer to “that tremendous heresy about George Washington” with obvious irony. George Washington not only had become a man of rival stature to George III (the English king receded into a state of insanity during the last decade of his reign, whereas George Washington became the first president of the United States [in office 1789-97]), but had achieved some popularity with the English people. For instance, The Book of Days (published about five years after A Tale of Two Cities, in 1864) quotes the complimentary remarks of Earl Russell:

“George Washington, without the genius of Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte, has a far purer fame, as his ambition was of a higher and holier nature. Instead of seeking to raise his own name, or seize supreme power, he devoted his whole talents, military and civil, to the establishment of the independence and the perpetuity of the liberties of his own country. In modern history no man has done such great things without the soil of selfishness or the stain of a groveling ambition. Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon attained a higher elevation, but the love of dominion was the spur that drove them on…. To George Washington alone in modern times has it been given to accomplish a wonderful revolution, and yet to remain to all future times the theme of a people’s gratitude, and an example of virtuous and beneficent power.” (284)

Transcribing this eulogy, the Book of Days asserts that “The pre-eminence here accorded to Washington will meet with universal approval. He clearly and unchallengeably stands out as the purest great man in universal history. While America feels a just pride in having given him birth, it is something for England to know that his ancestors lived for generations upon her soil” (284-5). This passage is accompanied by an engraving of George Washington reproduced below.

…in the Dover mail on that Friday night in November five years ago, and got out of the mail in the night, as a blind, at a place where he did not remain, but from which he traveled back some dozen miles or more, to a garrison and dockyard, and there collected information; a witness was called to identify him as having been at the precise time required, in the coffee-room of an hotel in that garrison-and-dockyard town, waiting for another person.

The “garrison and dockyard” on the Dover Road to which Darnay is accused of having covertly returned is Chatham, in the coastal county of Kent. Dickens lived in Chatham for much of his youth, and, as an adult, had a house there at Gads Hill. If Darnay had indeed “got out of the mail in the night, as a blind, at a place where he did not remain, but from which he traveled back some dozen miles or more,” he would probably have left the mail either at Radfield (41.75 miles from the beginning of the Dover Road, and 11.75 miles from Chatham) or Green Street (42.5 miles from the beginning of the Road, and 12.5 miles from Chatham [Harper, “The Road to Dover”]). Both Radfield and Green Street would have been quite obscure locations, where he would probably not have been spotted: Even in the late 19th century, they consisted of “but dull and disheveled collections of tiny shops and cottages, with here and there a slumberous old inn or whitewashed farmhouse”; and the stretch of the Dover Road to which they belong was “very lonely” (Harper 163).

…save that vile and infamous character of evidence too often disfiguring such cases, and of which the State Trials of this country were full.

The State Trials was a publication devoted to legal proceedings which dealt with crimes against the state. The first collection of State Trials appeared in 1719, and Dickens possessed later editions (Maxwell 451).



Bibliographical information

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