Today in London’s radical history: attempted royal assassin James Hadfield escapes Bedlam, 1802.

After his unfortunately unsuccessful attempt to shoot king George III failed to kickstart a wondrous Millennium, (see our earlier post) and his subsequent trial and acquittal on the grounds of insanity, James Hadfield was sent back to his cell in Newgate immediately after his trial, but was escorted to Bethlem Royal Hospital a few months later by the Newgate ‘keeper’.

He had been sentenced to imprisonment in ‘Bedlam’ for the rest of his life. His case led Parliament to pass the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800, allowing the law the power to detain people such as Hadfield until “His Majesty’s pleasure be known”. Giving birth to the concept of criminally insane, and eventually of the ‘Special Hospitals’ as we know them today (Broadmoor, Ashworth and Rampton).

However, two years later, Hadfield and another inmate, John Dunlop, escaped, and Hadfield seems to have got as far as Dover, attempting to flee to France, before being retaken and returned to Newgate. The steward of Bethlem was formally censured by the governors for going in immediate pursuit of him without reporting his absence, or obtaining official permission, but the minute of censure was later obliterated, although it is still legible.

What kind of ‘treatment’ might Hadfield been subject to? Hadfield was returned to Bedlam, where he spent the next 39 years of his life.

During his ‘stay’ Bethlem changed massively. The old regime of simply locking mentally ill (or just strange) people up and charging people to come and poke fun at them had evolved (under head keeper James Haslam) into an allegedly ‘therapeutic’ approach. Haslam thought madness could be cured, rather than being simply an affliction sent by God. His therapy however involved breaking the will of the ‘patients’ through fear, intimidation and violence, before the cause of their problems could be addressed. Some of Haslam’s approach represented a step forward in medical science: the accompanying psychological and physical degradation formed a bridge between the past and the future of mental healthcare… Eventually Haslam’s regime was exposed and a scandal erupted, leading to the closure of the old Bethlem building in Moorfields and a new one’s construction south of the river, in St George’s Fields. However, bad planning and cost-cutting left the new ‘hospital’ cold and damp, and it quickly became overcrowded… It would be the 1850s before new management would usher in some serious advances in care, therapy and rehabilitation…

Hadfield spent much of his time caring for birds and cats, and writing verses – one that has survived is apparently representative of their main subject, the deaths of these pets.

Patients at Bethlem were allowed visitors: in previous eras visiting and even taunting the mad was a popular pastime in polite society. Hadfield was often visited, probably due to the fame attached to his attempt to usher in the millennium by knocking off the alleged king.  One person who visited him was the French socialist Flora Tristan (1803–1844) who recorded the visit in her Promenades dans Londres (1840):

‘He lives in a small room and he is not averse to passing the time of day with visitors.  We had rather a long visit with him; his conversation and his habits denote a sentimental and loving heart, a pressing need for affection, and he has had in succession two dogs, three cats, several birds and finally a squirrel.  He was extremely fond of his animals and was grieved at their deaths; he mounted them himself and keeps them in his room.  These remains of his beloved creatures all have epitaphs in verse which express his sorrow.  Above the verses for his squirrel there is a coloured image of the friend he lost.  I might add that he does a brisk little trade with his feelings, handing out the epitaphs to visitors who in return give him a few shillings’ (tr. Dennis Palmer and Giselle Pincetl, Flora Tristan’s London Journal, p. 163).

One surviving poem of Hadfield’s runs:

“The remains of little Dick my partner dear,
Who, with his vocal lays did aft my Spirits Cheer,
By giving him his food one fatal day,
He in the Cages wire caught his clay,
He flutter’d, trembled, panted, and then down he lied,
I took him up and in my hand he died.
Killed Oct. 3, 1806, James Hadfield”.

Another of Hadfield’s poems, written in his own hand, can be seen at the start of this post… Some of which was lifted from here

James Hadfield died of tuberculosis in Bedlam in 1841.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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