Having covered the corridor of stations which lie along the Marylebone and Euston road, we now move down into the City and onto one of the capital’s busiest terminals- Liverpool Street Station.
Liverpool Street (the road rather than the station) in its present form dates back to 1829 and is named after Robert Jenkinson; aka Lord Liverpool, a long-serving Prime Minister who was in office between 1812 and 1827.
Liverpool Street is not the first road to provide passage along the route.
The modern road was predated by a lane known as Old Bethlehem; a winding path which had existed for centuries; its name deriving from the fact that Bethlehem Hospital once stood on the ground now occupied by the station.
Bethlehem was no ordinary sanatorium… also known by its more infamous name, Bedlam it was London’s (and the world’s) first psychiatric hospital…
The institution, which lay just outside the old city wall, first began caring for the mentally ill (or, as they were known back then, ‘distracted’) patients in 1377.
The term, ‘cared for’ however is grossly inaccurate.
Bethlehem Hospital was a hellish place, where patients were chained to their beds and considered to be no more than wild beasts.
When heavy irons weren’t enough to keep them under control, patients were whipped or plunged into cold water in fruitless attempts to stifle their madness.
It comes as no surprise therefore that the word ‘Bedlam’- an old corruption of the hospital’s name- has passed into the English language as a phrase denoting a place of utter chaos and despair.
In 1676, the hospital moved a few hundred yards to Moorfields (where Finsbury Circus now lies), just across the road from where Liverpool Street station is now situated.
Designed by Robert Hooke, who was Sir Christopher Wren’s right-hand man, the new building was a very grand affair indeed.
The gates to the new asylum were presided over by two large sculptures; Madness and Melancholy.
Crafted by Caius Gabriel Cibber (who also created the impressive relief at the base of The Monument) the two statues are now held in the Bethlem Royal Hospital archives in Beckenham and can be seen in this following short clip from the BBC4 series, Romancing the Stone: The Golden Ages of British Sculpture:
It was within the new Bethlehem hospital that the notorious- and highly profitable-practice of inviting the public to come along and gawp at the patients first began.
Special galleries were incorporated into the building’s design for the purpose; small arenas where the patients were paraded like creatures in a menagerie.
An idea of what this process looked like can be garnered from William Hogarth’s innovative series of paintings, The Rake’s Progress.
Produced between 1732-33, Hogarth’s masterpiece consists of eight artworks which chronicle the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a young man who, after coming to London, is seduced by gambling, partying and prostitution.
Tom’s binge inevitably ruins him and, in the final picture, Hogarth portrays the Rake’s tragic demise as he succumbs to madness, his final days spent languishing in the pandemonium that is Bedlam whilst fan-fluttering ladies of high society look on…
If you wish to see original Rake’s Progress, it can be found within the wonderful Sir John Soames Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
In 1815, Bethlehem Hospital moved out of the area for good, establishing a new home south of the Thames in Lambeth. During the move, patients were transferred to the new hospital in a fleet of specially chartered Hackney carriages.
Today, the Lambeth asylum is still in existence… although the building now serves a different purpose- it is home to the Imperial War Museum… where illness afflicting the mind has been swapped for the insanity of modern warfare…
The Railways Move In
The first station to arrive in the Liverpool Street area was the now vanished Broad Street, which opened in 1865 and remained in service until 1986 (an earlier post all about this former station can be found here).
Liverpool Street Station followed a few years later, opening next door to Broad Street in 1874 as the London terminal for the Great Eastern Railway.
Before their grand station opened, the Great Eastern had operated a smaller terminus just outside the City boundaries called ‘Bishopsgate’, which opened in 1840 on the junction of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road.
The site remained in use as a freight depot until December 1964, when it burnt down. Today, the location is once again in use by the railways, with the London Overground’s recently opened Shoreditch High Street station occupying the former derelict land.
The architect behind Liverpool Street station was Edward Wilson; a Scotsman who was born in Edinburgh and was the Great Eastern’s chief engineer.
As regular users of Liverpool Street will know, the tracks actually lie below street level and one must descend stairs or escalators to reach their desired platform.
The reason for this is that the platforms were originally designed to provide a seamless link with the London Underground’s Metropolitan line.
At the time, The Great Eastern was a business partner of the new-fangled underground railway, so a smooth link-up with the subterranean system was considered to be financially beneficial.
In order to achieve this connection, the Great Eastern had to plough their tracks into Liverpool Street down a steep gradient, sending trains on their last leg steaming and groaning through a complex of dingy tunnels; a dismal approach to the metropolis which is still in use today.
The partnership between the two companies was eventually severed, and the novel set-up was condemned by Lord Salisbury- one of the Great Eastern’s chairmen- as being “one of the greatest mistakes ever committed in connection with a railway.”
The Great Eastern Hotel
In 1884, a grand hotel- The Great Eastern was added to the station which, for many years, was surprisingly the only hotel in the historic square mile.
The Great Eastern Hotel was designed by Charles E. Barry (Junior), son of Charles Barry (Senior) who was one of London’s greatest architects; the brains behind landmarks such as Trafalgar Square’s precient and the Houses of Parliament.
Charles Barry Junior was very much a chip off the old block, his design for the Great Eastern Hotel being very grand indeed.
When it opened, the hotel boasted a glass-domed roof and no fewer than two Masonic temples.
A siding from the station was extended to reach beneath the hotel, creating a service area from where trains could take away the hotel’s waste and haul in coal to keep the well-heeled guests nice and toasty.
The Great Eastern Hotel also boasted seawater baths, the sloshing liquid being brought in from the coast by goods trains.
Speaking of water, when The Great Eastern Hotel was being constructed, it was impossible to lay down sewerage pipes due to the tunnels of the London Underground’s Metropolitan line being in the way.
As a result, the hotel had to improvise… resulting in a vacuum-flush system being designed, which to this day sees waste being sent rushing upwards! Probably best not to think about it whilst resting on your hotel bed!..
Today, the hotel- which was refurbished between 1997-2000 at a cost of £65 million- has been renamed The Andaz and is still an extremely lavish destination boasting five restaurants.
If you can’t afford a night or two at this lavish destination, the hotel is often open for public viewing during the excellent Open House weekend.
It was at Liverpool Street Station, one morning during the summer of 1886, that Joseph Merrick- aka ‘The Elephant Man’ was mobbed by a ferociously nosy, rush-hour crowd.
Prior to this incident, Joseph had been in Belgium where his famous deformities were pedalled in a travelling ‘freak show’.
However, by the late 1880s, such exhibitions were in decline and, seeing Joseph as a financial burden, the Elephant Man’s manager abandoned his protégé, stealing Joseph’s life savings to boot.
Penniless, frightened and alone, Joseph eventually managed to secure passage on a ferry to Harwich and, once arriving in the port, he boarded a train to London’s Liverpool Street.
Once at the busy station, his shuffling gait, oversized cloak and canvas hood quickly drew attention and within moments, Joseph was swamped by baying spectators; a nightmarish echo of the days when Bedlam existed on the site.
The terrifying event was included in the 1980 film, The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt. The scene was filmed on location at Liverpool Street itself:
Following this incident, Joseph was rescued by two policemen and taken by Hackney carriage to the Royal London Hospital where he would spend the rest of his tragically short life.
Thanks to its close links with Harwich port, Liverpool Street was also responsible for introducing some of the 20th century’s most famous left-wing political figures to London- namely the communists, Maxim Gorky, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky (who famously suffered a nasty death when he was murdered with an ice-pick)… and the terrifying future tyrant, Joseph Stalin.
It was in 1907 that this as yet unknown group of communists travelled to London in order to attend a political conference.
In a way, it was also a spiritual journey, as their communist ideology was born in London, formulated by Karl Marx who resided in the slums of Soho and sought refuge with his writing in the British Library.
At Liverpool Street, the red-bunch were met by a small group of journalists and supporters, along with another famous party-member… comrade Vladimir Lenin who was already in London.
Upon greeting his comrades, Lenin announced that he was pleased they could come along for the event, and that they could expect a “fine old scuffle.”
The young Stalin… the future dictator who would go onto wreak so much death and misery upon his own people, did not have far to travel from Liverpool Street to his new digs… he spent his time in London at a doss house on Fieldgate Street in Whitechapel, just over half a mile from the station… but that of course, is another story altogether…
(Please note, this article contains images of ‘The Elephant Man’; Joseph Merrick and his deformities which some readers may find upsetting)
Joseph Merrick returns to the East End
Following his ordeal at Liverpool Street Station, Joseph Merrick was taken by cab to the Royal London Hospital.
Once there, he was examined thoroughly and Dr Treves discovered that, in the two years since they’d last met, the Elephant Man’s condition had grown worse. To compound his woes and despite being only in his 20s, Joseph had also developed a heart condition.
It became clear that his deformities were incurable, and that the severe complications and strains which they placed upon his body meant that Joseph only had few years left to live.
This posed a problem: Dr Treves and the staff at the Royal London were desperate to look after Joseph and ensure that his final years would be as comfortable as possible. However, the hospital was not equipped or permitted to deal with incurable patients. There was indeed a separate institution for terminal cases- but they wanted nothing to do with Joseph’s case.
Eager to resolve this problem, Francis Carr Gomm; chairman of the hospital’s committee, wrote a detailed letter to The Times newspaper, which was printed on the 4th December 1886.
In it, he outlined Joseph’s case and appealed for public donations.
Such an appeal had never been undertaken before.
As Carr Gomm himself stated in his letter, “some 76,000 patients a year pass through the doors of our hospital, but I have never before been authorized to invite public attention to any particular case, so it may well be believed that this case is exceptional.”
The plea was a huge success. The Victorian public dug deep and, in no time at all, enough money was raised to enable the Royal London to provide Joseph with a home for the rest of his life.
A new home in London
Now equipped with adequate funds, two rooms in a secluded section of the hospital were selected for Joseph’s personal use.
Overlooking a quiet courtyard known as ‘Bedstead Square’, the pair of rooms were skillfully converted into a little apartment for Joseph. The apartment was equipped with all the usual Victorian home comforts, including a fireplace and stout furniture (Joseph’s bed and armchair being custom-built to make his distressed body as relaxed as possible ).
At first, Joseph remained a shy and nervous figure.
Dr Treves noted that, whenever a stranger came to visit the Elephant Man, he would cower like a child and even shake visibly.
On one occasion, when he was introduced to a female guest- who took his hand, smiled naturally and made no mention of his deformities- Joseph broke down in tears, explaining that no woman (apart from his beloved mother who had died years before), had ever before treated him with such kindness.
However, as the weeks progressed, Joseph’s new found dignity and his popularity amongst the hospital’s staff began to draw him out of his shell, enabling his confidence to gradually develop.
No longer did people see him as a freak to gawp at. Instead, visitors enjoyed nothing more than popping by for a chat; those who did discovering that Joseph was a learned, sensitive, intelligent man, capable of conversing on a wide variety of topics. An avid reader, he also began to accumulate an impressive library.
Those who came to know Joseph were especially taken by his intellect, immense politeness, piety and overall gentle nature.
Joseph even had the pleasure of meeting the Prince (later to become King Edward VII) and Princess of Wales; an event which saw the young man beside himself with excitement.
The Royal pair were accompanied by Lady Geraldine Somerset, who recorded the event in her diary:
“The Elephant Man… he can never go out, he is mobbed so, & lives therefore a prisoner, he is less disgusting to see than might be, because he is such a gentle, kindly man….”
By all accounts, the Elephant Man never displayed any bitterness about his condition, accepting it with quiet resignation and good humour- for example, he once enjoyed a joke with a visiting surgeon, stating that he often wondered how he would appear when the time came for him to be preserved in a big bottle of alcohol!
Joseph was clearly under no illusion that, when he died, his body was destined to become a medical artefact.
During his time at the Royal London Hospital, Joseph also enjoyed constructing intricate, cardboard models; not an easy task considering his disabilities.
He would give these models as thank-you gifts to the numerous guests who took time to visit him (and who themselves presented him with gifts).
One such model survives to this day and can be seen in the Royal London Hospital’s small, but excellent museum and archive…
Constructed from a German craft-kit, this model church was given by Joseph to Mrs Madge Kendal; a popular actress who did much for the Elephant Man (in David Lean’s film version, Mrs Kendal was played by Anne Bancroft).
Joseph goes ‘Up West’
An anomaly of Joseph’s life was that, despite his intelligence, his condition dictated that he was rather naïve to the outside world; for it was a place which, after years spent in workhouses, penny-gaffs and hospital rooms, he’d had little chance to explore openly.
On the rare occasions he had ventured out of course, he’d done so swathed in disguise, and was more concerned with avoiding unwanted attention rather than examining what lay around him.
Joseph’s imagination was stoked by his extensive reading, and he became increasingly inquisitive of the world which lay beyond his hospital suite. One day, he told Dr Treves that he was keen to see a ‘real’ house (in other words, the kind of wealthy home which he’d read so much about in his large collection of novels).
Dr Treves therefore arranged to take Joseph to his own home, which was at number 6 Wimpole Street; the two friends travelling to Bloomsbury in Joseph’s preferred method of transport; the hansom cab.
Once at the Wimpole Street residence, Joseph was fascinated by every aspect of Dr Treves’s house, and spent much time going from room to room, examining everything from cups to curtains with a curiosity so intense it bordered on the comical.
He was, however, somewhat puzzled that there were no liveried footmen or servants in attendance; his expectations having being influenced somewhat by the work of his favourite writer; Jane Austen!
Joseph was also fascinated by the idea of the theatre and, one special evening during the Christmas of 1887, he was taken to see a pantomime; Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal, Dury Lane in Covent Garden.
Unsurprisingly, Joseph’s trip to the theatre required much planning.
The main organisation was carried out by Madge Kendal, who arranged for Joseph to have his own private box.
The box in question belonged to Baroness Burdett-Coutts; one of the richest women in Victorian Britain and a prolific philanthropist (to this day, Coutts Bank still handle the Royal Family’s accounts).
Baroness Coutts had also been a close friend of Charles Dickens- in fact the same box which Joseph occupied during his night at the theatre had also been loaned to the great author and his family some years before.
For the performance, Joseph was brought to the theatre in his own private carriage. He was also permitted to use the secretive, Royal staircase, thus allowing him to maintain total privacy.
In the box, he was joined by his now close friend, Dr Treves, and a number of nurses from the Royal London Hospital.
The small group, all donned in their finest evening dress, sat and waited for the chatter to recede, the lights to dim and the curtain to rise… and, once the show commenced, Joseph quickly found himself in a state of utter joy.
Sitting in the absolute darkness, Joseph, for a few wonderful hours, was able to loose himself in fantasy; to forget his awful condition and sit amongst 100s of people without attracting a single stare.
His trip to the Covent Garden theatre was portrayed in the movie version of his life. As the following clip shows, this particularly moving scene demonstrates the pure delight and wonder which Joseph experienced that special night:
Following his trip the Theatre Royal, Joseph would talk to friends endlessly about the pantomime which had enthralled him for weeks afterwards, often becoming so enthused, that he would describe the pantomime characters as if they they were real beings rather than actors.
His evening spent at Covent Garden had clearly been one of the happiest, most liberating moments in his dreadfully harrowed life.
To ‘sleep like a normal person’…
As 1888 and 1889 wore on, Joseph’s condition began to deteriorate.
Thankfully though, he was granted further happiness when Dr Treves arranged for Joseph to spend six weeks at a private cottage in the countryside; an excursion which the Elephant Man had often dreamt of undertaking.
Whilst in the countryside, Joseph took delight in being able to wander outside in the sunshine without the need for his mask and cloak; picking flowers, listening to bird-song and observing wildlife.
An avid letter-writer, Joseph would keep his friend, Dr Treves updated about his observations.
Sadly, despite his prolific letter writing, only one example of Joseph’s correspondences is known to exist. It was addressed to Mrs Leila Maturin; the woman whose kindness and natural smile had caused him to weep on their first meeting.
Alongside his mask and model church, this rare and precious object can be viewed at the Royal London Hospital’s museum:
As the distressing disease wore on, Joseph’s body began to age rapidly.
When Dr Treves had first examined him only four years previously, the Elephant Man was, despite his deformities, clearly a young man in otherwise relatively good health.
However, by late 1888, Joseph was plagued by bronchitis and heart problems, and his advancing growths were beginning to take their cruel toll. Dr Treves was forced to witness his friend’s accelerating decline, helpless.
Shortly after the Easter of 1890, in which he’d happily been able to attend church services in the hospital’s chapel, Joseph Merrick died.
He was discovered at 1.30pm on the 11th April 1890, lying flat across his bed.
It is generally believed, as Dr Treves suggested, that Joseph died after attempting to lie down and sleep like a ‘normal person’; a desire which he had often expressed.
By this point, Joseph’s head had grown even larger, and the subsequent weight broke his neck, leading to a mercifully quick, painless death.
He was just 27 years old.
* * *
The actual condition which Joseph Merrick suffered from is still debated.
The common theory is that he suffered from ‘Neurofibromatosis Type 1’. Another belief is that the cause was ‘Proteus Syndrome’, whilst others suggest the Elephant Man’s condition was an unlucky combination of the two.
In 2003, the Discovery Health Channel screened a documentary entitled ‘The Curse of the Elephant Man’.
Collating information about Joseph, including existing photos, DNA samples, access to his skull and cooperation from living ancestors, the team behind the programme were able to create a computer generated image, which estimated what Joseph would have looked like had he not been struck down by the awful conditions which plagued his life…
To this day, Joseph Carey Merrick, the gentle, East Midland lad who became an adopted Londoner, continues to inspire people with his story, his tenderness and his humanity.
I will leave you with a poem, compiled by Joseph himself, which he often used to sign off the many letters he penned to supportive friends….
“Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God,
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.”
(Many of the items related to Joseph Merrick’s life which are featured in this article can be viewed at the Royal London Hospital Museum; more information on which can be found here)
If you wish to learn more about Joseph Merrick, an excellent website can be found here