Mary Chapman


Founder of the Bethel Hospital, the first purpose-built asylum in the country.

Mary Chapman (née Mann) was born on the 24th of March 1647. She was the third daughter of John Mann,  Mayor of Norwich and High Sheriff of Norfolk. On the 10th of May 1682, Mary Chapman married  Reverend Samuel Chapman, the Rector of Thorpe. Both Mary Chapman and her husband were concerned by the treatment and welfare of the mentally ill; this was possibly due to the fact that they both had members of family with poor mental health. After 18 years of marriage Samuel Chapman died, leaving money in his will for Mary Chapman to build a house for the ‘habitation of poor lunatics’.

In 1713 Mary Chapman erected a house in the city of Norwich. The house was named Bethel according to the ‘advice and desire of Samuel Chapman’ and was put under the direction of seven trustees. The House of Bethel, later known as Bethel Hospital, maintained ‘several poor lunatics therein at her own expense during the time of her life and at her decease’ (NRO, BH21-23).

Mary Chapman became aware that ‘abuses of several kinds’ were taking place at the Bethel Hospital towards the inmates. She devised a system to regulate the abuses and instructions were given to deal with reducing the amount of abuse at the Bethel Hospital.

In her 18 years of marriage Mary Chapman didn’t have any children and did not remarry after she became a widow, she devoted the rest of her life to the Bethel Hospital and when she died she left most of her possessions and her wealth to the hospital as well as directions of its future running.

Chapman left the hospital under the direction of seven trustees; John Hall, William Cockman, Richard Cooke, John Lombe, John Thompson, William Lombe and Timothy Gaming. In her will Mary Chapman said that she wanted everyone with lunacy, whether from Norwich or not, to be placed in the Bethel Hospital and for the trustees to be paid by the families and friends of those at the hospital. She also requested a percentage of the earning would go into the improvement of the charity through the payment of rent, maintenance and the employment of doctors. It was also requested that the trustees elected a treasurer.

Mary Chapman was a very religious women, in her will she wrote; ‘ First and before all things I humbly dedicate most heavenly devote to God…’ and requested that a plaque with the inscription ‘To do good and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased’  from Hebrews 13th chapter and 16th verse.  Mary Chapman’s body was buried in accordance to her will in the chancel of the Parish Church of Thorpe, next to her Husband without disturbing him. She asked for a plain coffin with only the letters M.C and that it would be carried to the by six parish clerks.

Her tombstone survives in the chancel of the now ruinous church.  It reads, ‘She built wholly at her own expence the house in Norwich called bethel for the reception, maintenance and cure of poor lunaticks, to which and other charitable uses she gave all her income while she lived and her estate at her death.’

 Her legacy

In 1931 the Bethel Hospital housed 128 people. After the creation of the National Health Service in 1948, the Bethel Hospital was annexed with the Hellesdon Hospital. The Bethel Hospital housed 122 patients in 1960 and in 1962 the Bethel Hospital was stated to be the oldest surviving hospital in the country specifically founded for the care of the mentally ill and currently the oldest building in the U.K. to have been in continuous psychiatric use.’ The Hospital was shut down in 1995, after being open for 282 years. The legacy of Mary Chapman is carried on through the work of the Hellesdon Hospital and the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust.

Entry researched and written by Dylan Read. 

Find out More: You can view several documents which relate to Mary Chapman; NRO, BH21-23  -‘A Short Account of Mrs Mary Chapman and of her founding and embowering the house called Bethel in the city of Norwich’, this includes information on Mary Chapman as well as a copy of her will.

Her will can also be viewed on the microfilm at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO, NCC will register Lawrence 219).

NRO, MC 2018/1, 895X6 is a Work book which contains transcript and notes on Mary Chapman amongst other information on the Bethel Hospital.

A picture of document BH 21-23
NRO, BH 21-23