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Christmas at Bethlem

24 December 2010

Admission to Bethlem Hospital in the eighteenth century was commonly for a period of no longer than twelve months. What was true of the Georgian and Regency Hospital in Moorfields also held good for the Victorian and Edwardian Hospital at Southwark. There were, however, always a few exceptions that proved the rule – people who stayed longer than twelve months – especially after the establishment of the Hospital’s incurable ward.

Each Christmas season, the Hospital had to tackle the question of how to sustain its patients in positive (perhaps even festive) mood. This question could be particularly acute in the case of those who faced more than one successive Christmas as inpatients. Its first strategy appears to have been to send convalescing patients home on temporary leave.

Emma Lane was admitted in May 1893 after having spent twenty years of savings in a matter of weeks on unneccesary food, baby clothes and theatre bookings. Her husband kept in close contact with the Hospital throughout her extended stay, at one stage writing ‘I am anxious to see her resume her old place, but fear she is not yet well enough’. Emma was granted temporary leave to spend time with her family a number of times, including at Christmas 1893 and 1894, but matters did not run smoothly, and on each occasion she was returned to the Hospital. Christmas 1893 seems to have been particularly stressful, the family’s report being that Emma had been ‘giving trouble’, Emma’s version of events being that she had ‘just bought a few things’. Emma was discharged uncured in January 1895; the story of her hospital stay may be read in Presumed Curable: An illustrated casebook of Victorian psychiatric patients in Bethlem Hospital by Colin Gale and Robert Howard (Wrightson Biomedical, 2003).

Of course, not everyone could be sent home for Christmas, and the Hospital’s second strategy to maintain seasonal morale seems to have been to bring Christmas to the majority of patients and staff that remained in residence throughout. The photograph below offers remarkable evidence of one attempt to do so. It shows a statue that stood in one of the Hospital’s galleries (shared ward space) dressed as St Nicholas for the Christmas season of 1907. To our contemporary gaze, the visual effect is unusual, even a little unsettling. Yet the intention must have been to lift the spirits, and we may hope that the display succeeded in doing so at the time. In any event, all the staff of the Archives & Museum wish the readers of this blog a very happy Christmas and safe and prosperous New Year.

Tagged in: victorian, christmas,