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A Sporting Chance 1

Sport and other pastimes formed an important part of the therapeutic efforts of psychiatric hospitals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a short series of posts, of which this is the first, we make none-too-serious suggestions for new Olympic sports, inspired by hospital-organised recreation at Bethlem and elsewhere.

In 1878, Edward Walford observes that “on the men’s side” of Bethlem there “is a billiard-room, to which the most hopeful cases among the male patients have access under certain restrictions. This is a large apartment, which, but for its furniture, would look like an immense and lofty green-house, since it is almost entirely glazed above the height of about six feet—a plan which ensures a capital light upon the table. Around the room are raised cushioned seats for those who desire to watch the play; while nearer the fire a large study-table is filled with magazines, journals, and general literature.”1

Walford’s implication that billiards was a male-only pursuit is misleading; photographs held at the Archives & Museum show billiard tables on both men’s and women’s wards. Nor was the game the sole province of Bethlem’s patients. Recalling his medical student days, the psychiatrist and pioneer anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers wrote in his book Conflict and Dream (1923) that “Dr [Maurice] Craig and I [were] residents together at Bethlem Hospital many years ago, where we had frequently played billiards, and as he was by far the better player, I…learned much from him.”2

Is it too much to hope that a few civilised games of billiards will feature in the London 2012 Games?

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