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Billiards at Bethlem 1

Here is the first of two guest posts by Dr Jane Hamlett of Royal Holloway, University of London, produced in association with its ESRC-funded At Home in the Institution project.

Games such as billiards played an important part in the lives of Bethlem’s Victorian and Edwardian era patients. Here we take a look at closer look at Bethlem's green baize tables in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Billiards was well established in Victorian Britain. By the later part of the century, the billiard room was a common feature of upper-class homes. Billiard rooms and the games that were played there were particularly associated with the men of the house (although we do know that women sometimes joined in). Often decorated in dark colours, adorned with stags heads and even tiger skin rugs, these rooms conveyed elite masculinity.

This image, taken from a domestic advice manual published in 1910, shows an idealised version of the room in the art nouveau style of the early twentieth century.1

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Billiards were found in many asylums but were particularly popular in private establishments like Holloway Sanatorium and Ticehurst, and may have been viewed as especially suitable as they were an accepted upper class pursuit.

At Bethlem there were tables on some male wards, and there was also a billiard room.

In 1909, the hospital magazine Under the Dome noted that Arthur Ward has acquired a table of a very high specification: "This has been carefully levelled and there should be no excuse for missing the balls, provided they are round, since the illumination of the table is equivalent to nine hundred candle power."

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Bethlem’s billiard room, shown here, wasn't quite as lavish as some at other asylums. But it was carefully decorated. The image shows a rich carpet, highly polished mahogany furniture, and framed prints. A number of well-tended aspidistras are elevated on ornamental pedestals. A glass fronted bookcase at one end of the room, topped by a couple of busts, aligns it with the opulent libraries found in wealthy houses.

But while billiards made institutions seem more like high-end homes, the meaning of the game was transformed within the walls of the asylum.

Patients' success at the game was often monitored at an institutional level. In 1896, the magazine announced that: "In order to keep a permanent record of the “form” displayed by numerous billiard players in our small community, we propose to keep a quarterly return of all breaks of over 20 made on any of the hospital tables".

At Bethlem and other private asylums, doctors took a keen interest in patients at play. The game required motivation, concentration, dexterity and some memory, so it is easy to see its practical value as an indicator of mental health. In some asylums, there are even quite lengthy comments on the game inpatient case books. It could be a means of making sure that patients followed an established moral code, by refraining from cheating.

But what was the value of this sport for patients?

To be continued.