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Billiards at Bethlem 2

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Dr Jane Hamlett of Royal Holloway, University of London, continues her guest post, in association with the ESRC-funded At Home in the Institution project.

Following on from our previous post, we now consider what the game of billiards meant to patients.

As we saw, watching play allowed doctors to monitor behaviour. But the green baize tables were also very popular with patients.

In 1894, the Bethlem magazine Under the Dome published a lengthy article, “The Philosophy of Games”, that was probably written by a patient. The piece pointed out the special value of games like chess and billiards to patients who were too unwell to go outside.

But the value of billiards went beyond such practicalities.

The anonymous author went on: "these pastimes may be so utilised as to furnish a wholesome and absorbing interest, and therein, I imagine, lies their efficacy, as it is not sufficient that the mind should cease from its ordinary avocations; it must find something else to thoroughly attract its attention, and this I would say is more readily found when a man aims at the highest possible to him, and always endeavours to do his best."

So games like billiards were thought not just to distract, but to offer a means of achievement. Playing demonstrated the right attitude to life, and the correct kind of masculine spirit and behaviour. As the anonymous author put it: "the philosophy of games seems to me to form part of the philosophy of life."

Performing well at billiards was equated with masculinity. This was highlighted in a report on a 1908 tournament. Language used to describe the game echoed that of heroic masculinity. The piece conjured up a chivalric vision of jousting knights, with cues “crossing swords”, opponents “unhorsed” and the winner donning a “victor’s helmet".

Doctors and patients sometimes played together, and this could be a channel for communication.

William A., a forty-three year old patient and former book-keeper from Finchley, wrote to the superintendent Dr. Hyslop from his ward in 1900. Seeking an informal opinion on his return to sanity, A. requested "five minutes conversation, or a game at billiards." The game clearly provided an informal setting, allowing doctors and patients to broach difficult subjects.

But perhaps the most powerful role of the game in the asylum was in allowing a patient to progress back to mental health.

Movingly, the writer of “Philosophy of Games” notes: “Many of you my friends and fellows "under the dome" will have seen a man, who had been reduced to dwell for weeks of months, or even years, in a dark dreamland world of grotesque emotional shadows and incoherent forcible-feeble ideas, brought once more to take an interest in life's ordinary avocations by knocking balls about on an old billiard table.” And even if someone was not going to get better, “at least there is temporary illumination amidst the decay”.