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Christmas at Bethlem 2

Just before Christmas three years ago, we blogged about efforts made at Bethlem Hospital in the Edwardian era “to tackle the question of how to sustain its patients in positive (perhaps even festive) mood”. To the details given there, we could have added that, according to the Hospital’s annual reports from that period, Christmas dinner at Bethlem consisted of “Goose or Turkey and Plum Pudding”, and on New Year’s Day a mince pie was “added to the usual fare”. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Hospital’s efforts to promote seasonal cheer were not limited to its patients, however. Its nursing staff continued to work shifts throughout the holiday period (just as they do today), and their social life revolved around the Hospital to an extent that is difficult for us to imagine. The Hospital magazine, ‘Under the Dome’, gave the following colourful account of a Hospital-sponsored fancy dress party held for staff and their families on Christmas Eve, 1926: “Ladies, gentlemen and children of many eras and varied climes met on Christmas Eve in the recreation hall to celebrate once again ‘the dearest night in all the year’. It was a fine sight! There was the dear old Christmas Tree, looking as though it had not moved since last year, and all ablaze with colour, when in walked Red Indian Chief, of fine proportions and regal manners. He made his way into the large hall, and there could be seen a charming Early Victorian Dame conversing with a grave lady in cap and gown. Soon a Russian joined them, and a Turk passed by with his wife. A Sheik and a Kurdish Chief mingled with this truly cosmopolitan throng…dancing followed, and then we were really having an old-fashioned Christmas, for the snow began to fall…Auld Lang Syne was soon called, and crossing hands and arms we sang the familiar refrain.”

The magazine chose to pass over in silence the unauthorised, clandestine staff party that took place on the following night, 25 December 1926 (flouting hospital rules against male attendants visiting the living quarters of female nurses, and vice versa), and of its bitter aftermath. It was left to the minutes of the Hospital’s Sub-Committee and its Staff ‘character books’ to give the following account:

“A report from the Physician Superintendent was submitted, stating that the Matron had informed him that on Christmas night several female nurses visited a male ward and garden, and that his enquiries lead him to believe that no members of the senior staff on the male side had any knowledge of a dance which the female nurses alleged they expected to attend. He had interviewed and cross-examined all the nurses involved and conferred with the Matron and the Head Attendant, with the result that he regarded Nurse Cameron and Male Nurse Simmons as undoubtedly culpable, and he had suspended them with a view to dismissal.”

“Nurse Baldwin was one of the nurses who went on to the male side on Xmas night, and remained out in the garden with a male nurse until quite late. Nurse Cameron was dismissed because of this. Nurse Baldwin when interviewed by the Physician Superintendent told falsehoods in order to shield other nurses.”

“Nurse Maclean was one of the nurses who went on to the male side after 8pm on Xmas night, and although Nurse Cameron was dismissed for this, it came out afterwards that Nurse Maclean was the moving spirit.”

The moral of this story, as far as the Hospital was concerned, is one that our readers may do with what they will in this festive season: by all means party, but don’t party too hard!