The Asylum at Christmas

Celebrating Christmas with entertainments and a special dinner was introduced into the workhouse and even prisons before it was provided in pauper lunatic asylums. It only seems to have become widespread from about the 1850s.

Entertainment to the patients at the Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum, Colney Hatch. This was a New Year’s celebration, but the dancing and the decoration with flags were typical of the entertainments held for Christmas. Illustrated London News, 15 Jan 1853. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Image reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 

According to the Chelmsford Chronicle reporting on the Christmas festivities at the Essex County Asylum in 1858, it was only in recent years that ‘the poor lunatic’ was thought capable of appreciating the ‘social enjoyments’ associated with the season: ‘it is one of the humane discoveries of modern medical science, that he is far more successfully worked upon by the music of the kind word than by the rattle of the iron chain.’ [1]

The County Lunatic Asylum, Brentwood, Essex: bird’s eye view. Wood engraving by W.E. Hodgkin, 1857, after H.E. Kendall. Wellcome Library, London. Essex County Asylum was designed by H. E. Kendall in 1849 and completed in 1853. Originally for between 400 and 500 patients it was extended many times. Two of the earliest additions were a dining-hall in 1863 and a recreation hall in 1879. The asylum was later renamed Warley Hospital. It closed in 2001. The Builder, 16 May 1857 Wellcome Images Image reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

On Christmas day at the Essex Asylum one of the wards was fitted up as a dining hall, the ward itself measuring some seventy feet in length and seating 230 inmates. The walls were decorated with flags and evergreens in ‘tasteful devices’… ‘while forty ponderous plum puddings and 350 lbs of roast beef smoked upon the tables’. In addition to the dinner there was a musical evening held in the recreation hall, which was decorated for the occasion. A Mrs Campbell supplied 1,200 artificial flowers which the patients had interwoven into figures and festoons of laurel. Sketches from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Essex arms and portraits of the Indian heroes Havelock and Wilson also formed an unlikely combination of pictorial decoration in the hall, all painted or drawn by the patients. The orchestra, too, was composed of patients, who supplied the music for the country dances. Between dances patients amused the company with songs and recitations. [1]

From the late 1850s the number of newspaper reports of similar entertainments elsewhere in Britain began to grow, these were often occasions attended by the local gentry. At the Birmingham Borough Asylum the Christmas festivities comprised country dancing, singing and games on Christmas eve. During the evening ‘an immense circle was formed for ‘drop the glove’. Half an hour of exciting fun was the result’. There was also a ‘jingling match’ and a jumping match. A female patient with an ‘exceedingly melodious voice’ sang Where are you going to, my pretty maid? and amidst the music and activities, spiced ale and plum-cake were served for refreshment. The Christmas dinner featured roast beef, plum pudding and ‘various seasonable accessories’. Entertainments continued nightly throughout the week with amateurs from the town visiting the asylum to provide vocal and instrumental music. One evening there was an exhibition of ‘dissolving views’. [2]

In the 1880s similar entertainments were reported at the Guernsey asylum, where games included musical chairs and candle-buff. [3]


[1] Chelmsford Chronicle, 1 Jan 1858, p.3
[2] Birmingham Daily Post, 27 Dec 1859, p.3
[3] The Star, Guernsey, 1 Jan 1889, p.2

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