Twelfth Night at Hanwell Asylum

L0000640 The twelth night entertainment
The Twelfth Night entertainment at the Hanwell Lunatic Asylum. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images from the Illustrated London News, 15 Jan 1848 reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Twelfth Night for many people is now just the date in the calendar when we take the Christmas decorations down. In our house this usually includes a certain amount of confusion as to whether twelfth night is on the 5th or the 6th of January. As I write this, it is January 5th 2023, the boxes are out ready for me to pack away the tree (a plastic one that we have re-used for at least the past 15 years) and the decorations.

Marking the end of the twelve days of Christmas and the coming of Epiphany, Twelfth Night was part of the festivities and often celebrated with a feast. The illustration above shows a dance and a feast that took place in celebration of Twelfth Night on January 6th 1848 at Hanwell Asylum (the county pauper lunatic asylum for Middlesex, at Hanwell, to the west of London). The entertainment was just for the male patients, the women had been given a similar festivity on New Year’s Eve.

OS 6-inch map, surveyed in 1864, showing the ‘County Lunatic Asylum’ for Middlesex, now largely converted to private housing. CC-BY (NLS)

The Twelfth Night party was held in the gallery of ward 9, and about 250 patients, staff and guests were assembled. The Gallery was decorated with evergreens, devices and mottoes, with coloured lamps hanging from the ceiling, while the gas-burners that usually lit the gallery were altered to ‘appear like ornamental fan-lights’. The entertainment began with coffee and cake at about 4.30pm, after which there was music making by some and games played by others – cards, draughts, dominoes and bagatelle. Supper was served at 8pm and comprised roast beef and vegetables, ‘with an allowance of beer and tobacco’. [1]

In the foreground of the illustration were the dancers, and the right hand figure was a portrait of William Rayner, a former actor best known for his role as Harlequin which he played at Covent Garden opposite his wife’s Columbine. After his wife died he ‘took to fretting’ and was committed to the asylum.  By 1848 he had been a patient at Hanwell for about seventeen years. He was always ready to cut a caper for the amusement of his fellow patients: a ‘fine old jovial-looking man, dressed in a mixed costume, crowned with a motley cap, bedizened with various coloured ribands’.  [2]

Photograph of part of the site in 2008 on Geograph taken by J. Taylor

The photograph above shows part of the site, now known as ‘Osterley Views’. I wonder how many of the folks who live there now are also taking down Christmas decorations just now, or might know about the celebrations that took place there 175 years ago.

William Rayner is easily confused with his better-known contemporary Lionel Benjamin Rayner, who played at Covent Garden at the same time.

[1] Illustrated London News, 15 Jan 1848, p.27
[2] London Evening Standard, 18 May 1843, p.2

One thought on “Twelfth Night at Hanwell Asylum

  1. Pingback: La Duodécima Noche en el Manicomio Hanwell | El palacio en mis entrañas

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