Christmas at the Asylum


L0000640 The twelth night entertainment Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images The twelth night entertainment in Hanwell Lunatic Asylum. 1848 Illustrated London News Published: 1848 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

L0000640 The twelth night entertainment
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
The twelth night entertainment in Hanwell Lunatic Asylum.
1848 Illustrated London News
Published: 1848
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

One of the best parts of researching archives is discovering unusual accounts where they are least expected, and Christmas festivities are no exception. I recently came across this description of Christmas celebrations in All Saints Lunatic Asylum in the mid Victorian period, shortly after Dickens published ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843.

Birmingham Borough Lunatic Asylum, later known as Winson Green and All Saints Asylum, opened in June 1850. Within a year there were 263 occupants, and by 1870 this had grown to 599. Treatment at the Asylum in the mid nineteenth century was based on ‘moral management’, treating ‘lunatics’ humanely. The days of chaining lunatics were over. Occupation, work and recreation were important parts of treatment of patients, who were strictly segregated into male and female areas.

Patients enjoyed some entertainment from the opening of the asylum, including annual picnics. From 1851, some men and women were allowed to meet for music, singing and dancing, which Thomas Green, the medical superintendent, thought ‘really form a very interesting feature on the management of the institution’[1]. These were continued the following year;

‘The weekly concerts and ball have been kept up with the usual spirit, and these meetings have continued to form a valuable aid in the moral treatment. On Christmas Eve a party was given on a larger scale, and on this occasion, for the first time since the Asylum opened, the partitions of the hall were removed. It was tastefully decorated with flags, and festoons of shrubs interspersed with artificial flowers, whilst the walls were ornamented with a variety of fancy designs. Most of this was the work of Patients and executed in the short space of a fortnight. The ‘tout ensemble’ was striking, and displayed to great advantage the fine proportions of the noble room.

89 males and 106 females, more than three fourths of the whole number were present. To quote the language of a Patient who wrote a description of the entertainment, ‘nearly two hundred of God’s erring and deeply afflicted children, called lunatics, assembled clean, neat, quiet with at least a passing smile on their careworn and in some cases half conscious countenances; a decided cheerfulness, nay merriment on some, and on others an expression of pleasing astonishment’.

Tables being arranged all around the room they sat down to tea at 5 o’clock, and after tea, by way of grace, they rose in a body and sang ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’. The conjoint effort of so many voices, from persons under such circumstances, uniting with ‘one mind and one mouth’, to thank the great creator for his gifts was most interesting and impressive.

Oranges were distributed in the course of the evening and supper was served at 8 o’clock. Music, singing, dancing and some Xmas games were kept up with great spirit and enjoyment until nine, when all departed quietly to bed’[2].

Christmas entertainments continued throughout the 1860’s, and the community contributed to these.  In 1868 eighty five patients were invited to the Christmas Pantomime by Mr Simpson, the lessee of one of the theatres[3], and in 1869 Mr Miller, the father of a patient, exhibited Fantoccini, Italian string puppets like Punch and Judy, and ‘performed feats of conjuring and leger de main’, with ‘customary music, songs and dancing’[4].

Attitudes to patients in asylums were at their most benevolent in this period. Conditions deteriorated from the 1870’s as asylums became overcrowded and attitudes to people with learning disabilities hardened, but this account of the enjoyment of the early patients in the asylum at Christmas in the early 1850’s, in the early optimistic period, appears genuine and demonstrates that, at the beginning at least, having fun at Christmas was part of asylum life

Alison Laitner

[1] HC/AS, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 14 January 1852.

[2] HC/AS, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, January 12th 1853.

[3] HC/AS, MS 344/2/2, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 21 February 1868.

[4] HC/AS, MS 344/2/2, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 27 December 1869.


2 responses to “Christmas at the Asylum

  1. Walter HERMANS

    Dear Miss / Dear Sir,
    In your section ‘THE IRON ROOM’ of the Birmingham Library I have found nothing on Mr. Robert Hall Best, a previous chairman of ‘Best & Lloyd Co.’, a company which is still active in Birmingham! Did I miss out on something?

    Also, should you happen to know the name or the email address of an ARCHIVIST or a LIBRARY at the COMPANY’s headquarters in Birmingham, then I would be most glad to receive this information from you since I have some further questions for her (or him).. Thank you so very much for your reply to which I am eagerly looking forward! Have a nice day! With best wishes,

    Walter Hermans – (An independent researcher.)

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