Posts Tagged 'A Sporting Chance'

A Sporting Chance 4

Cycling was a popular middle class pastime for both men and women in late nineteenth-century Europe. The year 1895, when Hospital chaplain Edward O’Donoghue discussed the topic in Under the Dome, falls at the beginning of what historians have called the “golden age” of cycling. O’Donoghue emphasised the sporting and recreational elements of the pursuit noting, in the whimsical tone he often adopted, that:

We number already several cyclists in the hospital, and no doubt in time we shall form a club under the title of the Bethlem Beagles, and hold a race meeting (under high patronage) in the gentlemen’s garden. It is quite possible that under such circumstances the turf might suffer considerably, but there is no reason why any human being should be run over or even scared, while so vast an array of windows commands a full view of the racing track.

While there is no evidence that the “Bethlem Beagles” ever genuinely existed, O’Donoghue’s words remind us of the interest in exercise, occupation and amusements in the Hospital. However, the chaplain might have baulked at the idea of Olympic cycling. In his own pursuit of the sport, he emphasised education, as well as exercise (he was a keen supporter of cultural and recreational pursuits, organising regular visits for parties of patients to museums, churches and other historical buildings). He concluded that:

I hear with envy and admiration of runs to Brighton and back, to Salisbury, or to Portsmouth in a day, for these are feats of strength and endurance worthy to be praised. … But at the same time I doubt if it is possible to enjoy the beauty of the country with a head bent over the handles and with the mind solely filled with the calculations of miles and hours. And I have a word to say about this riding from start to finish without a thought or a care for what is interesting or suggestive on the road. It is neglecting your education, I always fancy.

With cycling one of Britain’s most successful Olympic sports, it is probable that few have shared O’Donoghue’s concerns with “riding from start to finish” this summer!

Wain cats
Louis Wain cats cycling, 1896: Wellcome Library, London

[1]O’Donoghue, E. “Chaplain’s Column”, Under the Dome, vol. 4, no. 41 (June 1895), pp. 83-4


A Sporting Chance 3

We fear that our occasional posts on asylum-inspired sports and pastimes have yet to attract the interest of the International Olympic Committee. There will be no billiards and no baseball at London 2012. Undeterred, we persevere with our suggestions, and this month highlight an Olympic sport discontinued after the 1900 Games. Croquet was a popular pursuit at Bethlem Hospital in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and beyond (as evidenced by the photograph that accompanies this post). In a novel based on her experience as a patient in the 1920s, Antonia White relates a moment of fearful insight precipitated by a match played in the company of strangers with little regard to the rules:

‘In vain Clara tried to explain the rules of croquet…But it was hopeless. No-one could understand. In the end she left them running gaily about the lawn, hitting any ball they saw and usually all playing at once…the next moment, it came to her. These women were mad. All the women she saw at mealtimes were mad. No wonder she could make no contact with them. She was imprisoned in a place full of mad people.’1

Taken in isolation, and with too much seriousness, a quotation like this one might seem to support a stigmatising dichotomy between ‘them’ and ‘us’, the mad and the sane, as well as an unsupportable shortcut in mental diagnostics whereby disregard of sporting rules was a positive indicator of insanity. Yet what we have in Clara is not an omniscient, inerrant narrator, but a character whose grasp of the rules of croquet may have been impeccable but whose purchase on her own memories and perceptions sometimes proved faulty.

1 Antonia White, Beyond the Glass (London, 1979), p. 243.

A Sporting Chance 2

Fifty years ago the late lamented journalist Alistair Cooke used one of his Letter from America broadcasts to argue for the English origins of baseball, a thesis that relied in part on a passing reference to the sport in one of the novels of Jane Austen.1 We have no interest in advancing that thesis here, or doing anything other than noting the fact, mournful for baseball aficionados, of its withdrawal from the Olympic programme as of this year. Yet perhaps the recent runaway success of Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding will prompt a rethink on the part of the International Olympic Committee in time for Rio 2016?

Baseball was never played at Bethlem; but the indistinct photograph accompanying this post is contained within the Archives & Museum’s collections. It is of the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital team in Baltimore, Maryland. A published history of that psychiatric hospital records that “many baseball games were played between…patients and attendants, and with outside teams such as the Towson YMCA, policemen and firemen” in the late nineteenth century, and that “at one period the Sheppard Pratt team was even strengthened by the employment of semi-professionals”.2

The team photograph shows that players had ‘SP’ emblazoned on their uniforms at around the time of the First World War. Another (possibly earlier) photograph, reproduced in the abovementioned history, shows two teams assembled side by side, one with ‘Sheppard’ on their strip, the other with ‘Pratt’.

Photographs of this Baltimore hospital reached Bethlem via Dr Edward Brush, Sheppard Pratt’s Superintendent from 1891 to 1919, who enjoyed good collegiate relations across the Atlantic and sent effusive greetings to Bethlem on the occasion of its 670th anniversary in 1917, together with photographs later used by Geoffrey O’Donoghue, Bethlem’s chaplain in his lantern slide show which was absorbed in due course into the Archives & Museum’s collections.

1 Alistair Cooke, Letter from America 1946-2004 (Penguin 2005), p. 107.

2 Forbush and Forbush, Gatehouse: The Evolution of the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, 1853-1986 (1986), p. 42.

Sporting Chance 2

A Sporting Chance 1

Sport and other pastimes formed an important part of the therapeutic efforts of psychiatric hospitals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a short series of posts, of which this is the first, we make none-too-serious suggestions for new Olympic sports, inspired by hospital-organised recreation at Bethlem and elsewhere.

In 1878, Edward Walford observes that “on the men’s side” of Bethlem there “is a billiard-room, to which the most hopeful cases among the male patients have access under certain restrictions. This is a large apartment, which, but for its furniture, would look like an immense and lofty green-house, since it is almost entirely glazed above the height of about six feet—a plan which ensures a capital light upon the table. Around the room are raised cushioned seats for those who desire to watch the play; while nearer the fire a large study-table is filled with magazines, journals, and general literature.”1

Walford’s implication that billiards was a male-only pursuit is misleading; photographs held at the Archives & Museum show billiard tables on both men’s and women’s wards. Nor was the game the sole province of Bethlem’s patients. Recalling his medical student days, the psychiatrist and pioneer anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers wrote in his book Conflict and Dream (1923) that “Dr [Maurice] Craig and I [were] residents together at Bethlem Hospital many years ago, where we had frequently played billiards, and as he was by far the better player, I…learned much from him.”2

Is it too much to hope that a few civilised games of billiards will feature in the London 2012 Games?

1 Edward Walford , ‘St George’s Fields’, Old and New London: Volume 6 (1878).

2 W.H.R. Rivers, Conflict and Dream (1923), p. 43.

Billiards(small) (2)