Alcohol in the Asylum

January 7, 2019

Welcome to our first blog post of 2019! This week not only marks the start of the New Year but for some is also the start of dry January, a public health campaign which sees participants give up alcohol for a month.

There are frequent mentions of alcohol in the early records of the North Wales Hospital. A dietary table for pauper patients produced in 1848 reveals that male patients could receive as much as 14 pints of beer per week, with females receiving considerably less at three and a half pints per week. As well as being included in the daily diet, alcohol was also given during special events and celebrations. During the first annual ball which took place at the Asylum in 1849 “males were supplied with a moderate allowance of good ale, and the females with tea and a little negus.”

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A diet table showing the food and drink allocation for pauper patients, produced in 1848.

This provision of alcohol in asylums was not uncommon in this period. As well as been seen by the medical profession as having palliative qualities, it was also often safer than drinking water which carried risks of illness. Beer was also used in asylums as an incentive and reward for patient labour. Patient labour was believed to be important during this period, not only was it thought to be beneficial in aiding a patient’s recovery but also served the dual purpose of supporting the running of the asylum.

The subject of beer provisions feature amongst minutes of the Committee of Visitors. At a Special Meeting of the House Committee on 4th October 1853 the Steward of the Asylum reported that 24 barrels of beer that were supplied to the institutions were short of the legal measure. The contract with the supplier was terminated and another supplier was found. By 1867 the annual report reveals that the Asylum had spent £582 18s on 368 barrels of beer for the year. Concerns over this high price led the Committee to recommend building a brew house, and by 1869 the Asylum was profiting from its production of beer.

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Taken from the 1869 annual report, showing how the asylum was profiting from the baking of bread and the brewing of beer.

By the late 1870s alcohol started to be phased out of all asylums due to changing ideas in the medical profession about its benefits, and changing societal values about the dangers and immorality of consuming alcohol. In addition large patient numbers and overcrowding in many asylums was leading to an expensive increase in the amount of alcohol needed.

In the early 1870s beer had already been withdrawn from general use at the Asylum, and was only given to male patients who were fully occupied with work in the institution. By 1880 it was phased out altogether, the Medical Superintendent reporting that “we have discontinued the use of beer, except during harvesting, or other unusual operations. We have no reason to regret the experiment; on the contrary, it has prevented jealousy amongst the inmates, whilst no ill result to either mental or bodily health has followed”.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes was discounted by medical professionals. As time went on the North Wales Hospital became a place where those suffering from an alcohol related illness could go for treatment and recovery, a far cry from the daily beer rations of the 1840s!

Lindsey Sutton

Project Archivist (Unlocking the Asylum)

Christmas at the North Wales Hospital

December 13, 2018

From the onset in 1848, the festive season was duly celebrated by both patients and staff at the North Wales Hospital. The senior staff decided to organise a dance during the first festive season, as detailed in the first annual report:-

“At the commencement of this year, we indulged the patients with a dance – seventy of the patients, males and females, assembled, about six o’clock in the evening, in the corridor on the female side of the house, which was decorated for the occasion with evergreens, &c. A piano forte was procured, and dancing was commenced with great spirit and was kept up till nine o’clock. During the evening the males were supplied with a moderate allowance of good ale, and the females with tea and a little negus. It was truly gratifying and affecting to witness the decorum as well as the joyous delight of these poor people. The success of this our first experiment at an assemblage of the sexes was such as to induce us to hope that much good may result from an occasional repetition of a similar indulgence.”

HD/1/1 Annual Report 1852

HD/1/1 Annual Report 1852

In their fourth annual report the medical officers report that ‘the great event of the season, so long talked of, and anticipated with so much delight – the “Ball” as it is called took place. We question whether any assembly in the Principality could boast of more happy faces. About 90 patients, and the attendants assembled in the gallery on the female side, and which they had tastefully decorated with evergreens. The dancing was kept up with great spirit for some hours. Several songs and glees were sung by the patients and attendants. The frugal supper was then served, and all retired heartily delighted with their evening’s amusement. Not a word, or a gesture which could offend the most fastidious beholder, escaped during this happy re-union. All was joy and delight, and even rooted delusion appeared to vanish for the time.’ Evidently these events offered patients the opportunity to exercise self-control, and thereby played an important role in re-socialization.

On December the 8th 1905, a concert was held ‘with a view to inaugurating the formal opening of our New Hall in aid of the Patient’s Recreation Fund’. Also, in the annual report of the same year ‘Xmas festivities were hitherto, the chief social event of the season, including a handsome Xmas Tree, the gift of Mr Burton of Gwaenynog. Over 300 presents were distributed upon the occasion concluding with a dance and supper, which were substituted for the Annual Ball.’

Unlisted plan D block Floor 4 Cell 2 g

During the war years ‘every effort was made to prevent the war affecting the recreation of the patients’ but as the annual report of 1941 states ‘it has been inevitable that it should do so to some extent. Owing to petrol rationing the distance from which entertainers could be drawn has been limited. Christmas, of course, was as cheery as ever and the patients had their Annual Ball on the 14th January’.

The Annual Ball was clearly the high point of the asylum calendar, and evidently remained so for well over a century, for the patients, the staff and the people of Denbigh.

The ‘Unlocking the Asylum’ project team would to thank you all for your support during 2018, and wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Rhian Evans- Project Support Officer