Alcohol in the Asylum

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)

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