This New Year’s Eve musing takes on a slightly different tone. Maybe not quite so light a subject as I would normally cover, but it’s a subject that I feel strongly about and that I think often gets brushed under the carpet.
(The words used, though not nowadays politically correct, are ones that were used during the Victorian period. I did struggle to know whether to change them or to keep them, but decided in the end that to stay true to the Victorian values they should remain, after all, they had already been spoken and written so my evading them wouldn’t make them or the subject disappear.)
New Year’s Eve means many different things to different people. For some it’s time to pull out all the stops and party long and hard. For others it’s a time for quiet reflection. A time to assess what has been and gone and that yet to come.
My main New Year’s Eve tale isn’t strictly purely Weymouth and Portland, but no doubt many of its recipients were of a local nature. Folk who through no fault of their own, had ended up somewhere they probably never thought they might.
The headlines of the lengthy penned article proclaim
‘New Year’s Eve at a Lunatic Asylum.’
It is 31st December of 1866, a reporter from the Sherbourne Journal has been invited to attend the evening’s festivities at the Dorset Lunatic Asylum. It is his report but I have rewritten it in my own words, accompanied by quotes from the article.
(This was the newly opened (1863) and much enlarged institute of what later became Herrison Hospital built upon Charlton Downs. (A place where my own mother was taken in the 1950’s when she suffered deep post natal depression after my birth.)
It is 11 o’clock in the evening, the farewell night of the year 1866. I am sat in the great hall of the new Hospital, a place that is generally referred to as the County Lunatic Asylum. I have been invited here to partake in the evening’s festivities along with the staff and inmates. As a reporter, I suspect there is a hidden agenda perhaps. These great monuments of incarceration have received nothing but bad press in the newspapers recently.
First to enter the hall are the men of the brass band who step up on the stage and take their places. Most are artists who give their time freely, but a couple of the band’s members, so I’m told, are inmates of the asylum, one being an accomplished musician who plays the cornopean.
Then from the side enters another musician, the leader of the band. He is physically carried in on another patient’s back, because of paralysis of his feet he is unable to walk. So his story goes, he was a sailor, who, whilst on board his ship in the West Indies fell from the rigging and seriously injured his back. Arriving back in Weymouth some time later, he settled there, set up a school and “being a man of good abilities, did very well until he began to feel the effects of his accident, and it became necessary to send him where, kindly and humanely cared for, he might pass his days in peace.” Not only did the poor fellow suffer from the unfortunate physical affliction caused by his accident but his mind has ultimately been affected also, “his chief delusion, I understood, was that he was chief heir to some immense estates; beyond that he was harmless.”
Once he is sat comfortably at the front of the band, the man is handed his violin. Hesitantly at first, he passes his bow across the strings a few times, eliciting discordant notes, but as he plays on so the sounds slowly begin to smooth out to more harmonious tones.
Then the double doors to the room swing open and in file the male patients “some staring vacantly upon the ground, others strutting in with all the swagger of ‘my lord,’ but all looking, clean, happy and contented.” As they file past, a few turn their heads and nod at us, the guests seated at the front of the auditorium. Though one rather surly fellow “got behind his attendant’s back, and did what is vulgarly known as taking a sight at me, all the time keeping his face as grave as a parson’s.” I hasten to add, somewhat disconcerted, I do not acknowledge his sour greeting.
Now that the men are seated and settled quietly, it is the turn of the women to enter the hall. Like their fellow patients, as they pass by, their feminine faces reveal a variety of emotions and merely hint at their mental states. A couple of rather grand ladies make their particularly stately entrances, their full skirts sweeping the floor as they stroll imperiously across the hall to take their seats. One believed herself to be a grand Duchess so I’m told, the other no less a person than Her Majesty, the ex-Queen of Spain.
Seated in the front row with us is Dr Symes, the Superintendent in charge of the institute and his family and friends.
Of course, there are the hospital staff present, those men and women whose duty it is to care for their charges. Not “beetle browed men or women with iron wills and arms to match such as the sensation writers of late have rejoiced to put before their readers,” these are “young men and women, neatly and modestly dressed, with good-tempered looking faces, laughing and joking with the rest.”
During the evening’s celebrations, I witness not the “slightest manifestation of violence” the patients behave impeccably,“indeed, the assembly would have set a good example to some where there is supposed to be more sense.”
One or two of the more animated inmates catch my attention and I enquire as to their means of being admitted. Watching a man who dances in a very queer manner, “always on the hop,” I ask why he ended up in the asylum.
His tale is a sad one. Life for him, like many of us, had started out so good, so full of promise. He married a young, pretty lass and in their first few years they were happy. Then disaster struck the family, “the breath of the seducer coming over this like a cloud, a deserted home and the end-disgrace for the wife; for the husband a lunatic asylum.”
A valuable lesson to be learnt maybe, one never quite knows what life has in store for any of us really.
Another man, small in stature, catches my eye. He enters the room “with an appearance of being thoroughly pleased with himself.” His thick head of hair is styled in the most elaborate of fashions, “it being parted in the middle, and evidently curled with great care.” Upon his delicately featured face he wears his carefully manicured moustache with great aplomb. This man of distinction, imaginary or not, passes through the hall, only stopping briefly while he nods to the chaplain. Upon that nod, “something was thrown across to him, which he eagerly caught at.” Looking closer I can see the item being a pair of “white kid gloves,” though they are far too large for his delicate hands and of a rather tatty state “ventilation was amply provided for by sundry slits and holes.” This does not bother the man at all, in fact “they evidently gave the wearer the greatest satisfaction.” Once his hands are firmly ensconced within his gloves, he is convinced that he is complete in his full evening attire, then “he paraded up and down the room several times in great pomp.”
He passes me several times, and each time he stops before me, he elegantly stretches out one of his feet, keen to reveal his dancing pumps, which he admires himself so greatly, carefully turning his foot from one side to the other to enable a full view of their elegant styling. Intrigued, I cross the room to talk to him. First, I take great pains to “complement him on his general appearance.” Something that obviously gives him great pleasure indeed as the widest of smiles stretches across his face. “Ah” he replies proudly, “we Blandford people can do it.” With that social exchange having been successfully concluded in his eyes, off he lightly steps to impress some other person.
The music ceases, we are all requested to take our seats while members of the staff and some of the inmates give a musical recital. Having listened to a series of harmonious renditions from the singers and applauded their valiant efforts, the band strikes up once more.
I am now introduced to my new dance partner, a delightful young lady, “I believe she came from Cerne.” As we waltz around the dance floor she proceeds to tell me that she is the “Duchess of Sherbourne Castle” and that she owns “various estates around the country.” Pressing her gently, I remark that the “last time I was there a gentleman named Digby was in possession.” That phases her not the slightest, with the merest upward tilt of her chin, she simply decrees that the man is merely “an impostor.”
During the evening’s proceedings, this sweet lady takes to the stage and performs a couple of songs and “a sweeter voice I never heard.” So pure and clear was its tone that “it sounded more like a silver bell than anything else I can compare it to.” Her “highest notes were given with an ease and clearness that was astonishing.”
That reporter from the Sherbourne Journal wrote his sensitively drafted piece about the institution with a positive slant. The original was a lengthy article which appeared in its shortened version in numerous local and national papers.
A report created by “The Commissioners in Lunacy” from earlier that year reveals what exactly what and who this hospital served.
(Dorset County Chronicle 28 June 1866)
(I visibly cringe writing some of these words.)
“Three of the inmates suffered from religious monomania and one from over-study. But notwithstanding the large number of patients that have been admitted it appears that there are in this county no less than 12 lunatics, 156 idiots and 13 imbeciles[…] 13 idiots and 9 lunatics in the Weymouth Union.”
Out of the 397 patients at the start of that year, 41 belonged to the Weymouth Union.
During 1866 the asylum employed 14 attendants, 10 nurses, 3 laundry maids and 3 kitchen maids.
No one was on the wards to supervise patients overnight.
On a lighter note, the years end of 1857 was not such a good one for one Weymouth fellow, a certain Mr John Jenkins Rolls. He was employed as the “Inspector of Nuisances.” I say ‘was’ because come the 31st December he suddenly found himself out on his ear!
Now, it wasn’t that good old Mr Rolls hadn’t been doing his work…oh no, in fact the reverse was true. Seemingly “his reports were as voluminous as a Parliamentary Blue Book.” His role was that of being in control of those unruly Weymouthians and their suspect habits, such as Caroline Norris of Franchise Street, who “kept a pig at the rear of her house,” one which was “in a very dirty state, so as to be a nuisance to several cottagers near.”
Or digging unauthorised holes in the roads, that was the case against builder Stephen Brown. John Rolls had been sent to check out the sorry state of South Parade, where he came upon “a hole, and the earth thrown in the middle of the street.” Might not have been any H&S in those days, but Rolls, wasn’t standing for it. He brought the case before the courts where he gave evidence to the fact that “There was no fence to prevent anyone falling in it nor any light during the night.”
Blighted by his constant reports of nuisances in the borough, the good old Victorian Weymouth Council employed a very 21st century tactic to dispose of him and his role. “With the close of this year, the duties of the present Inspector of Nuisances are terminated. The appointment of the Town Surveyor and Inspector of Nuisances-blended into one office-will take place on the 31st inst.”
The author of the article declared that “had his reports been attended to by the Council there would not have been a removable nuisance left in Weymouth.” He then went on to point out that “they were thrown aside by the Council, and the Inspector was looked upon as a troublesome man.” Upon being asked about the matter, the council replied “We are no respecters of persons; we only wish to see ‘the right man in the right place,”
Never mind, it was only his prestige put out of joint, because John Rolls just returned to running his own successful business, a glover, tea and cigar stockist, situated in Augusta Place where he lived with his wife Ann.
(Dorset County Chronicle 31 Dec 1857)
If Weymouth’s military history is more you cuppa…pop on over to Nothe Fort and Beyond…
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