Comfort and Joy: an institutional Christmas


Oliver Twist (1948): Photograph: Rex

Life in early Victorian Birmingham was hard for the majority of the community, but as the post on the visit of Charles Dickens showed, there was a great deal of hope that life for the working classes was beginning to improve. For some, life could be even harder. The extracts included from this 1854 article reveal that there was at least some attempt to bring ‘comfort and joy’ to the whole community. There is a sense of poignancy, especially I think in the brief description of the dinners he at the workhouse, as it is clear that the children ate separately to the adults.  No big Victorian family Christmas for the poor. This is in sharp contrast to the visitors ‘and their families’ who attended the General Institution for the Blind.

The various Guardians appear to have been well dined over Christmas, as some of them appear at both the asylum and the workhouse dinners!

From Aris’s Birmingham Gazette January 2nd, 1854

The asylum:

On Monday evening the inmates of the Borough lunatic asylum at Winson Green were entertained at their usual Christmas treat, under the direction of the Surgeon Superintendent, Mr. Green. The patients indulged in dancing and various games, and the proceedings were considerably enlivened by the musical performances of a band, some of whom were patients. During the evening fruit was supplied to the guests, and buns and coffee having been served the National Anthem was sung and the company separated. Amongst the visitors present were Alderman Cutler, Councillor Blews, Councillor Brookes, the Rev. T. C. Onion, Chaplain to the asylum, Mr. James Corder, Clerk to the Guardians, and others.

The Workhouse:

On Monday last the inmates were regaled with an abundance of roast beef, plum pudding and ale. The dining hall of the adults was tastefully decorated with evergreens and several emblems of loyalty. At twelve 0’clock the adults sat down to an excellent dinner, which was well served under the superintendence of Mr. Ogden, the Master and Mrs. Cooper, the Matron. A band which was provided for the occasion by the liberality of some of the Guardians, was stationed in the hall, and played a variety of lively airs, which contributed to the enjoyment of the day. In the children’s dining-hall, the boys and girls were also most plentifully regaled, and after an excellent dinner, treated with oranges, nuts &c. In the evening various parties were formed in the house, consisting of attendants and servants and the utmost harmony and good humour prevailed throughout the entire establishment. A number of Guardians were in attendance, among whom were Messrs. T. Aston, Benton, Biddle, Bowker, Blews, Brookes, Corbett, Guest, Hill, Kenton, Lingard, Mason, Maher, Parish, Poultney, Sawker, Simkiss and Street. The Rev. T. C. Onion, the Chaplain; Mr. Corder, the Clerk to the Board; Alderman Cutler, with several visitors, and some strangers, including Mr. Liversege, from Nottingham, were also present.

The General Institution for the Blind:

The pupils from the General Institution for the Blind, forty-six in number, were regaled with the usual Christmas dinner on Tuesday last; and in the evening a selection of music was given, in which twenty-three of the pupils performed upon the organ and piano-forte accompanied by the choir. The Superintendents had the pleasure of being able to report to the meeting, which consisted chiefly of the friends of the pupils, together with the Committee and their families, that three of the children had received only five months’ instruction and that nine had been taught exclusively by their fellow blind pupils.  The visitors appeared to be much gratified by the performance, especially the parents, many of whom expressed in the most grateful terms their sense of obligation to the friends of the charity.  An examination of the pupils was then conducted by the Chaplain, the Rev. George Lea, who addressed them, as well as their parents and friends, in his usual appropriate and affectionate manner, and the evening was concluded with prayer. 


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