On sanatorium billiards rooms and other things

Today was my first day back at the Surrey History Centre.  One of my awesome hosts left me a hand drawn map on the kitchen table, complete with blown up views of intersections, since footpaths, alleyways, and streets all look about the same around here, and absolutely everything “jogs.”  Nothing turns at a right angle.  There is no gridwork.  There are overgrown, massively confusing jogs.

The map had me walking down a “town road,” which jogged off into a “private road,” which lapsed into a “public footpath,” which finally turned into an alleyway before popping out at the river, across which is the Town Centre and the archive.

I was a little bummed that the whole journey ended up in an alleyway, since the public footpath sounded potentially lovely.  But, come to find out, “alleyways” in Woking are basically magical faerie lands full of jasmine flowers, holly bushes, and ivy.

No joke…this is an alley:

I know, right?

Oh, and this was the view off the public footpath:

The most picturesque version of heaven has its own most picturesque version of heaven…

So, when I finally stumbled out of the forest and discovered a tiny city on the other side of the river, I felt a bit like I’d crossed the wall in Stardust, except in reverse–from the land of fay into the land of humans.  I soldiered on past the H&M and the Starbucks and then the Town Centre thinned out again into brick and tudor houses on roundabouts.  And in this hodge podge of homes, sits the Surrey History Centre.

I needed a bit of re-familiarization, as expected.  But the guy at the front desk friggin’ remembered me from a year ago, and immediately set me up with a librarian and contacted Julian, to let him know I had arrived.

Julian, by the way, is one of the most knowledgeable archivists I’ve ever met, and helpful beyond my wildest dreams.  I don’t know where historians got the idea that they are either a) smarter than archivists, or b) more academically suave.  Archivists are magicians.  They are the Houdini to my “terrible, kids party, top hat wearing clown who makes things disappear by throwing objects into bushes while the three-year-olds are distracted by squirrels.”

He strolled out and said, “I see you still have the duck tie.”

And I was like, “Yeah, I wore it so you’d remember who I was,” and then realized that was an entirely unnecessary gesture because archivists remember everything.

He proceeded to take a glance at my volumes of indexes, and comment, solely by index number, on the files I’d chosen to start with.  In two minutes I learned things I’d never heard before about Victorian reforms, portraiture in asylum photography, and phrenology in rehabilitation studies.  And then he shook my hand and said he’d come back to chat from time to time over the next three weeks and strolled off again.


My day continued on its path to fantastic-land.  The archives yielded some really neat stuff.

For instance, in the back and forth correspondence between the Commissioners of Charity (government appointed) and the Trustees of the Sanatorium (rich guy appointed) I found an absolutely wonderful conversation about what actually constitutes “middle class.”

The Board of Trustees seemed to think that the middle class stopped at the “upper lower middle,” which is just…such a British thing to say.  It means, basically, that they would find Matthew from Downton Abbey to be about the lowest man on the totem pole who could still be accepted into the asylum.

The Commissioners of Charity told the Trustees, politely, that they were all out-of-touch, wanna-be aristocrats who had no idea who the middle class was, let alone what they could afford to pay to enter a mental institution.  The Commissioners said, fine, you can fill half of your institution with Matthew Crawleys if you want, but the other half of your institution belongs to, say, Tom Bransons–men who are only required to pay “such and such” amount and who work jobs as clerks, policemen, professional soldiers,and, yes, chauffeurs.

The Trustees freaked out.  This meant that they had to take money from Matthews to subsidize rent for Toms.  (And before Matthew and Branson have that chummy, egalitarian brother moment where they decide they can work on the family land together due to their conveniently varying expertise.)

Why did the Commissioners force the Trustees to do this?  Oh, because the Trustees were kicking mentally unwell people out into workhouses for failing to pay their room rents.  Without telling their family members.  One woman came to visit her brother only to find out he’d been shipped off across England without her notice.

I’m with the Commissioners on this one.

I also discovered today what pieces of furniture went into each room of the men’s ward.  Like, down to the tiniest details.

Why does it matter than Bedroom No. 9 had, for instance, a crystal wash basin with a starburst pattern etched into the side, complete with topper?  Because the dude in Bedroom No. 8 might rob him blind in a fit of kleptomania, and Victorians were nothing if not fastidious about whose odds and ends went where and came from whom.

My favorite description of furniture and decor was most certainly that of the Billiards Room.  Among other expected things, the room contained the following:

A pair 7 ft oak settees covered crimson plush; a 4 fold japanese screen; …a wire bird cage and 2 canaries; a wooden bird cage and 2 canaries; a stuffed Chamois under glass case; a pair stuffed birds in case ‘Ducks’; a time piece in walnut case; a barometer & thermometer in oak case…

As if it wasn’t enough to have four live birds, and two dead ones, in one room, the decorator said, ah, screw it, let’s throw in a stuffed antelope, to finish off the look.  Also, I’ve seen a picture of this room, which must have been taken after this list was made, because there was a taxidermy alligator up on the wall, too.

Those being the highlights of my finds today, I also found plenty of other useful, but perhaps less amusing documents.  I found Governors’ meeting minutes, regulations and rules pamphlets, early stage planning documents, land sale documents, invitations to the grand opening, and lots of other odds and ends–a lot of administrative and publicity stuff today.

After the archive, I managed to get lost in town because I was miles away in my ponderings and took the wrong footpath.  I wound up in the Village Shops and found no fewer than three pubs to try out, though, so I wouldn’t call it a complete loss.

And upon returning home, my hosts’ son, who is two and a half, informed me that ducks say, “Hello, love!” and eat bubbles for supper.  Which was really just the perfect finishing touch to a happy, productive day.

Back to the archives tomorrow!

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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