[Lunatic Asylum] Stevens, J. H. & Newcome, W. T.

Archive of Materials Relating to Amateur Dramatics at the Kent County Lunatic Asylum, 1860's

A highly interesting collection of ephemera relating to amateur dramatics taking place at the Kent County Lunatic Asylum in Kent, England in the 1860's. The archive contains 15 programs, a prologue and two epilogues, a photograph of an actor, and 28 newspaper clippings, nicely laid down on scrapbook pages which are housed in a custom cloth box. Taken together, the items give a fascinating and unusual view into the Victorian treatment of the mentally ill.

The original sepia photograph (15 x 9.5 cm) shows a woman (or man in drag) in prim Victorian dress, standing beside a table of men's hats. The subject may be Stevens' wife, who acted in at least one performance. 15 programs, printed poster-style in 4to, one on each side of pieces of India paper of various pastel colors, each with a Kentish horse at the head, above the words "Concert Room, Kent County Lunatic Asylum, Barming Heath." One program (from 1865) has the words "The Last Night of the Season" at the head; another two (from 1866 and 1867) "Fourth Season"; a fourth (from 1867) "Last Nights of the Fourth Season"; and the last two (1867 and 1868) "The Fifth Season." Each program gives a list of the actors and the characters they play, together with the names of the Acting Manager ("Mr. J. H. Stevens" throughout); the Scenic Artist ("Mr. C. Foord"), the Stage Decorator ("Mr. W. Featherstone" and later "Mr. Russell"), Machinist ("Mr. J. Dadswell"), and later, Leader of the Band ("Mr. Russell", "Mr. Gower" and once, "Mr. Venu.") There are generally two main pieces to a performance, with the first (February 26, 1864) consisting of two farces: "My Wife's Second Floor" and "A Thumping Legacy." (As the final entertainment of the first night, "The Asylum Band will perform various selections during the Evening under the direction of M. A. de Sauzay.") The last program features the comedy "Naval Engagements" by Charles Dance, and a comic drama by William Brough, "A Phenomenon in a Smock Frock." The prologue and two epilogues are on the same paper as the programs, and are likewise headed "Kent County Lunatic Asylum." The prologue (1 p., 4to, with Brown's slug) is in two columns, and is titled "Prologue for the Season 1867–8 / (Written by W. T. Newcome, Esq.)" The first epilogue (1 p., 12mo, with Brown's slug) is titled "An Epilogue / Written by Mr. J. H. Stevens, and delivered by him at the conclusion of his performance on Tuesday Evening, the 29th March, 1864; the close of the Theatrical Season." The second epilogue (1 p., 12mo) is titled "An Epilogue / Written for the occasion by W. T. Newcombe, Esq., and spoken by Mr. J. H. Stevens, on Friday Evening, the 29th March, 1867, being the last Night of the fourth Theatrical Season." The cuttings emphasize the high standard of the performances ("The unanimous verdict of those best qualified to judge, was that the good intentions of the amateurs were seconded by an ability little, if at all, inferior to trained professionals"), and the presence of "many of the elite from Maidstone."

The care taken in assembling the collection suggests that it may have belonged to J. H. Stevens, steward of the asylum, or to another of those directly involved with the enterprise. Some light toning and wear, but overall in fine condition. Modern blue cloth box with red leather label in very fine condition, 11 x 15 x 1 inches.

An article in the Morning Post of April 5, 1867 gives a compassionate view of the drama program: "The efficiency of the amateurs in their respective parts was greatly due to the steward of the asylum, Mr. J. H. Stevens, who was the acting manager. The effect of these entertainments, to which between 400 and 500 of the patients are admitted, is most interesting. The perfect quiet and good behavior of the audience, and their ready seizure of the various "points" which occur, render it difficult to believe in the fact of their insanity. To all those who have inaugurated and assisted in carrying out this kindly movement great praise is due. It is little that can be done to relieve the tedium inseparable from these poor creatures' isolation, but all the plans for their benefit are carried out with a heartiness and kindness that speaks volumes in favor of the genuine humanity of all concerned. (16971)

Program, unsigned
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