8 Oct 2014 12:00pm - 2:00pm Room SG1, Alison Richard Building


Dr Jane Hamlett Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London)
Dr Alastair Owens (School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London)


Dr Jane Hamlett
Institutional Things: Material Culture and Patient Experience at Bethlem, 1870-1910

This paper draws on research for the ESRC At Home in the Institution Project — a cross-institutional study of space and material culture in lunatic asylums (as they were known to contemporaries), schools and lodging houses in Victorian and Edwardian England. Built en masse in the nineteenth century, institutions created new material worlds that their inmates had to try and negotiate. The paper will examine interior decoration, furnishing and provision of goods within asylums. Taking Bethlem Hospital, then based in Lambeth, as a case study, I will explore the efforts made to domesticate this establishment through home-like décor. However, the main focus will be patients' responses to and engagement with material culture. The paper will draw on a unique collection of hundreds of letters preserved in Bethlem's case books, which offer an unparalleled record of inmates' reactions to their environments and the things they thought were most important. In a highly controlled material world, small goods, the portable and peripheral, became vital to patients as they attempted to maintain identity and agency within institutional walls.


Dr Alastair Owens
People and things on the move: domestic material culture, poverty and mobility in Victorian London

The development of what Alan Mayne and Susan Lawrence (1999) termed ‘ethnographic’ approaches to studying nineteenth-century households and urban communities has gathered momentum in recent years. Building on critiques of such approaches, this paper examines the material culture of poor households in Victorian London. Drawing upon a study of Victorian archaeological remains excavated from a site in Limehouse in London’s  East End, and inspired by the theoretical insights provided by the ‘new mobilities paradigm’, it aims to place ‘mobility’ as a central and enabling intellectual framework for understanding the relationships between people, place and poverty. While historians and archaeologists have tended to regard mobility as an obstacle to understanding the lives of the poor, here I want to show how by examining the temporal routines and geographical movements of people and things across a variety of time frames and spatial scales, we can perhaps better grasp the struggles and uncertainties of life in Victorian London’s most socially deprived communities. I conclude that as historians of material culture, we need to be more open to the restlessness and dynamism of people and objects.


Open to all.  No registration required

Part of Things that Matter, 1400-1900 Research Group seminar series

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