Valentine’s Day at Bethlem

Dr Jane Hamlett, one of the leaders of the At Home in the Institution project at Royal Holloway, University of London, who was a guest blogger for us last summerreturns as a guest for us today, St Valentine’s Day.

On February 14th in Victorian England sweethearts and suitors often declared their love by sending Valentines . But it’s surprising to find that they were also sent at Bethlem.

I’m working on a book on material life in Victorian institutions, and as a part of this I’ve been looking at Bethlem. Finding out about goods and objects in patients’ everyday lives isn’t easy. I’ve been combing Bethlem’s voluminous patient case books, looking for mentions of clothes, personal items and other significant small things.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I stumbled over this Valentine, sent by a young female patient, Eliza Jane P. on February 14, 1886. Not only is it written in the patient’s own words, but it is actually comprised of contemporary material objects – thread, needles, pins and buttons – all carefully attached to the page.


The message that accompanies the sewing things isn’t entirely clear, especially the words in the middle of the text. But it probably says: “Bachelor’s Requisites. From A Real. An old Maid.”

Eliza Jane was a dressmaker, and the Valentine is a display of her professional expertise.

But it also plays on the Victorian idea that single men or bachelors lacked basic household skills, and were often reliant on mothers, sisters or female friends for assistance. To help her Valentine out, Eliza Jane has labelled the darning cotton, sewing cotton, thread, and even the pins. This last at least must be a joke, as even the most ignorant Victorian male would surely have been familiar with these.

This love token reminds us that in Victorian courtship rituals women were not always passive recipients…

read the full post at the Bethlem Heritage blog here


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