‘Comforting the Sick’: Christmas in the interwar Hospital

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Sheffield, 1925

Nobody wants to be in hospital and especially not at Christmas. In recent years the health service has done what it can to minimise Christmas admissions and to send people home if they possibly can. But that option was often not available to the medical institutions of the interwar period. Many of their patients were chronically sick, especially the children, while even relatively straight-forward conditions normally required a stay of two to three weeks on the wards. In these circumstances the management and medical staff did what they could to make Christmas as pleasant as possible.

Between the wars a hospital Christmas was characterised by four recurring elements: a public appeal for gifts; the decoration of the wards; a round of civic visits; and a staff entertainment for colleagues and patients. As with most elements of hospital life, these activities became more democratic, more professional and more informal as these institutions extended their patient base.

Sheffield newscuttings 949Sheffield, 1934

During the interwar period non-cash contributions remained part of a wide range of voluntary forms of giving that had Christmas at their heart. However, the form of this giving changed over time. At the end of the First World War it was still a largely middle class activity. At Leeds General Infirmary in 1919 around 100 individuals donated fruit, flowers, sweets and chocolate, Christmas puddings, cakes, trees and turkeys, toys and cigarettes, with Mr Bland of Kippax also supplying 20 partridges, 30 pheasants and a forequarter of venison.
However, by the early 1920s donors were being drawn from across society. From 1932 the annual report of the Leeds General Infirmary carried a list of Christmas contributions which by 1937 showed around 250 people giving £350 with an additional £75 coming from collecting boxes in the Infirmary and local department stores. In Middlesbrough the weeks before the holiday saw an annual appeal from the Matron of the North Riding Infirmary for donations of toys, cigarettes or money for patient gifts while in Sheffield the entire community was mobilised in an organised effort to provide presents for over 2000 patients and members of staff.



Women’s Ward, North Riding Infirmary, Middlesbrough, 1925

Here the collection and distribution of Christmas gifts and money was undertaken by the Joint Hospitals’ Council and the distribution of present became the task of the Rotary Club. In addition to Christmas gifts given direct to institutions – such as trees and turkeys – the Hospitals’ Council collected around £350 per annum in cash to fund the purchase of presents. This was supplemented by gifts given by local traders and the parcels were made up by the Rotary Club and the Ladies Auxiliary. In 1924, when a total of over 10,000 gifts in 1516 parcels were handed out, the Christmas parcels for men contained tobacco and pipe or cigarettes, fruit, handkerchief and book; for women, fruit, handkerchief, chocolates, needlecase and book; for children, fruit, chocolates, sweets, book and toy and for the nurses a box of chocolates. In addition, large permanent toys such as rocking horses were sent to the children’s wards. The following year the number of parcels rose to 2,500 and remained at roughly this level for the rest of the period.

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In preparation for Christmas, staff set about decorating the wards. In the early part of the 1920s this retained a traditional feel with trees and festive decorations, however, in the 1930s there was a move towards artistic, topical and even exotic themes. In Middlesbrough one year saw a

Japanese garden, with the women patients garbed in Kimonos, was a pleasing contrast to the ‘One Way’ ward of the men, where each bed was marked with a Belisha Beacon and various road signs were introduced.

In Sheffield Royal Hospital in 1938 a ward was ‘transformed into an Eskimo Encampment’ while the Children’s Ward drew inspiration closer to home – the Blackpool promenade as:

From the children’s beds came a merry clamour and the effect was enhanced by roundabouts and a toy elephant that seemed to be thoroughly alive, so comical were its antics.

Inevitably, children’s wards were a particular focus of attention, the one in Sheffield Infirmary in 1934 being influenced by J M Barrie.

Mounted on a pedestal with a pipe to his lips was Peter Pan. Floating gracefully from the ceiling was Wendy, and nearby, also suspended in space, was the fairy Tinker Bell, who lived up to a her name by spontaneously ringing at intervals.

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Sheffield 1934

Most improbable to modern sensibilities was a male ward transformed into ‘the Nicotine Club, [where] gigantic pipes, cigarettes, matches and petrol lighters made the Lord Mayor regret that he has left his tobacco in the car’.


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Sheffield, 1938

On Christmas Day itself the wards became a hive of activity as civic dignitaries and local volunteers began a tour of the institutions to well-wish and distribute gifts. In Sheffield, with its four hospitals, the civic circuit could last up to four hours, with the scene in the Royal Hospital in the 1928 typical of the events:

To the delight of both patients and staff, the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (Alderman and Mrs H Bolton) accompanied by the Master and Mistress Cutler (Mr and Mrs T G Sorby) visited the Hospital and were received by the Chairman and Vice- Chairman. Each Ward was visited and the patients were given a message of greeting on Christmas morning. Closely following the Lord Mayor’s party was “Father Christmas” a member of the Rotary Club, who distributed the gifts which were provided by the Joint Hospital Council. The singing of Carols by Miss Ida Bloor, Miss Ena Roberts, Mr Stanley Jepson and Mr Joseph Green during the distribution of the Christmas gifts was a source of much enjoyment to all who spent their Christmas Day in the Hospital.

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Sheffield , 1933

Finally, in the days after Christmas, the staff mounted a show for hospital supporters, other staff and patients when, as the Sheffield Telegraph punningly noted, ‘Staff desserts theatre for theatre’. These events had a long tradition – the one at the Sheffield Royal Infirmary had been underway in some form since the 1890s – but as was noted in 1937 those events were not as ambitious or ‘so carefully rehearsed’! Indeed, this year was the first that sets had been hired while ‘bright costumes and clever lighting lent the production an atmosphere of pageantry as well as pantomime’.



Christmas Panto, Little North Riding Hood,

North Riding Infirmary, Middlesbrough

The Christmas entertainment was an opportunity for the world to turn upside down (a little). The staff dressed up and played different roles – aided by the pantomime form. Invariably it also included the (all male) resident medical staff dressing as women – 1937 saw them as a harem for a ‘dance of the seven veils’ routine while in 1938 they appeared as fairies. The shows, written by the staff, also gave the opportunity for a flurry of in-jokes and to poke fun at each others – even if the journalists reporting didn’t always understand what was gong on!


Middlesbrough’s Lord Mayor Pulls a Cracker

Middlesbrough General Nurses Home, Christmas 1946

Pictures: Sheffield all from Sheffield Daily Telegraph. Middlesbrough from B. Doyle, A History of Hospitals in Middlesbrough, South Tees Hospital Trust, Middlesbrough, 2002