The Freewheelers Theatre Company, is an organisation that brings together disabled and non-disabled actors, dancers, animators and film makers to explore issues associated with disability. The group wanted to learn about the lives and experiences of people of their own age who had been admitted to Surrey hospitals a hundred years ago. They started their project with a visit to the Surrey History Centre to see a wide range of medical casebooks, patient newsletters, hospital theatre programmes, photographs and even hospital menus.
The group were clearly fascinated by the people recorded in such detail on the case book pages.
Questions asked by the group about the records included:
What was wrong with them? Why were they ill? Why were they sent to a hospital so far from home? What about their parents, family, visitors? What medicines were they given? Were they shut away in wards? How did they spend their time? They were particularly captivated by the patient photographs fixed to the pages – a range of emotions or mental conditions fixed in sepia in what may have been the only photograph ever taken of that person.
They were intrigued by the contrast between a placid expression in the photograph and the disturbed history and behaviour recorded in the case book, and also queried the similarity of the clothes worn by each patient (hospital issue) and background to the image (hospital curtain fixed to pole in exercise yard).
Their questions really brought home just how much we can learn about the lives and experiences of our ancestors from these institutional records. The patients themselves may never even have seen these photographs and would certainly not have read their case notes, but a century later we meet them face to face at a particular crisis point in their lives.