Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archive: A splendid time is guaranteed for all!

This is the second in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive and our digitisation project as it nears completion. The Retreat is one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the archive, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page.

This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image efficiently and effectively. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered.

Here David Pilcher, one of our digitisation assistants introduces The Kirks.

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It would be true to say that the Retreat archive contains a lot more than mental health records, correspondence and monthly accounts. Folders can be found that include artwork and poetry, landscaping and planting details in the gardens, various sporting activities, in fact a whole plethora of subjects.

One of the cornerstones of the Retreat's care of the mentally ill was to provide educating and stimulating entertainments which were enjoyed in a shared environment by patients and staff alike and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, most calendar months had a programme of entertainment events ranging from lectures, puppet theatre, magic lantern shows, musical evenings and variety acts. Over time the information and correspondence collected for reference by the Retreat on these mainly travelling acts grew to a considerable amount and in itself has become a valuable potential resource for anyone looking at the history of variety and light entertainment.

Due to considerations of space here it would be impossible to write about all the many acts that aspired to make a living by travelling the length and breadth of the country with their often amusing and eccentric shows so I have chosen one such act to try and put across a flavour of what was on offer during the first half of the twentieth century.

I present, for your delectation and enjoyment ………… The Kirks!  


The Kirks cropped version.jpg
Publicity photo of The Kirks circa. 1924-28 (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)

The Kirks were a double act comprised of Mr. M Wingate Kirk and his wife, who was referred to by her stage name of Madame. Both of them hailed from Scotland. Mr. Kirk performed the majority of the show combining such skills as magic and conjuring, illusions and even some ventriloquism using a kilt clad dummy called, at various times, either “Brown” or “Scottie”.   He had devised several sketches for himself and the dummy, one curiously entitled “A Cigarette and a Kiss”, possibly not the best of combinations by anyone’s standards!       

Madame usually made her appearance after the interval when the couple attempted a routine called “ Transference of Thought” sometimes named “Two Minds with but a Single Thought”. She was seated and blindfolded while her husband moved around the stage with items given to him by members of the audience which then Madame immediately and correctly described without any word spoken by her partner! Coins were named and even dated, rings were identified by size and colour and she would continue to amaze despite some of the articles being wrapped before presentation. It was, as the publicity material announced, A Baffling Exhibition of Instantaneous Telepathy!

The Kirks did their show at the Retreat on Friday, 24th November 1922, and for a show lasting 90 minutes were paid four guineas.  (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/4)  

It also has to be noted that earlier in that year the same show was performed for HRH Prince Henry and the repertoire included The Cake in the Hat and My Stick.

The Retreat records reveal that the duo were booked several times during the years that followed and were obviously very reliable in providing quality entertainment for all.

In 1928 M. Wingate Kirk notified the Retreat that he would be in the area around October and would the Retreat like his services once more? The reply from the Retreat is strangely obscure in part

“if you can assure us that your programme will be somewhat changed from what you gave us two years ago we are willing to book you”. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)


Kirk wrote back with that assurance and suggested he include The Living Marionettes (new for the 1928-29 season!) and also “all the latest novelties which are suitably adapted to Hospital Entertainments”. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)


The Kirks performed once more at the Retreat on Tuesday, 2nd October 1928 and as well as the aforementioned Living Marionettes the act included The Library Problem (?) and The Organ Pipes. The show was traditionally closed with a stirring rendition of God save the King.

The last recorded mention I have been able to trace of the Kirks is towards the end of 1946 when M. Wingate Kirk sent the Retreat his latest programme with an accompanying letter asking about possible dates. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/15)


The ventriloquist`s dummy now went under the name of Sandy and the tricks and sketches included The Plume Illusion and the bizarrely titled A Seaside Experience (Pulling a Lady through a Keyhole). Sadly there was no mention of his wife or Madame in either the publicity or the related correspondence so one does wonder if she had passed away by then and Mr. Kirk was bravely soldiering on with the act. Interestingly the headed notepaper used at that time just names M. Wingate Kirk. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/15)


To conclude this particular thread The Retreat in their reply thanked Mr. Kirk for his offer of entertainment but unfortunately was unable to secure him a fixture at the present time.
Obviously, as the years rolled on variety acts in general were on the demise mainly due to the rising popularity of the cinema and then later, television. The Retreat had already acquired a cine projector and were hiring major titles for the entertainment of their residents so to coin a phrase …“variety was (unfortunately) dead”.  

In some ways the Kirks were unique in the style of entertainment that they provided. The material was accessible to children and also suited to an adult audience while the content was deemed to be “safe” for the residents of mental hospitals, of which they included many in their nationwide tours.

Never vulgar or crude in their delivery but possibly with a jocular element of cheek they amused and amazed audiences over almost three decades and certainly had a shared passion in their wonderful gift to entertain.   

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

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