Victorian Christmas Market, from Thomas Kibble Hervey, Book of Christmas (1859)
Christmas: traditionally the season to be jolly and to shop till you drop; when public transport lets you down and people bet on the chances of it being a white one! Perhaps Christmas 2020 will be somewhat different: last minute shopping online, public transport almost an irrelevance (apart from for those desperately trying to escape from the dreaded Tier 4) and, looking at the weather forecast, we are due a wet one this year (so maybe not so different after all). Jolly isn’t the word that springs to mind when anticipating Christmas 2020.
Perhaps, though, it was ever thus. ‘Christmas in Barnsley’, was the title of an article in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph of 26 December 1891, reflecting on the lead-up to the festive period.
A foggy disagreeable night, cold and piercing, so dark that at times it was impossible to see objects but a dozen yards away. Christmas eve was not as busy as expected … trains ran very irregularly, and no wonder when it was impossible to see from signal to signal. Country people were late arriving in the town and business was conducted very hurriedly in most cases, notwithstanding the occasion was market day instead of Saturday.
Christmas Day in Whitechapel Workhouse, 1874
Nevertheless, ‘the festival of Christmas was kept up in the accustomed manner’. In the Barnsley Workhouse, inmates were eagerly anticipating their customary Christmas treat. The Guardians had voted for the usual Christmas dinner of beef and plum pudding, and they hadn’t forgotten a ‘drop of beer for the old men’. After dinner the children would receive oranges, nuts and sweets, the old men looked forward to their plug of tobacco and for the old women there would be tea. As the newspaper commented proudly, ‘there was something for all’. In a custom established by Richard Ines, a local magistrate, each child would receive a silver threepenny piece, and although Ines had died a few weeks previously, the Miners’ Permanent Fund had agreed to continue the custom. No doubt, as in other Unions across the country, the entertainment would continue after dinner with music and singing; and for once, the 8pm curfew would be relaxed. Christmas in the workhouse – a stark contrast to the inmates’ experience of workhouse living during the rest of the year.
But also, not an experience to be taken for granted. There were enough dissenting voices in some unions to put a halt to the Christmas spirit if the mood took them. In 1891, in Barnsley, while the workhouse inmates anticipated revelry, those on outdoor relief were in a more precarious position. It was traditional to pay out door paupers a small amount of extra relief in Christmas week – usually a shilling, paid to the ‘adult head of families now in receipt of outdoor relief’. The Guardians wrote to the Local Government Board (LGB) in London to ask for permission to make these payments, and perhaps were shocked to receive response that: ‘The Guardians have no legal authority to pass a general resolution increasing relief to out door paupers for a particular period.’ (MH 12/14701/105642). It isn’t known whether the outdoor paupers of Barnsley received their Christmas box that year, but the omens were not good!
The LGB’s response contrasted harshly with the one received by the Guardians of Abergavenny Union, after asking a similar question a few years later. In 1899, the Clerk to the Union wrote that, ‘In consequence of severe weather and its been Christmas [the Guardians] find they are wishfull to give each out door pauper – that is every head of a family and adult whose name appears in the out door lists, one shilling next week, and to ask you to be good enough to give your sanction thereto if it be necessary.’ This time, the LGB replied that ‘under special circumstances, such as the occurrence of Christmas, the out door relief may be increased by a resolution of the Guardians. No sanction by the [LGB] would be required to such resolution’ (MH 12/7987/157270).
In 1891, in Skipton, North Yorkshire, the Guardians considered giving workhouse inmates a ration of alcohol to accompany their Christmas dinner. The practice of allowing the Workhouse Master to accept gifts of beer and spirits for the inmates was discussed at a Board meeting: one Guardian moved that ‘the Master should reject offers of intoxicating drinks’, but another moved that he should accept them, ‘strongly deprecating any attempt to deprive the inmates, especially the old and infirm, of their usual Christmas cheer’. The latter amendment was supported by William Peden, who just happened to be a public house proprietor! The inmates got their ‘intoxicating drinks’ by the narrowest of margins: 11 votes for and 10 against (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 7 December 1891).
Similarly, The Truth (3 December 1891) reported that, in Halifax, the Guardians, having succumbed to an appeal by the Ladies Temperance Society, had decreed that ‘inmates shall be denied their customary supply of beer this Christmas’. The Truth pondered, ‘if the reflection that they have deprived these unfortunate paupers of the only luxury Christmas was to bring them will make their Christmas the happier and the merrier?’
The Ladies Temperance Society was not alone in casting a disapproving eye on the practice of allowing alcohol to paupers at Christmas. In January 1868, an inmate of Bethnal Green Workhouse wrote to the East End Observer (MH 12/6855/3567) of his disgust at the behaviour he had witnessed that Christmas. He described an orgy of drunkenness and lascivious behaviour:
Sir allow me to call your attention to the proceedings of Late at Bethnal Green workhouse [at] Christmas time I have been an inmate of Bethnal Green workhouse for years and never before have I wittnessed such disgraceful proceedings [W]e were kept up on Christmas night till a very late hour the officers and inmates male and female were in our ward drinking and singing and on Boxing-day the male officers were drinking nearly all day and at supper time there was no one to Read prayers or grace they were all in such a disorderly state and worse … after supper there was a quantity of what are termed the Refractory girls dressed in men’s clothing dancing in the Hall with the officers male and female and I feel it my duty to make it known I think it is dreadful such goings on where the word of God is preached and no wonder then that Bethnal Green has such A Bad name I trust you will pardon the liberty I have taken
I Remain Sir your Humble Servant
Benjamin Smith an inmate
His account of the revelry did not go unchallenged, however. The following week, another inmate wrote that his account was ‘hardly credible … we enjoy our selves and that in a proper manner’. The workhouse was a godly place, he wrote, but ‘does that prevent people from injoying them selves?’ (East End Observer, 25 January 1868). He also cast doubt on the earlier correspondent’s credentials, suggesting darkly that there was no such Benjamin Smith in the workhouse.
Most newspaper reports of Christmas in the Workhouse paint a picture of a day of jollity and entertainment, and Guardians themselves were often described as serving dinner to the inmates. There are, however, some reports suggesting that even these small pleasures were denied, as might have happened in Barnsley. In 1868 riots were feared after the Guardians of Caxton and Arrington Union cancelled Christmas. A group of irate inmates wrote to the LGB on 22 December:
We The undersigned take the liberty to write these few lines to you to state our Grievances which is as follows the Old men & Women and Children and Sick are to have their fare for their Christmas Dinner as usual but the able bodied men & women are to be Deprived of it and not have any at all which is causing a great disturbance all throughout the union … We are affraid that some will kick up a Riot and some of the innocent persons will get sent to prison instead of the Guilty ones … we know that you understand and are able to inform us if we are right in our cause or not.
The letter was signed by ‘your humble petitioners, The able Bodied Inmates of the Caxton & Arrington Union’ (MH 12/604/62527).
In Liverpool, a correspondent wrote to the LGB complaining that a poor woman in the workhouse had had some Christmas treats confiscated from her. ‘The charge’, he wrote, ‘is refusing a poor woman to receive a little eatables at Christmas from a friend’, as they had been ‘taken away & detained by the governor’. ‘Will you say’, he asked the LGB, ‘whether it comes within the range of your authority’ to allow such behaviour? (MH 12/5995/362) Whatever the outcome in this case, according to the Liverpool Mercury, the correspondent’s friend would still have enjoyed the customary Christmas fare of roast beef and plum pudding. It reported that workhouse had been ‘beautifully decorated’ outside and in by the nurses and officers, while the dinner was overseen by the Master and Matron and attended by a number of Guardians. Even so, she might have wished she was at Toxteth Workhouse, a mile or so down the road where, according to the Mercury, inmates received roast beef and plum pudding, ‘of which there was an unlimited supply’. It continued, ‘There was, no doubt, many Oliver Twists on this occasion, but it is satisfactory to say that “in asking for more” they met with a ready and generous reply’ (Liverpool Mercury, 26 December 1883).
So, it seems, on Christmas Day at least, workhouse paupers had something to look forward to. In the strange times we’re living in now, we have also been looking forward to Christmas as a relief from the stresses of the pandemic, and even as our Christmas plans seem to get smaller by the day, the ITOW team send warm wishes for a good Christmas to all our readers, and to the volunteers who continue to make our work possible.
Merry Christmas Everyone!