Christmas as we think today it is largely a Victorian, or more precisely a Dickensian invention. The increase in prosperity and advances in technology did mean that they certainly changed the emphasis of the festival. By the end of the century our ancestors were doing as we do, looking back on times past and lamenting the loss of a never existent innocence.
By 1892, Christmas as a tradition was firmly established. Professional societies held annual christmas lunches, the very week the Manchester Weekly Times published the drawing above, it also reported on the annual dinner of the Manchester And District Society of Chartered Accountants. Alongside their festive cheer, they concerned themselves with obtaining a professional recognition similar to that recognised by their colleague lawyers. Who says we accountants never enter the spirit of the season.
The Weekly Times looked back on a Christmas falling in the dreariness of the midwinter, blending pagan and Christian ceremony, the yule log and the boar’s head, the wassail, holly and Santa Claus himself.
The article gives pictures of how the inhabitants of these houses celebrated the season. At Wycoller Hall near Colne, the Cunliffe family revelled for a full twelve days, dining on a dish of frumenty – a porridge made of wheat and fresh milk, followed with roasted beef, a fat goose, pudding and of course plenty of beer.
However, the mill workers of Stockport did not enjoy the same luxuries. In 1842, Alfred Orrell , the serving Mayor of the town, was met with a deputation of 200 tradesmen, apprentices and assistants who were lobbying for an extra day’s holiday on the 26 December, to allow them to enjoy their customary convivilialities and festivities, Christmas falling on a Sunday, and they being unable on that day to celebrate (ie go to the pub) and attend church.
To his credit Alfred did give his blessing to the plan, which passed and allowed the shops to remain closed, with the caveat that he intended to open his mill for work on the 26th, but remain closed the following Monday.
A few days later we discover that the shops did infact close on Boxing Day (of course in 2020 it may be one of the few days they actually open), whilst the mills were nearly all at work. The apprentices and assistants were therefore able to enjoy the festivities. One sole shopkeeper raised his shutters on the 26th December in the Market Place, he was rewarded with a broken window. The Stockport Advertiser reported that the apprentices expressed themselves in anything but sympathetic terms on hearing this news
Which is fortunate, for drinking time was limited on Christmas Day, the same paper reported that year that licensed premises may not sell beer before one o’clock on Christmas Day, and must close during Divine service in the afternoon. It’s not hard to see similarities with 2020.
Travelling a few miles along the Manchester to London turnpike that same year, if we stopped off at Poynton, we would see Lord and Lady Vernon give a Christmas tea party in the Boys School Room (now the Poynton Community Centre) in order to award prizes to the best scholars and celebrate the festivities.
The room was decorated with a bronze chandelier holding 25 candles. The surrounding windows were covered with scarlet curtains and the walls on each side had uplifting mottoes, praising Church and Queen, Lord and Lady Vernon, The Prince Of Wales, and of course the Vernon Schools themselves.
230 children and 270 locals dined on tea and rich redcurrant bread, after which the Reverend Robert Littler of Poynton awarded the prizes and then to his delight the assembled multitude presented him with a copy of Bagsters Large Folio Polyglott Bible, to thank him for his service to the community. Poynton always knew how to party.
By 1844 the Stockport millowners had started to be a little more amenable to the season, and that year Edward Hollins, of Park Mills gave a supper to 700 workers in one of the millrooms. The food consisted of a joint of beef weighing 77 kilos, after the meal there was beer and dancing. The Manchester Courier noted that the moral effect of these gatherings would foster a better understanding between employer and employed, and hinted that other millowners should perhaps follow the example.
In nearby Ashton Under Lyne that year, the mills closed on Boxing Day evening (a Thursday) for the rest of the week, and the Courier was pleased to note that not one case of drunkeness was presented to the magistrates.
Moving to Strines in 1853, the partners, James Nevill and Joseph Sidebotham held a festival for their employees on 23 December 1853. It commenced with a tea for 200 children, the entertainment including ‘Dissolving Views’ (magic lantern) and ‘Voltaic Battery Show’ There then was a supper for the adults starting at 8.30pm for 202 guests. This included a lengthy ritual of toasts. In one for the ‘work people of Strines’ it was mentioned that some of them had worked for the Company for 50/60 years. If this were true they would have commenced working at the formation of the Company in the 1790’s, and would be at least 70 years old.
The ball then commenced in an elaborately decorated adjacent room. The venue was probably the two first floor rooms of the oldest part of the Works – the original ‘Block Shop’ adjacent to Strines Hall. The festivities continued until 06.00am Saturday, Christmas Eve – nearly ten hours of partying for the adults.
The illustration below comes from the Strines Journal, a worker produced magazine reflecting the philantrophic nature of the owners.
Venturing into Manchester, we see that traditional entertainment is available. Boxing Day 1850 saw the premiere of a new Pantomime, Baron Munchausen – An Old Friend With A New Face, at the Theatre Royal, and in 1854 The Manchester Examiner and Times gave an overview of non theatrical entertainments the chief of which was Dr Reimer’s Anatomical and Ethnological Museum at the Royal Exchange. This rather graphic show had exhibits including an anatomical Venus, which was taken to pieces and explained, by a professional Gentleman to gentlemen, and by a Lady to ladies. Ladies were not permitted to view the large number of wax models which showed frightful deliniations of the frightful consequences of vicious indulgence. A report in the Lancet in 1853 noted a room was set apart which showed the ravages of syphilis and gonorrhea.
You could enjoy all this entertainment for the price of one shilling in the morning and 6d in the evening (5p and 2½p). You can read more about theatres and festive entertainment in Manchester in Marilyn Shalks‘ excellent blog.
The combination of Sir Henry Cole’s new Christmas card and the 1840 penny postal service meant you could despatch greetings to your relatives. It was as we all suspect a ruse by the post office to boost postal traffic, and presumably underage drinking by the look of the young girl quaffing a glass of wine.
The cost was prohibitive, whilst only a penny to post, the card itself cost twelve times as much.
You may rue the lack of traditional religious scenes in cards today, in the nineteenth century the practice of sending mass produced cards by post at Christmas was a novelty, still they managed uplifting messages such as murderous frogs and dead robins
I suppose the erithacophobe market was significant in those days.
Rather less unsettling entertainment was available at the Free Trade Hall, Professor Anderson, a necromancer who had toured the United States, entertained with his magic tricks, and Mr Gallaher had a ventroliquial show, introducing the Bubble Family at the Athenaeum.
The traditionalists could see Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal, and the devout attend a Christmas day performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah.
Around the same time as the Christmas Card was produced, Charles Dickens saw a commercial opportunity, and he published A Christmas Carol on 19 December 1843. The first edition sold out by that Christmas Eve, and by the end of the following year it was in its thirteenth edition. He did not make much money out of it that first year, mainly because of piracy, but the public readings he undertook of it from 1847 until his death in 1870 were very lucrative for him.
The Christmas book changed the publishing industry, from now on Christmas was the peak time of demand, and a steady supply of books came out. Dickens himself produced a weekly literary magazine, All The Year Round, to which he contributed, but mainly published literature by other authors including Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. This had special expanded Christmas editions.
He gave equal prominence to male and female authors, although they were never credited, for he styled himself as the Conductor of these anthologies. The Manchester author, Elizabeth Gaskell penned the second story in the 1863 Christmas number.
Elizabeth produced her own Christmas Stories, or at least stories at Christmas. The Moorland Cottage, was certainly primed for the Christmas market with its fireside hearth cover. However, you get the impression her heart was not in a festive mood from the beginning of Chapter 5 Christmas-Day was strange and sad. Mrs. Buxton had always contrived to be in the drawing-room. Christmas is only mentioned eight times in the book, and we only see it the once, on a strange and sad day.
Ghost stories were popular, the new middle classes moved into town. The servants were often taken on in autumn when the nights were long, these servants were in strange houses, they often appeared suddenly through concealed doors. It has been suggested even that the gas lighting caused hallucinations, and the rise in interest in spiritualism reinforced the belief in other worldly apparitions.
Authors were cynical about the Christmas market. William Makepeace Thackeray published a number of festive stories, the first of which was under a nom de plume, Mrs Perkin’s Ball by M A Titmarsh in 1846. He reviewed a number of books that year, including his own, and halfway through in mock horror realised that he had written it, saying: Kick old Father Christmas out of doors, the abominable old imposter! Next year I’ll go to the Turks, the Scotch, or other Heathens who don’t keep Christmas¹.
I’ll leave the last word on Christmas literature to Anthony Trollope, who wrote in his autobiography of 1883: While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the Graphic for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an upholsterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. ……… Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought, or Christmas festivities,—or, better still, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually—all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree—have had no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write, which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time,—the picture-makers always require a long interval,—as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made. ²
Returning to the centre of Manchester, in 1853 the Victoria fruit market, was a forerunner of the Christmas Markets we have today³, and must have been a great source of wonder for Mancunians. At the top end of the market Mr R Clark displayed two crystal baskets replete with flowers and Mr McElroy had a display of grapes and other fruit. However, the Manchester Times was most impressed with Mr William Copeland’s display of apples, each of which he had placed a letter, spelling out such slogans as Long Live Victoria! and Hampton Court! He also had pyramids of oranges, lemons, pears and apples.
Ample meat was available from the Shambles, and other butchers. They displayed hams on Deansgate from Stretford farmed pigs. The game market not only sold game, geese, turkeys and fish, but also barrels of oysters.
This was the year Smithfield Market in Manchester was first covered with a glass roof and there were ten new shops on the side of the building, and the market area covered 2½ acres, giving greater opporunity to shop in comfort away from the ravages of the weather.
Sir James Watts was mayor of Manchester in 1855. That year he reminded the business community that Christmas Eve had two postal deliveries, and therefore should not be given up to frolic.
In 1859, the Christmas Holiday argument was still raging, Christmas Day having had the temerity to repeat its cyclical habit of falling on a Sunday.
However, in 1862 a greater indignity faced the gentry of town when a solar eclipse was to occur on the afternoon of the 31st December, as the Manchester Weekly Times put it, abating its glory in in view of a mourning nation and the dying year. Traditional Manchester weather snuffed any possiblity of viewing this by providing a thick fog, to the dismay of the shooting parties, who after struggling through the thick haze, were defeated by the darkness of the eclipse making as great an obstacle to shooting as the prevalence of the mist.
By 1865 a German Fair was well established in the centre of Manchester, as was a Christmas Tree. The tree was 25 feet high, however, in keeping with modernity it was artificial, built of a large gas pipe which radiated branches serving as burners surrounded by comic heads. It was decorated with multicoloured chinese lanterns and decorated with 2,000 dried Welsh ferns tipped with candles, and festooned with wrapped presents.
At the bottom of the tree, a tableau of carved animals and birds depicted the flight of the animals in Noah’s Ark, and a few feet away was the traditional crib scene.
The toys in the Christmas market stalls were also at the cutting edge of technology, dolls which said Papa when tilted were on sale, as were examples that cried, walked and kicked. For the boys there were self propelled boats and railway trains as well as a distant ancestor of the Duracell rabbit which walked, moved its lips and played a drum.
By 1887 if you wanted to spend Christmas day away from home, there were trains, running on the 25th to Liverpool, as well as excursion trains to places as far afield as Dumfries and Edinburgh on other days. For the more affluent, Thomas Cook and Sonº on Market Street were running Christmas trips to Nice, Monte Carlo and other Mediterranean resorts.
Christmas as we know it had arrived by the end of the century, enough for nostalgic looks back at how the season was marked in days of yore, which as we used to say is where we came in.
I’ll leave you with some festive views of some of the places we’ve seen, Heaton Lodge, sent by the young Rowland Hill Harrop to a girl he met, Highfield, taken over a century apart, yet once they stood next door to each other. Bramhall Hall, home of the Davenports and Charles Henry Nevill of Mile End Hall, Abney Hall, built by Alfred Orrell, and lived in by the Watts family. Barnes Hospital, built by Robert Barnes, the brother of Maria, who married George Fernley , Bruntwood Hall, built for William Nelson and Mauldeth Road, as it was across the road from Heaton Lodge and one of my childhood views.
Finally, in the words of the song, Sleigh Ride, a picture print by Currier & Ives, from Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait.
Having linked Heaton Mersey with Zooey Deschanel, I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas.
¹ Pricket, Stephen. Victorian Fantasy. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2005.
² Thanks to Anthony Burton of the Elizabeth Gaskell house for sources on Victorian Christmas Literature.
³ Or not.
º Thomas Cook was a travel agent, for the benefit of younger readers.
© Allan Russell 2020