A Christmas Miscellany

As the Christmas holiday period comes to an end, we publish Brian Stote’s third and final Christmas feature. This one looks at the history of some of the Christmas traditions across the world.

The ancient Christmas began on December 6th with the Feast of St Nicholas who was the Bishop of Lycia in Asia Minor. He was known for saving three virgins from a fate worse than death by throwing three bags of gold through their window. In the light of this, he is the patron saint of prostitutes, though also of sailors, pawnbrokers and children. In this last capacity he became particularly associated with Christmas.

St. Nicholas

One tradition, from Oxfordshire, was that a single girl should bake a loaf on December 24th to discover the identity of her future husband. She had to fast throughout the day, name the loaf a ‘dumb-cake’ and prick it with her initials before leaving it by the hearth and going to bed. At the stroke of midnight, the future groom’s double would enter the room and mark his initials next to hers and leave. For this to happen, she had to leave the front door ajar. If she neglected to do this, she would remain a spinster for life.

On the same day, you needed to light the yule candle as a protection against fire, lightning strikes and electric storms throughout the year. You had to ensure that it remained lit throughout the night, for if it went out it was a very ill omen.

One Christmas Eve custom which began centuries ago was the ringing of church bells and in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, the Devil’s Knell still begins with a tolling bell at 11pm which continues until it has sounded once for every year since Christ was born and celebrates the Devil’s departure from the world in general and Dewsbury in particular.   

January 5th was a pagan festival (which we still recognise) known as Wassail, when youths roamed around the fields beating drums and clashing metal to frighten off evil spirits. This was the fore-runner to carols. A wassail cup was then drunk which consisted of warm brown ale, wine, spices and roasted apples.

Wassailing

This part of the year gradually became a Christian festival and it became a tradition to decorate your house with greenery, particularly evergreens such as ivy, holly, bay, mistletoe and yew. These were originally believed to be protection against fire, lightning and the evil eye but happened to be the plants which gave winter colour when all others had gone into hibernation.

The yule log had to be big enough to burn slowly over the whole celebratory season and in France, if the heart of the log remained unburnt it was believed that a piece of it incorporated into a new plough would quicken the soil and ensure a good harvest. In Provence, into the 19th century, the strongest members of the family carried the yule log around the supper table three times before it was laid on the hearth and the eldest in the room poured a libation over it. This was to ask the old gods for help in the new year. The early church took over some of these traditions, with reservations, and decided that ash wood should be used because the Infant Jesus was warmed by a fire made with the wood by the shepherds.

It was customary to bank up the log with ashes at night and then fan it back into flames for the next day. In the Deep South of America, slaves were given a rest from labour while the log kept burning so it was often damped down to extend their holiday.

Boxing Day is so named because the alms boxes in churches were opened on that day to distribute the contents to the poor. This was known as ‘the dole of the Christmas box, the word ‘dole’ still being used for money received whilst out of work and ‘a Christmas Box’ being a gift – usually of money – to those who have served us well throughout the year.

The Christmas tradition in England gradually developed until it was stopped in its tracks by the Puritan dictats during the Civil War. In June 1647, a Parliamentary ordinance abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and substituted as a regular holiday for students, servants and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month. During the Christmas of 1647 a number of ministers were taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach on Christmas Day, and one of them subsequently published his intended sermon under the title ‘The Stillborn Nativity’. Despite this government pressure, however, Christmas festivities remained popular, and successive regimes throughout the 1650s felt obliged to reiterate their objection to any observance of the feast.

Christmas was to be marked by fasting rather than feasting and although the law was repealed at the restoration in 1660, many of the old customs had been lost.

In the post-parliamentary era, which lasted more than 160 years, some of the old traditions resurfaced, though in far fewer numbers and, although Christmas Day became rather more the focal day of celebration, the seasonal festivities were much less extensive and enthusiastic. The old Twelfth Night custom of the King and Queen being established did, however, return to popularity during the 18th century and the 1820’s saw the beginnings of a revival. With the dawning of the Victorian era it received a hefty boost and began to develop into what we would generally recognise as the Christmas of today.

Queen Victoria’s Christmas

House decoration in Victorian times, in the wealthier homes, was quite lavish. Garlands of ivy were wreathed around bannisters, and of nuts over mantelpieces. Holly and yew boughs were placed where children couldn’t reach them as their berries were poisonous.

Our modern concept of Father Christmas derives from a poem, ‘A Visit from Saint Nicolas’ written in 1822 by an American, Clement Clark Moore.

“…. A miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, with a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick…”

And it continues –

“Down the chimney St Nicolas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot.

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.

His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.

He was chubby and plump – a right jolly old elf –

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.”

The pagan yule log was only perpetuated in Victorian times on greetings cards or in the form of bisque models as cake decorations. The cylindrical shape was easy to convert into containers for gift boxes which were made from papier mache and decorated with moss, flowers or crossed ribbons. The chocolate roll was made in imitation of the yule log and it was sprinkled with icing and dusted with sugar to simulate snow.

A modern Yule Log

In the Victorian era, parlour games at family gatherings became popular such as Charades, Ha Ho Hee, Blind Man’s Bluff, Hunt the Slipper, Twenty Questions, Dumb Crambo, Reverend Crawley’s Game and Snapdragon.

Most of the very earliest Christmas carols were originally written in Latin as canticles and were difficult for lay people to sing with enthusiasm because they were not understood.

St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223, changed this when he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.

The earliest carol, like this, was written in 1410. Sadly, only a very small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches. Travelling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were travelling. One carol that changed like this is ‘I Saw Three Ships’.

Christmas carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England Before carol singing in public became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called ‘Waits’. These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders) who had the only power in the towns and villages to take money from the public (if others did this, they were sometimes charged as beggars!). They were called ‘Waits’ because they only sang on Christmas Eve. This was sometimes known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ because the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.

Many of our traditional carols were written in the Victorian era, though some, such as the ‘Coventry Carol’ (Lullay, Lulla), were survivors from much earlier, as were ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, which could be 1000 years old and of pagan origin, ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ (12th Century) but with music by John Mason Neale 1851, ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ – words from 15th century and ‘The First Nowell’ – 16th century – both first published in 1833 by Sandys.

Update on London Road Cemetery

The Friends of London  Road Cemetery have recently published their latest newsletter and a very interesting read it is. The following update is taken from that newsletter with the kind permission of Ian Woolley the Chairman and author.

Restoration Work Continues.

The restoration work within the Cemetery continues with the main contractors Midland Conservation Limited (MCL) having to contend with some very heavy rain fall at times in the last couple of months leading to concerns over the state of the roadways with excess mud being left behind. This was quickly acted on by the contractors by bringing in a sweeper unit which is taken around the site at the end of each day’s work.

Paxton Memorial.

The Paxton Memorial has been treated to a steam clean from top to toe, with pointing work being carried out and a few minor repairs in the process. All of the steps that surround the base of the Memorial were removed and new brick foundations installed. When removing the steps the contractors discovered three time capsules in glass bottles, the first from 1847 when it was installed. The second from 1925 when repair work had taken place, this gave the most information telling us that the work was done by Taylors an old Coventry stonemasons family. The third was from 1976 when some more restoration was needed. All three were returned into the stonework along with the names of the people from MCL who worked on this most recent restoration and a couple of FOLRC newsletters.

Cleaning the Paxton Memorial

Anglican Chapel

The Anglican Chapel has undergone a complete makeover with more work needed on the spire than first thought and complete new sections of stone being installed. All the windows have had a full restoration treatment with new leading and the stained glass items being sent off site, they are now back in place. At one point it was doubtful that the rose window was to be included. However on closer inspection it was found that there was hardly any glass left leaving the Chapel open the elements it was I’m pleased to say restored to its former glory.

Once all the work is finished this window should look stunning with the light streaming through and projecting it’s colourers on the newly pointed interior walls. New lighting and sound system have been added. The new “pods” that are being installed either side of the main door are also nearing completion. These will provide toilet and baby changing facilities and a small kitchen area.

Above the Anglican Chapel loses some of its scaffolding to reveal some of the stonework that was replaced, note lighter pieces on spire.

Basil Riley

This magnificent Celtic cross has now been reinstated and cleaned which has revealed the symbolism to much greater effect. The top section shows the resurrection, while on other parts are the words Alpha and Omega which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The meaning here being for the beginning, the continuation, and the end of all this. The grave is said to have toppled in the Hurricane of 1987 that weather man Micheal Fish famously said wouldn’t happen, so after 33 years it’s back in place.

This cross will look even more impressive once the scaffolding is removed.
Without the scaffolding

Roadways.

As work nears completion in certain areas resurfacing some of the roadways has started with tarmac being put down leading from the grave of James Starley past George Singerand round under the large Copper Beach tree.

Above work progressing just in front of the grave of David Spencer, who gave the people of Coventry Spencer Park in Earlsdon.

Carriage Way Entrance Tunnel

The entrance tunnel has now been opened up. Balustrades have been reinstated above, the flooring levels brought up to standard to meet up with the mortuary and electric cables being run for lighting etc.

Pictured above the outer gates being fitted at to the entrance tunnel.
Finished gates note reinstated balustrade

Balustrades Reinstated.

The balustrades along the promenade have now been reinstated either side above the Entrance Tunnel and above the bier store. The design is similar to the originals.

The Bier store looking a lot smarter than in past years. Doors restored and stained. Also topped off with new balustrades. Unfortunately the balustrades around the Triumph Gloria Memorial have not been reinstated at this moment in time.

All photos are courtesy of Ian Woolley.

Dickens In Coventry

Hundreds of excited fans turned out on 15 December 1857 to hear Charles Dickens, master storyteller of the age, reading from his famous tale, A Christmas Carol, in Coventry.

The venue was the city’s imposing new Corn Exchange in Hertford Street, designed by James Murray and opened just a year earlier to stage concerts and lectures and public meetings of all kinds, as well as the weekly corn market.

The Corn Exchange, Hertford Street

The public reading was merely one element in Dickens’s extraordinarily prolific career as a writer; he was constantly on tour in Britain and America. But this reading was a little different.

He was in Coventry at the personal request of his friend Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace and Liberal MP for Coventry until his death in 1865. And the reading had a charitable purpose – to support the new Coventry Institute, a particular interest of Paxton’s.

The Institute, founded two years earlier to encourage literary and scientific pursuits amongst the working classes, was an amalgamation of Coventry’s Mechanics Institution and the Religious and Useful Knowledge Society, and was in desperate need of funds. In the event, the reading raised the respectable sum of £50 for its coffers.

Dickens was back in Coventry almost exactly a year later, when on 4 December 1858 he was the guest of honour at a dinner held at the Castle Hotel, Broadgate, to thank him for his fund-raising efforts.

Charles Dickens

During the evening he was presented with a gold repeater watch made by the leading firm of Rotherham & Sons which bore the inscription ‘Presented to Charles Dickens by his friends at Coventry as a grateful acknowledgement of his kindness to them, and of his eminent services in the interests of humanity.’

Dickens clearly treasured the watch. He kept it as a much-valued possession all his life and on his death bequeathed it to his biographer John Forster.

But he was somewhat less fulsome in his praise of Coventry’s watch-making industry, witnessed during a tour of Rotherham’s Spon Street factory.

While full of admiration for the skills on display, he found the Coventry trade’s way of doing things too conservative, contrasting it unfavourably with practices in its fastest-growing foreign competitor, Switzerland.

Writing in Household Words, the weekly journal he edited throughout the 1850s, Dickens argued that one reason for the cheapness of Swiss watches was that women worked in the trade. In Coventry, he added, ‘the employers desire it, the women desire it, but the men will not allow it.’

A sour note to end with, perhaps, but did the writer have cause to thank Coventry for something else?

Dickens once told a friend that he set a scene in The Old Curiosity Shop, where Little Nell takes shelter in the darkness of an ancient gateway, on a place he’d seen while passing through Coventry in a stage coach.

His description, complete with an empty statue niche over the central archway, perfectly fits Whitefriars Gatehouse on Much Park Street, in coaching times the main entrance to the city from London.

A number of CovSoc Committee members contributed to this article but our thanks to historian Peter Walters for bringing it all together.

Christmas Cards, Trees and Crackers

In 1843, one Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant and later the founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was late delivering his ‘duty letters’ and asked a friend, Sir John Calcott Horsley R.A. to design a special card that he could send instead. This portrayed a family group drinking wine, pictures showing acts of charity, framed by a rustic bower, and bearing the message “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You”. Sir Henry Cole also devised the perforated stamp and the concept of the postcard.

In 1846 a thousand of these were produced at a cost of 1/- each and the Christmas card became an established means of giving Christmas greetings. In 1848, one Mr Dobson produced a card depicting ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ and sold thousands and in the same year W M Egley created an etching which had holly, mistletoe, cherubs and a Harlequin and Columbine from pantomime. The advent of the penny post in 1840 had changed the onus of payment from the recipient to the sender, so it became a pleasure to receive a letter rather than an unwelcome missive for which poorer people needed to pay.

Mass production was well under way by the 1860’s and cards were sold in sheets of 12, to be cut apart much like postage stamps and the size of visiting cards. Companies offering to deliver circulars at rates as low as a farthing forced the Post Office, in 1870, to create a halfpenny post and this served to increase the popularity of sending Christmas cards.

In 1880, Raphael and Tuck began to produce a wide range of cards in different shapes, some of which were ‘pop-ups’ through clever folding and some bejewelled, embossed and ever more elaborate. In the heyday of Victorian cards, there were over 200,000 different designs available by 1895. One company offered a prize of £10,000 for the best design and commissioned drawings by well-known artists. Tennyson was offered £1000 to write a short verse and Christina Rossetti and George Eliot derived income from the practice during their careers.

The Christmas tree began to make its appearance in the 1820’s but its real boost in popularity came after an article in the Illustrated London News in 1848 showed a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition brought from Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany, Soon this became the fashion in almost every home where they were decorated with candles, sweets, fruit and small gifts. These gifts gradually enlarged and found their way to the foot of the tree as they were too big to be borne by the branches. Christmas trees were actually popular in America before they became so in Britain, possibly because the troops of George III fighting against Washington’s men set them up or, more likely, there were many immigrant German families who took the tradition with them.

In 1840, British confectioner, Tom Smith, saw bonbons (sugared almonds wrapped in twists of paper) on a trip to Paris and began to make and sell them in Britain. Sales were reasonable but not spectacular, and he struggled for several years to find an idea to popularise them.

In 1846 he made a coloured paper wrapper filled with sweets which could be pulled apart from both ends with the sweets spilling out. In the early 1850’s, since these ‘bonbons’ were generally given by young men to their sweethearts, he began inserting a motto or a short love poem which gradually led, by the 1930’s, to the cringe-worthy jokes which we have today.

In about 1860, sitting in front of an open fire, Tom heard the wood crackling and the concept of creating something which made a loud noise was born. He inserted two strips of overlapping paper impregnated with chemicals which created a bang when friction was applied and invented the cracker. His final move, to compete with imitators, was to add a small surprise gift. The traditional paper crown was added around 1900 and related back to the Twelfth Night king and queen of centuries earlier. Crackers were originally called ‘cosaques’ as they were reminiscent of the Russian soldiers who raced around on horseback excitedly firing off their guns.

Special thanks to CovSoc member Brian Stote for another interesting Christmas article.

Christmas in Coventry 1919

The idea that Christmas in the Northern hemisphere offers a brief escape not just from the drabness of mid-winter but from the daily grind is as old as the festive season itself. The lights, the decorations, the music and the relentless advertisements showing glamour, sparkles and families having glorious fun together remind and encourage us to prepare in the best way we can for a few days in which life – for better or worse – does not feel quite the same as usual. As I walked around Coventry city centre a few days after the Christmas lights’ switch on this year, I wondered about Coventry folk doing the very same thing but a century ago. What was on their minds as they gazed at the first window displays of the season and as the first advertisements for Yuletide fayre appeared in the newspapers? Were they eagerly anticipating the holiday or wishing either that it was not happening at all or that at the very least it would be over as quickly as possible? So, for anyone who thought that I was about to deliver a sermon about the true meaning of Christmas, rest easy; instead, here is a glimpse at Coventry’s Christmas preparations in 1919, with particular focus on those struggling to make ends meet.

Coventry at the start of the 20th century, courtesy of Coventry Archives

For the folk in need of a reminder (and I suspect there were a great many who were) that the time of good cheer was really upon them, the Midland Daily Telegraph tried to help out in the run up to Christmas. This was, it told its readers, the first Christmas since the signing of Peace; during the year, soldiers had been happily reunited with their families and, in spite of grave problems – unemployment and housing shortages to name just two – there was at last a chance for merriment ‘to percolate into dwellings which for years have been darkened by clouds of anxiety and sorrow’. The war dead were not forgotten; empty chairs in homes told of sacrifices made by those who did not return from the War and to the servicemen demobilized throughout the year, the wish for ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to men’ could have no deeper meaning. The editorial paid tribute to the ‘unselfishness and stoicism’ of brave mothers who found themselves now solely responsible for making sure that their children had a joyful Christmas. It highlighted the importance of children’s happy bliss, too young, it reckoned, to understand the serious problems of life and instead enabled to ‘enjoy the rollicking fun attached to the legendary visit of Santa Claus’.

And there were many charitable ventures intended to make sure that Christmas in Coventry that year could be enjoyed as best as possible. After the upheavals of war, the government and local authorities spent much of 1919 in anticipation of social unrest, fearing that every strike would threaten law and order and push Britain nearer to a crisis that might result in Britain going the way of Soviet Russia. So the powers that be were probably not best pleased with the sermon delivered on the Sunday before Christmas by the Christian Socialist vicar of St Peter’s Church in Hillfields. To a congregation which contained several members of the Coventry Unemployed Workers’ Committee, the Reverend Paul Stacy declared that, broadly speaking, the Russian Revolution had ‘revealed God’s justice as against capitalism, which was a modern Anti-Christ’. He then said that God was undoubtedly at work in the labour movement, calling upon all to work together to build a fairer, better order. Far less challenging than this were the Midland Daily Telegraph’s numerous December messages embracing the spirit of the season, almost implying that to do so was something of a public duty, exhorting all to cast troubles aside and surrender to the reassuring traditionalism of Christmas. Yes, admitted the editorials, there was distress but food was plentiful and although prices were high, they were not exorbitant. Maybe so, but amidst the adverts for gifts, dancing, pantomime and cinema (all of which I will return to, so do hang on if you want to know what else was out there beyond the misery), were notices and articles of charitable endeavours and institutional obligations to help as many citizens as possible.

Thanks to a committee set up by Coventry City Council, war widows and their dependants were entitled to parcels containing one or more plum puddings, six to twelve mince pies, two fruit cakes, a pound of tea, a pot of jam and – for large families only – a joint of meat. Ex-servicemen were presented with an illuminated card on which was recorded the grateful appreciation of the city for their patriotism in serving King and Country in the Great War, ‘with honour, in a just and righteous cause’. The cards came with a box containing 50 cigarettes given to ‘a gallant Townsman’. To what extent food hampers and civic gifts compensated for the enormous sacrifices made by the city’s families can only be guessed at, but they were at least acknowledgements of duty done and suffering endured. In addition, businesses and individuals contributed to the Mayor’s Fund for Relief, which offered help to those who applied in wards across the city. The list of contributors printed just before Christmas ranged from £100 from industries including Rudge Whitworth and Triumph to six shillings donated by a group of schoolgirls.

In the months following the war, as factories reverted to peacetime production, many industries experienced something of a boom as orders picked up and trade adapted to new conditions. Despite this, however, even before an economic slump took hold in 1920, unemployment in Coventry was uncomfortably high in December 1919 and the local press noted with regret that this was the one circumstance likely to lessen the full observance of the festive season. Despite deliberately protracted demobilization throughout the year, not all ex-servicemen had moved seamlessly into employment and women continued to be affected not just by the closure of munitions’ factories but by the determination of many industries to be rid of as many women workers as possible. Hardship had been exacerbated by the recent withdrawal of the temporary unemployment benefit granted by the Government in November 1918, leading some of the city’s newest Labour councillors to urge both Government and Council to provide alternative means of sustenance to those in the direst need.

According to the Unemployed Workers’ Committee, there were up to 9000 unemployed men and women in Coventry (of a total population of around 136,000). Families had long since run out of savings and many had no choice but to apply to the Board of Guardians for assistance. The Guardians, noting that the numbers being helped were considerably higher than in the previous year, expressed their especial regret that ‘respectable’ men and women, together with their children, should find themselves destitute at Christmas. Much of the help given was in the form of food with only a limited amount of cash relief available. It was therefore acknowledged that for some there was no alternative but a humiliating admission to the Workhouse.

Coventry Workhouse, Whitefriars, London Road. A dormitory in the former cloisters of the 14th century friary. Courtesy of Coventry Archives

Here, for resident children, there was a collection of toys and hope that a Christmas tree would be provided. On Christmas Eve the 420 inmates (some of whom were in the workhouse infirmary) received a visit from the Mayor and his family and presents of tea, sugar and tobacco were distributed. Lunch of roast beef, vegetables and plum pudding was served at midday on Christmas Day, with an ‘allowance’ of beer, or sweets and ‘other luxuries’ for those who preferred these. Those children removed from the workhouse to ‘scattered homes’ (increasingly regarded as kinder, less institutional surroundings for young people than the workhouse) run by the Poor Law Union in Hill Street, Whitley and Edgwick were also treated to festive food, toys and entertainments. For families who were able to stay together in their own homes, the education authority made sure that meals for children in need were available at the Municipal Restaurant in Ford Street, which had been set up during the war.

Christmas time on the Gulson Children’s Ward. Undated. Courtesy of David Fry

If all this wasn’t enough, Coventry was also facing a housing crisis. There was too little working class housing, a great deal of overcrowding (with many couples and even families crammed into one or two rooms in lodgings) and unacceptable levels of insanitary and inadequate accommodation. Building materials were in short supply, leaving those willing to work in construction unemployed. The Medical Officer for Health confirmed that in 1919 building fell to its lowest levels for 20 years, with just 125 houses completed, compared to 1,491 during the war years. Even with the addition of these, built for war workers, there was reckoned to be a shortage of over 2000 homes in the city. As a temporary measure, the Council started to convert former munitions’ workers’ hostels into cottages, although there was considerable disquiet about the high price of the rents being charged for such small dwellings, particularly as they were often inadequate or ill-suited to family needs. These were, as was often pointed out with bitterness, a long way from the homes for heroes promised to returning soldiers by Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Coventry’s housing provision did expand in the years to come). Paying over-inflated rent and keeping the landlord at bay was a constant worry for many families, as Labour councillor Alice Arnold reminded a magistrate who was hearing the case of an ex-solider facing eviction. Councillor Arnold lost patience in the courtroom and expressed her frustration with a system she believed was biased against working class men and women. She left the court with the tenant declaring that she intended ‘to make such a stink of it in Coventry that I will make the magistrates who heard the case ashamed of themselves.

Neglected housing in Whitefriars Street, courtesy of Coventry Archives

So, as in any year before and since 1919, many of those who came into the city centre to get ready for Christmas were facing enormous challenges and try as they might, they could not ignore the seasonal transformation of shop windows and the shelves stacked with seasonal gifts. Food, good health, employment, decent housing and the chance to be distracted from the worries of everyday life were modest requirements as the season approached.

Advertising was as artful then as now; Kendalls of Broadgate, for example, informed potential customers that,

No real harm can come to England while the Christmas spirit lives – that sympathy with fellow men which makes us wondrous kind. Christmas Gifts prove this! What Presents could be more ‘thoughtful’ than beautiful rain-resisting Umbrellas, real Kendalls.

In contrast, the Broadgate offices of Albert E Hunt were also on hand, reminding Coventry people that the problems of the War were over but that now new conditions confronted everyone. If by chance any citizens should need  ‘cash accommodation’ to put their affairs in order, they could do no better than to apply for advances from Hunt’s business of between £10 and £5000. Armed with a loan and a nice fat debt with which to start the New Year, parents could then visit Fletchers at 24, West Orchard, to see its array of toys, or the books and fancy goods on sale at Ward’s at 11, Broadgate. Some might even consider taking the children to visit Birmingham’s Toy Fair, where Father Christmas was always in attendance and the piece de resistance in 1919 was a spectacular panorama of Robinson Crusoe’s Hut with Shipwreck in the distance, Cannibal Encampment complete with jungle, moving animals and rustic bridges crossing streams from a ‘real waterfall’.

B Riley Taylor, Outfitter at Kings Head Buildings (at the junction of Hertford Street and Smithford Street), reckoned to stock the perfect presents for gentlemen, including gloves, silk handkerchiefs, scarves, ties, shirts and underwear. WF Webbs’ shop on Paynes Lane boasted that it had the largest stock of gramophones and records in the district, catering for all tastes, including grand opera, instrumental, musical comedy and popular songs. For the ladies who wanted to attend one or more of the many dances advertised in the local press, Newton’s Fancy Drapers, with stores on both Hertford Street and the Foleshill Road, was on hand for Paris net dance frocks, prettily trimmed and finished with either Crepe de Chine or Tinsel Tissue. Younger girls could plead with their mothers for party frocks of white spotted net daintily trimmed and fully lined. Mrs Penny of Brooklyn Road, Foleshill, catered for those attending fancy dress balls, hiring costumes at moderate charges.

Broadgate 1917, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hopefully Mrs Penny’s trade boomed just before the Christmas Eve fancy dress ball at the Baths Assembly Hall, with dancing from 7 to 12 and licensed refreshments for sale. For less energetic revellers, Coventry had an array of venues showing films, plays and musical evenings to suit a range of tastes over the festive season. On Boxing Day, a new ‘picturisation’ of Louisa Alcott’s popular novel, Little Women, was scheduled to run for two nights at the Globe on Primrose Hill Street. Amongst advertisements for films including ‘The Temple of Dust’, ‘The Hope Chest’, ‘When a Woman Sins (in 7 parts) and ‘Jazzmania’ at the Empire (a film exhibition of modern ballroom dancing for those wishing to try out their new steps over Christmas), it was ‘Little Women’ which leapt out at me as I looked through the newspapers, because I am eagerly awaiting a new version of the film, which opens on Boxing Day 2019.

The Hippodrome, Coventry. This building opened in 1907. Courtesy of David Fry

Family fun was to be found at the Opera House where Dick Whittington and His Cat, complete with full orchestra and large opera chorus began a weel’s run on Boxing Day. Football fans could escape to the Christmas morning match (thus avoiding involvement in the preparation of Christmas lunch, apart from getting home in time to carve the meat) to see second division Coventry take on Stoke, with another game on Boxing Day (Hednesford Town) and West Bromwich Albion the day after. Both traditions remain strong 100 years on, with a few notable changes; this year Puss in Boots is the Belgrade Theatre’s pantomime and although there are no longer Christmas Day football fixtures, there are normally Boxing Day ones – Coventry was scheduled to play Bury, a club that has sadly gone out of business this season – and so the Sky Blues won’t play until they travel to play Wycombe Wanderers on December 29th.

To stock the cupboards and the pantry, the Coventry markets were open from 8 to 10pm on Christmas Eve. Blythe and Sons in the Market Place warned customers that although turkey and geese were in short supply, they were of a quality far superior than was obtained during the War. There were plenty of fowl and chickens, pork was harder to obtain than beef at butchers’ such as the London Central Meat Company Ltd, which had shops in many towns and cities. On the High Street, Atkins and Turtons had currants, sultanas, mincemeat, nuts, ‘pure confectionery’, chocolates and biscuits, including Tom Smith’s Crackers. There was a good supply of dessert fruit, including oranges (which had been hard to get during the War), lemons and apples. In many shop displays, the Christmas cake was a very welcome sight after its general absence due to wartime rationing and food shortages. Chocolate was a popular treat with Rowntrees advertising a ‘plain eating chocolate, with a piquant biscuit-like “snap” and it melts in the mouth with velvety smoothness’ whilst ‘of course Christmastide without a glorious steaming cup of Rowntree’s elect cocoa is unthinkable’.

Families did what they could, took what work they could find in order to provide for their children, swallowed their pride if they needed to, in order to accept charity or poor relief. Before the birth of the welfare state, safety nets were even less robust than today; unemployment benefit was time limited after which there was only parish (poor) relief or charity to turn to. Peace had returned to the nation but for millions of people, life was far from stable. I suspect that despite uncertainty and anxieties about the coming year, there were many people willing to trust that Christmas entertainments might be distracting and healing and to suspend normal life for a day or two at least. On Christmas Eve the Midland Daily Telegraph observed that Coventry ‘in pleasure is indeed a strange contrast to the city during the strenuous days of the past five years’. In an editorial that was almost sermon-like in tone, readers were urged to put away their cares and troubles, their strife and discontent and to let Christmas 1919 be the harbinger of social and industrial peace. Please, it seemed to urge, unite and look after one another and,

As the Christmas bells peal out and the carols are sung with all the verve at the command of the songsters, the homes will assume an atmosphere of jovial conviviality.

And for all those for whom this was an impossibility, there was always next year.

This story was re-printed from the website of historian Cathy Hunt with the kind permission of the author. This story was originally published on 18th December 2019 before anyone had heard of Covid!

Author copyright Cathy Hunt: With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive. Material and quotes from Midland Daily TelegraphCoventry Standard and Coventry Herald: Photos courtesy of David Fry.