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It was Christmas Day in the workhouse, that season of good cheer, the paupers hearts were merry, their bellies full of beer . . . That's really as far as I can go with that music hall ditty as my asterisk key couldn't take the strain. Suffice it to say that it doesn't paint a very rosy picture of life in a 19th century workhouse, and ends with the Beadle being told to do something physically impossible with the Christmas pudding.
George Sims, who penned the more sober version of this monologue, would undoubtedly be less than amused by the various renditions of his famous work, but it seems likely that the more vulgar versions reflected popular opinion much more accurately.
It's hard to imagine that the poorest stratum of society had much to celebrate at Christmas, especially if they were forced to live in the work or doss house, but surprisingly enough, it was probably the one day of the year when at least the vast majority did have a good time.
Christmas was always considered the best of the London Holidays. It wasn't until Queen Victoria came to the throne, though, that Christmas as we know it was created. Prior to that there were no days off, no Christmas cards, and a jolly time was not had by all. Charles Dickens certainly had as much to do with the inception of our modern Christmas as good old Queen Vic did, thanks to his Christmas Carol, written in 1844, which instructed everyone on how they should really celebrate Christmas in the proper manner. Dickens described the holidays as 'a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.' Just seems a bit of a pity that, with the odd exception, most of them kept their hearts and their wallets well and truly hidden for the rest of the year.
At the beginning of the Victorian period no one had really thought much of Christmas, although a few still celebrated the medieval traditions, which were generally not that much fun. Christmas at that time was a fusion of Saturnalia, (the Roman god of agriculture) and the German festival of Yule, neither of which rocked many people's boats. The Industrial Revolution, though, gave workers the chance of two days off work, which obviously went down very well with everyone except the employers who were forced to pay out two days wages with no returns.
Prince Albert was really single-handedly responsible for the introduction of the Christmas tree into England, and also the singing of carols, which had been out of favour by the turn of the 19th century, although that might have been considered a blessing by some. Musicians called 'waits' would play seasonal tunes on street corners in return for a few coins, and carol-singers would stand frozen stiff on doorsteps hoping to be asked in for a glass of mulled spiced wine or the odd left-over mince pie.
The first Christmas card appeared in the 1840s, with the Penny Black stamp presenting a cheap way to deliver the cards to Auntie Flo in Bournemouth, even if Auntie Flo didn't want to get one. Images of the robin redbreast or the dove, and simple colour prints of flowers, were among the most familiar, while Old Father Christmas, surrounded by the rosiest-cheeked children, all beaming happily, was a close runner-up. The very cheap Christmas cards came from Germany, which seems to have cornered the market in economy toys, cards and festive paraphernalia - which did at least mean that even those on a modest income could afford some sort of Christmas. In 1882, nearly 14 million letters and packets, together with three tons of registered letters, passed through the post office, which amounted to £58,000 extra revenue. The fact that cards could be bought for as little as a halfpenny certainly must have helped.(1)
By the 1850s, Christmas had come into its own and the festival as we know it today was well established. Truthfully, it was a way to break the dull routine of winter and for a short time the greyness of Industrial London was broken by colour and festivity.
Some joys of Christmas could be enjoyed by rich and poor alike. The streets on Christmas Eve were one continuous blaze of show and ornament, which could be shared even if you didn't have a copper in your pocket. About a week before Christmas, all the markets began to increase in the quantity and quality of their goods, although in some cases the opposite was true; any old tat that had been stored through the year could be dragged out for those with less cash in their pocket to purchase. Sound familiar? Green branches of holly were hung, mistletoe and ivy draped over everything; shops opened later than usual, with their oil lamps casting warmth over the streets, a definite improvement on the usual grey, drab winter streets of the capital. Toys, books and Christmas presents would appear in shop windows, and posters would be displayed with such legends as "Do, Papa, Buy Me", on their equivalent of Barbie or Action Man - not unlike the ads for 'ToysRUs' nowadays.
At the start of Victoria's reign, children's toys tended to be handmade and of course expensive, meaning that only the rich kids got a visit from Father Christmas; but with the increase of factory goods and mass production, toys became much more affordable and the vast majority could manage something to put in the Christmas stocking, albeit a very modest offering. Unfortunately most of the very poor didn't even have a stocking, let along something to put in it.
The Christmas stocking first became popular around 1870, and would usually have an apple, orange and a few nuts lurking in the toe, even if there was nothing else. Greengrocers displayed their wares on stalls outside their shops, where there are apples of all hues and sizes, pears, grapes and pineapples, pomegranates, Kent cob-nuts, filberts and foreign nuts all luring the customer in. It must have been less than encouraging for those who couldn't rake together the price of a bed for the night to see all these delights wafted under their noses, with no hope of them ever getting a taste of them.
Fir trees were everywhere, cropped and clipped into regular shapes for Christmas-trees; most of these were sold bare, but some were loaded with fruit - oranges, lemons, and clustered grapes - and liberally adorned with imitation flowers and wreaths.
The butchers' counters would be groaning with meat and poultry, brought in alive from the country and slaughtered in London, and in no way humanely, to cater for the vast demand over the Christmas period; swans, pheasants, bitterns, herons, hawks, peacocks and even cranes and ravens, ducks, and of course geese would be seen parading through the streets, in very poor condition after their long trek to the capital. Hares and rabbits by the warren lined the walls or hung from the ceiling; pork, venison, beef and lamb slaughtered by the hundreds, all for two days' festivities.
On Christmas Eve, the whole of London would be out spending - assuming, of course, they had a copper to spend - which brings us nicely onto the Christmas Club, otherwise known as the 'Goose and Pudding Club'.
Practically every back-street shop and public house had a Goose and Pudding club. Desperate mothers, with no chance of being able to afford a decent Christmas for her family otherwise, would put a small weekly sum aside for thirteen weeks in one of these clubs and that would entitle her to a goose, and possibly a couple of bottles of spirits, if she could find enough pennies every week to cover it. The member would be given a card and their contributions noted down, but the money could be redeemed at any time through the year and topped up again at a later stage. Whatever there was in it at Christmas was what the member had to spend. The distribution of the geese and gin took place on Christmas Eve at the shop or local pub. Generally the choice of the birds was decided by the throw of the dice, the thrower of the highest cast having the first choice.
One advertisement for such a club ran as follows:
"Bragster's Christmas Club commences August 5th. Pay what you please and when you like. Fair value for your money, and no restriction as to the selection of goods. P.S - Be cautious which club you join, as it must be a sad disappointment to go with a fully paid-up card on Christmas Eve, and find the grocer's shop shut up." (2)
A timely caution, as it seemed that often the members of these clubs could go along on Christmas Eve and find that their hard-earned cash could only be spent on certain items in the shop, like washing powder or shoe polish! Competing club organizers would try to outbid one another with incentive to join their particular club by offering a bribe of some description, like a bottle of wine on top.
There was a deal of secrecy about the whole business, as it seemed that poor mothers often kept their membership in a Christmas club a secret. There was actually a good reason for this, because in many instances had Dad known that there was money hidden in a kitty that could be redeemed at any time, the card would disappear along with the club money into the pocket of the local pub landlord.
One desperate woman commented:
'Last week.......we had not one penny coming into our house; and the week before - which was Christmas week - my husband got two jobs, which would come, he told me, to 8s. or 9s., if he had brought it all home; but he only brought me 1s. This was all the money I had to keep me and my five children for the whole week; and I'm sure I don't know how we got through.'
She went on to explain that only one shilling of the money came to her and the rest was spent by her husband at the pub, where he got blind drunk. Many a Christmas club fund ended up the same way. Mothers resorted to hiding the cards in more and more ingenious places. One took to hiding it in the lining of her husband's hat, only to have the thing blow away in a strong wind and into the river, where she was so desperate to retrieve it, she jumped it after it. Needless to say an explanation had to be given, and we will probably never know if she actually got her goose or not.
It was also a fact that in the precarious times in which they lived, anything could happen between the beginning of August and Christmas. Sixpence or a shilling a week soon mounted up, and if the family fell on hard times - if Dad was out of work due to sickness or some other extra expense cropped up - then the money in the Christmas club would be the first thing to be sacrificed, in the hope that they could make it up later. Better a loaf on the table now than a goose on it at Christmas. Better times would be sure to come presently and then it would be easy enough to make the money up. Christmas Eve was a time of celebration for the East Enders, who would invariably spend the evening in the pub. As most of the Goose and Pudding clubs were run from the local pub, it was a great excuse to go there and have a knees up, on the pretext that they were going to collect their geese. Most would eat while they were there. The food that was on offer was varied and plentiful and very cheap, although most were suffering from malnutrition due to lack of real goodness in the fair in combination with the large quantity of alcohol that most consumed, which lowered the nutritional value of the food they took in, but on Christmas Eve, who cared?
Children were allowed in with their parents, and pub games such as dominoes, shove halfpenny, and skittles could be played as well as card games, mainly for money, although that too was illegal. Often they would play for matches, which represented a sum of money, and settle up at the end. There would be music most of the time, in one form or another, for people to have a sing along. Many of the old music-hall songs would do the rounds of the pubs and be known by everyone. There is no question that the atmosphere in the pubs at the time was not the best environment for youngsters to be exposed to. Sexual foreplay, if not full blown sex, would take place in the pubs, albeit usually surreptitiously, but overt enough for the sharper of the youngsters to know what was going on. The language that freely flowed would have been really fairly grim for the most part, and arguments and fights were nightly occurrences; domestic violence wasn't confined to the home but would spill over into the pub and was accepted.
Many people would have spent Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and even Boxing Day in police cells. A typical case was reported by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Boxing-Day on the Streets:
'A bruised and bleeding woman, not young or good-looking, enters the [witness] box with her head bound up. Her lord and master confronts her in the dock. It is the "old, old story". A drop of drink yesterday - the day of the Great Nativity, never forget - a series of "drops of drink" all day long; and, at five o'clock, just when gentility was beginning to think of dinner, the kitchen poker was used with frightful effect. A triangular cut over the right eye, and another in the dangerous neighbourhood of the left ear, administered with that symbol of domestic bliss, the kitchen poker, sends the wife doubled up into a corner, with an infant of two years old in her arms. The head of the family goes out for a walk after his exertions. The woman lies there bleeding until the neighbours hear her "mourning," as she terms it - the result being that the lord and master's "constitutional" is cut short by a policeman, and the happy pair are this morning separated for six months, at the expiration of which period Paterfamilias is to find surety for another six months' good behaviour. Such, starred round with endless episodes of "drunk and disorderly", "foul language", and so on, is our first tableau this Boxing Day. It is not a pleasant one.'
Still, by noon on Christmas Day most would have slept it off and be ready for something to eat.
There were, of course, many in the poorer areas of London that could not even afford the luxury of the Pudding Club, but would rely totally on the charity of the better-off for a meal on Christmas Day. There were social commentators at the time who were aware of the plight of those in the lowest stratum of society, mainly prompted by Charles Dickens' influence. Provisions were made for those that couldn't afford any kind of Christmas dinner in their own homes. Halls, Churches and workhouses were opened up to the masses; tents would be set up where the destitute could come and have a Christmas dinner free of charge. They were invariably oversubscribed, and crowds of the poorest would stream through their doors to get a free meal. Signs would be put above the door painted in gigantic letters on a large white sheet: "Welcome to the Christmas Feast" and underneath; "God loveth a cheerful giver."
Policemen would be marshalled to keep order and direct the grateful recipients into the tents or halls, where they could enjoy roast beef and plum pudding and a cup of tea, on their own plate or basin that they had taken along. This would continue from one in the afternoon until late in the evening, long streams of people snaking through continuously. Whilst the lucky souls were eating, they were treated to a merry-faced orator on the platform at the end, praising the charity and virtue of those who had laid on the bounteous feast, and their exemplary display of Christian good will. In 1888, the East End News wrote that there were an astonishing 108,000 paupers in London. Workhouses were set up all over Tower Hamlets - Poplar, Whitechapel, Mile End, Bethnal Green, Spitalfields and Ratcliff (Limehouse/Highway). All had their institutions and the poor were set to work - and hard work it was. Families were torn apart, men housed separately from wives, children taken from their parents. It was a barbaric system, designed to keep the poor off the streets and keep them alive at subsistence level, although often the standard of living fell well below that. The workhouses came into existence after the introduction of The Poor Law, which was designed so that the destitute would have the profound satisfaction of working for their daily crust in the marvellous institution known as The Workhouse. They were run by the charity of the wealthy, which not only had the welfare of the poor at heart, but were considerate of others who would no longer have to put up with the nuisance of stepping over the homeless on the street or the inconvenience of having them starve to death on their doorstep.
The general diet in the workhouse through the year varied from institution to institution; for example dinner, on alternate days, at Peckham, was officially "meat, potatoes and bread" and "soup and bread." The soup was made from the liquid in which the meat for the whole establishment was boiled the previous day, together with all the bones, with the addition of barley, pease (green or yellow lentils), and green vegetables. The seventh day was "Irish stew and bread". The quantity of meat used was not stated, although it is not hard imagine that it hardly amounted to a generous portion of the parts that the animals didn't even know they had.
Christmas Day, however, was different. For the most part, some effort was made to give the inmates some kind of festive cheer in the form of roast beef, Christmas pudding, and porter to wash it down with.
Journalist George R Sims wrote: 'From one to half-past there is a little stream of visitors to the workhouses and certain charitable institutions, where Christmas is being celebrated by a dinner to the inmates. Fashionable philanthropy which has contributed to the good cheer passes a pleasant half-hour on Christmas Day in assisting the poor, the lonely, and the afflicted to share in the common joy.' Of course on Boxing Day it was back to dishwater soup and bread again. Christmas Day was treated much as a Sunday. London did not rise as early on Christmas morning and it would be close to ten o' clock before there would be much sign of movement. Then, from Piccadilly to Whitechapel, the bells rang, and the people flocked to the churches for the Christmas service. Every shop was shut, as it would have been on a Sunday, but the streets were full of people, flocking to and fro and just wandering in the streets.
A full service took place in all the churches, which were gaily decorated with boughs of evergreen. Christmas carols were sung, and Christmas sermons preached, and Christian charity urged on behalf of the poor. People who are going to spend the day with friends in the suburbs or at some little distance began to make their way to the railway stations. Almost without exception each one carried a brown-paper parcel containing a Christmas gift for an Auntie Mabel or Uncle George. Buses and trams and cabs all ran in the mornings. Surprisingly enough, a great many young couples chose to have their wedding on Christmas Day throughout the whole of England, for the simple reason that they could be sure that the day would be a success and everyone would be in the mood to enjoy themselves. Also probably saved them a few bob.
By the afternoon the streets would thin out and become quite deserted as people went to have their Christmas dinners. Even those in poor homes, where there were cooking facilities, would make some sort of meal from the proceeds of their Goose and Pudding club.
Throughout the afternoon and evening a quiet would fall over the city - until midnight when suddenly the streets would fill again and the noise and merry-making would start up again with renewed vigour. Boxing Day, the day consecrated to baksheesh, or money, was the day that most of the lower classes enjoyed the most, because it was the day they got their tips for the year. It is a day for "Christmas boxes", hence the name 'Boxing Day'. On that day every person who had served a household in any way would turn up on the doorstep, hat or box in hand, and say "Christmas box, please, sir !" and expect a gratutity for their hard work through the year.
The householder dare not refuse, unless he wanted a whole year of dustmen dropping litter down their path, papers being thrown in the mud, chimney sweeps littering their living rooms with soot, and the sausages being full of gristle. By the end of Boxing Day, the poor were a little richer and the rich not much poorer, and another Christmas was over. One commentator of the period wrote:(3)
'The quiet that reigns all the afternoon and evening throughout the city is effectually broken before midnight, by which time the streets are populous again with groups of well-dressed visitors returning to their homes, noisy with mirth or heavy with wine; these reclining in cab or hackney, and those loudly chattering on the pavement, and beguiling the walk with jest or song. The rumble of wheels and the merry march of foot passengers continue for the best part of the night, and as they fade away into silence, Old Father Christmas vanishes in the morning mist.'
Really, looking back at those times, it's hard not to draw parallels with today. It seems, in essence, that the traditional Victorian Christmas has not changed that much from Dickens' time - the main difference being that people generally have more to spend and a longer time to spend and enjoy it in. There are still Christmas clubs offering the same terms as the old Goose and Pudding clubs, although of course it's unlikely they have to roll a dice to see which turkey they get these days. Signs still encourage children to blackmail their parents into buying them the latest toys, Christmas still brings in extra revenue for a great many people. Really, though, despite the grumbles and groans that most of us have about Christmas, would we really want it to be any different? For it to have remained so much a part of our lives and cultures for so many years, almost unchanged, then there really must be something to be said for a good old fashioned Christmas!
Living London, George R. Sims, 1902
The Morning Chronicle : Labour and the Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - Letter XXIV
Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood,  - The Queen of "Clubs"
London by Day and Night, by David W.Bartlett, 1852 - Chapter 5 - Costumes and Customs
Days and Nights in London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1880 - Chapter 7
Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XVII - Boxing-Day on the Streets
Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1848 The Christmas Box Nuisance
London by Day and Night, by David W.Bartlett, 1852 - Chapter 5 - Costumes and Customs
Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853
1 The Times, 25 December, 1883
2 Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood,  - The Queen of "Clubs"
It is interesting to note that membership in a Christmas goose club played an important plot role in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" that first appeared in the January 1892 issue of Strand Magazine.
3 Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853
|Dissertations: It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse|