by Liz Shakespeare.
Today, our local newspapers are full of advertisements for Christmas presents, Christmas events and Christmas meals, but when we look at the newspapers of the nineteenth century, it is apparent that the festival was a less commercial affair.
Few shops advertised Christmas goods in the newspapers, but there were some exceptions:
(These advertisements are from the Bideford Gazette in 1869 and 1863).
We often hear complaints today that Christmas goods start appearing in the shops in September or October, but in 1886, it was only on the 23rd December that the following observation appeared in the North Devon Journal –
Bideford Christmas at the shops. The shop windows are now in full festive attire – especially, of course, those of the grocers, drapers and stationers – and are receiving their full share of attention.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, many people had only one day’s holiday at Christmas. Boxing Day did not become a Bank Holiday until 1871 but it would appear that a holiday, for some people, was kept before that date by mutual consent.
A report in the Bideford Weekly Gazette on 22nd December 1857 stated:
Christmas Holiday The public are respectfully informed that the principal Merchants and Tradesmen of this Town, having kindly consented to suspend business on Saturday, 26th instant, being the day after Christmas-day, A general holiday will be kept on that day. The public are requested to facilitate the object by making their purchases on Thursday 24th December.
By 1885, some traders were taking a third day – this is from 1885, when Christmas Day fell on a Thursday. CHRISTMAS DAY passed very quietly at Bideford, as did also Boxing Day. Saturday was also exceedingly quiet. Most of the ironmongers, nearly all the shoemakers, and several other shopkeepers, kept up the holiday by closing their establishments on that day also.
It was expected that the poor should be remembered at Christmas and it was common practice for Christmas parties to be provided for those who might otherwise go without.
North Devon Journal 1st January 1863 –
The aged poor. Not the least interesting gathering of the poor at this festive season took place through the kindness of T.L. Pridham Esq. at his residence on Christmas day, when 65 of the oldest inhabitants of the town sat down to a sumptuous repast of old English fare of roast beef and plum pudding. The dinner was held in the hall which was tastefully decorated for the occasion. On the centre of the dining table was an elegant silver flower basket under a glass shade which was the gift of 500 of the poor inhabitants of Bideford.
This was Thomas Lawrence Pridham, a GP who lived in the house then known as Hyefield, in Pitt Lane. It seems rather strange that the ‘poor inhabitants’ should give him an apparently expensive present!
Those unfortunate enough to spend Christmas in the Workhouse were not forgotten and most years got a mention in the newspaper. In December 1864 it was reported:
The Bideford Guardians ordered roast beef and plum pudding for the poor in the Union Workhouse on Christmas Day, with other luxuries and a libation of good ale.
The market was the centre of activity for Christmas shopping and every year both the North Devon Journal and the Bideford Gazette carried an account of the Christmas market. This example is from the Bideford Gazette in 1859 –
The exhibition of Christmas fare displayed in our market on Tuesday last was very fine, and seldom have we seen a larger attendance of purchasers and sight-seers than was gathered there during a portion of the day. The average rates maintained throughout were: beef, 7d to 8d; mutton, 6d to 7½d; pork, 6½dto 7½d; turkeys 9d; geese 9d per lb; ducks, 3s each. Some of the stalls in the meat market were tastefully fitted up, conspicuous amongst which we observed were those of Mr R. Holman and Mr T. Holman (Bideford), Mr Fulford (Northam) and Mr Withecombe (Buckland Brewer)
The reporting of Christmas activities in Bideford was, of course, dependent on the interests and observations of the journalist. In 1851 Edward Capern, later known as the Bideford postman-poet, became the Bideford correspondent for the North Devon Journal, and his contributions were more detailed and descriptive than others – and sometimes included lines from his own poems. The following is from 27th December 1855, just after the opening of the railway from Barnstaple to Bideford.
The Season The time-honoured festival of Christmas is again present with us, a fact that appears to have so thoroughly occupied the public of this ancient town during the past week, that there is nothing but what relates to it left to record. The railway has given additional activity to the duties of the season; perhaps at no former period has there been so many Christmas visitors, persons who have found their way home by that cheap and rapid path. It is pleasing to see that the same liberality that has prevailed in former years is still the order of the day; the charity of the rich is introducing a gleam of sunshine into the dwellings of the poor. The great Birth-day was introduced by the merry music of the church bells, while the ‘waits’ made the night air vocal with their ‘carols’ in the streets. The grocers’ windows are decorated as befits the generous time – the new fruits never looked more tempting, nor found more customers. One object famous in Christmas decoration, which has reached us this year, and never was until now seen in the market, is the mistletoe – a visitor we owe to the rail.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the sending of Christmas presents and cards became more popular, as the following report illustrates. I have heard that it was not unusual for pheasants and chickens to be posted unwrapped with a label tied around their necks!
North Devon Journal 31st December 1896
The Christmas season produced a greater strain upon the officials of the Bideford Post Office than has ever been experienced before. The parcel post has been used to an unequalled extent, large quantities of poultry, Devonshire cream, and game, besides miscellaneous goods of all kinds having been despatched and delivered. The delivered parcels numbered 3,084 and weighed eight tons. There were despatched 2880 parcels weighing 7 tons 4 cwt. Christmas cards have been posted and delivered in much greater numbers than previously. The sale of postage stamps has exceeded the record of the 1894 season by nearly 100 per cent. The approximate number of letters passing through the office during the Christmas period was 143,000. I wonder how these statistics compare with today?
Liz Shakespeare is the author of four books set in the Bideford area.