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Christmas Day In the Workhouse

By leah cassady  |  Posted: December 28, 2012

The poor being watched over by the well to do.

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CHRISTMAS is a time for giving and helping those in need. And, in former times, the gap between rich and poor was never more visible than during the festive season. In the Black Country, while ordinary folk could only dream of roast suckling pigs, with apples in their snouts, the wealthy enjoyed gargantuan feasts. For many Black Country families, Christmas Day was the only day they might sit down to a plump roast fowl. And, for many others, tripe and onions, cow heels or liver and bacon sufficed.

In her book, ‘A Feast of Memories’ (Westwood Press, 1986) Marjorie Cashmore recalls how: “A good plump cockerel served as Christmas dinner in most homes and was in many cases the only time of year that poultry was eaten, except for an occasional boiling fowl.

Poorer families managed with a roast rabbit.” Last week, we saw how wealthy business families, like the Bantocks of Wolverhampton, enjoyed a sumptuous Christmas dinner - with oysters, fish, sweetbread pates, turkey and all the trimmings, pudding, and much more besides. This was a typical middle class Edwardian feast. But, the Bantocks’ celebrations positively pale in comparison with those enjoyed by their social betters.

Christmas in the great houses of the landed gentry was an altogether different affair. We’re talking “Downton Abbey” territory, here, in this case, the Himley Estate, owned by Viscount Dudley Ward. For landed aristocracy like the Viscount, Christmas meant fulfilling their obligations to the poor.

Lord Dudley Ward felt his privileged position meant he should look after the less fortunate, and that Christmas was the time to do it.

In his book, ‘Folklore of the Black Country’ (Logaston Press, 2007), Roy Palmer gives us an account of how, in 1819, the Viscount kept open house at Himley Hall for the full Twelve Days of Christmas: “The Boar’s head was receiving final touches in the enormous vaulted kitchen, with ovens large enough to bake the enormous quantities of bread made from ten sacks of flour weekly, and given away to the poor nailers of Sedgley and Himley. Huge turkeys were revolving on the smoke jacks ... at no great distance was the brewery, with enormous vats and lading jars; one barrel so large it was named ‘Big Ben’ ... Ancient retainers, in picturesque garb, waited at the festive board ... large branches of yew adorned the high mantelpiece carved with the family arms.

On completion of the feast the company adjourned to the music room, where songs and dances were played on the Earl’s new organ...” Below stairs in the servants’ hall, it was a much homelier affair: The staff sat down to Mulled ale and “grorty dick” - which they shared with local visiting musicians or “waits”, who entertained them with Black Country carols, such as: “The cock sot up in the yew tree, And the hen come chatterin’ by.

I wish you a merry Christmas And a good fat pig in the sty”.

Truly, sentiments that most local folk would have appreciated. A good fat pig could keep a family in meat, bacon, sausages, faggots, black puddings and a host of offal dishes for the best part of a year. In those days, they used everything but the “squale” to fill hungry bellies.

For many folk, it was a very thin line between scraping by and falling into real poverty. In the days before national insurance, state pensions and other benefits, it didn’t take much to plunge families into poverty. A long illness or the death of a breadwinner could be disastrous. Such twists of fate were dreaded, especially when there was no alternative but to go into parish run workhouses and orphanages.

Many of these institutions were bleak, cheerless places, where residents felt stigmatised for living off the parish. The idea that only the “deserving poor” were worthy of aid was widespread, so those in the workhouse were often seen as feckless. No matter that circumstances were mostly beyond their control.

At Christmas, however, the great and good did try to bring some festive cheer to workhouse residents. A report in the Wolverhampton Chronicle from the 1st January 1893 describes events at Wolverhampton’s Bilston Road Workhouse: “The great brick building on the Bilston Road sheltered within its walls on Christmas day close upon 1,000 paupers, and everything possible was done to bring into the hearts of the poor and the sick something of that happiness which we inseparably associate with this season.” The rooms “had been freshly painted and ornamented” but, as the report makes absolutely clear, “performed solely by pauper labour, under the master’s supervision”. So, it didn’t cost the parish anything! Still, at least the dining hall was “decorated with evergreens, and on either side was a motto: “Be kindly disposed one to another” and “say a kind word when you can”.

Perhaps the authorities were worried that inmates might speak their minds about how they fared in the workhouse! At least, after attending the Christmas morning church service, a special Christmas dinner was laid on, consisting of: “ye good old Christmas fayre of roast beef and potatoes (baked) and plum pudding, with half a pint of beer as a “washer down” for those who wished it, and packets of tea and sugar for those who didn’t.

Afterwards, tobacco was served out to the men and snuff or sweets to the women, with oranges and other fruit for the sick.” The writer says that the dining hall catered for 350 residents per sitting. For the 1893 Christmas dinner, they had to cook a staggering “1,000lbs of beef, 14cwt of potatoes and half a ton of plum puddings”. They also made gallons of tea. In the evening, there was entertainment, followed by coffee and cake.

The residents also received gifts, including: “500 Christmas letters for the old people from Miss Kough, toys from “Uncle John” of the ‘Midland Counties Express’, £1 from the cripple fund, 7s 6d from Mr Edridge, 5s from Mr John Gilbert for toys for the children’s Christmas tree (there are about 50 children in the house), Christmas cards from Messrs Barford and Newitt, toys from Miss Jones, a box of oranges from Mr Jones, fruiterer ... It will be gathered that the poor had a right good time of it.” It reads like something from ‘Oliver Twist’, but without Dickens’ sense of outrage at the patronising and demeaning treatment of his fellow man.

How sad to see 50 children in the workhouse. Whole families could end up there, and, in many cases, they’d be split up, with separate wards for the sexes. There were also many children in orphanages and “cottage homes”.

At the main orphanage in Wolverhamton, a writer reports that 27 children, “much against their will” would be spending the Christmas holidays at the orphanage.

Until the 20th century, many children were placed in orphanages when their parents fell on hard times. For many children, it was a constant cycle, returning home when there was work or money, and back to the institution when times were hard.

To help “dispel from their minds the loss of parents and home” at Christmas, charitable folk sent Christmas cards, donated food and toys.

“Mr T.G Greensill forwarded pork pies for breakfast, Mr C.C. Smith as usual sending a large turkey for dinner... The manager presented each boy and girl with a new shilling ... a Christmas tree has been provided and will be laden with toys.” At the children’s “Cottage Homes” in Wednesfield, the orphans were treated to roast beef and plum pudding. The writer says: “as in the days of Oliver Twist, the plates were passed up for another serving and all requests met with a ready response.” Perhaps, he or she had forgotten the cruel treatment Oliver received for daring to ask for more.

At the Cottage Homes, the youngsters also enjoyed games and a sing song, belting out popular tunes of the day such as “Strolling Round”, “Molly and I and the Baby”, and “I Dunno Wheer ‘E Are”.

At the end of the night, the children were given “oranges apples and sweetmeats” ... altogether there seemed to be no lack of comfort and enjoyment for the youngsters this Christmastide.

Happy New Year to all

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