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When poor people in the Black Country went door to door to beg for food and drink

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: December 12, 2013

  • ABOVE: Before the days of alarm clocks lamplighters ensured workers woke up early. INSET: Few families could afford a real Christmas tree so they made their own version from a holly bough

  • Leading up to Christmas gangs of boys banged tin pots and kettles providing 'rough music' guaranteed to wake even the heaviest sleeper

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CONTINUING our trip back in time, here's how our forebears got ready for Christmas.

By now, the Christmas pudding was airing in the larder, the pig killed and made into hams, pork, sausages, faggots, pork pies and pigs' puddings. If you were lucky, the humble porker had given you plenty for the festive season and beyond.

But, as we well know, it wasn't the same for everyone. So, it was just as well that the period before Christmas was one of several times during the year when wealthier folk were expected to donate food, drink or money to poorer members of the community.

Last week we saw how much of November was given over to "Souling", "Clementing" and "Catterning". Traditionally, these were Saints days, when the poor went door to door collecting gifts of food and drink – or money to provide some "Christmas Cheer". This was usually in return for performing seasonal music, songs or folk plays.

December was no exception, and in the Black Country, it was traditional for people to be given "doles" or go door to door begging alms of food and drink. St Thomas's Day, on the 21st of December, was the last chance for the poor to earn some Christmas cheer by going "Thomasing" or "gooding".

In The Folklore of the Black Country (Logaston Press, 2007), Roy Palmer gives an account from 1857 published in the Wolverhampton Chronicle. The writer reports that, in Staffordshire: "The clergyman is expected to give a shilling to each person, and at all the houses a subsidy is looked for, either in money or kind."(Notes and Queries, 1857)

Towards the end of the19th century, the Bilston Mercury published a rhyme sung by those who went "Thomasing". This rhyme was also well known in Wednesbury and Darlaston:

Well a day, well a day,

St Thomas goes too soon away,

Then your gooding we do pray,

For the good times will not stay,

St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,

The longest night and the shortest day,

Please to remember St Thomas's day."


In Rowley Regis, folk had a version that was much shorter, and to the point:

Please to remember St Thomas's Day,

And do not turn the poor away.

These old customs continued well into the 20th century. In 1927, local newspapers reported "aged people" in Rowley Regis and Halesowen going round begging, with the cry:

"Please to spare a copper, it's St Thomas's Day."

Reporters noted that shopkeepers and other local business owners "anticipated the visit" and that "genuine Thomases were rarely refused." The reporter states that the custom went back to the 17th century, when penny and two penny loaves were given to the needy on St Thomas's Day. Another St Thomas's "dole" was also given out in Walsall. Originally, this was in the form of bread, but in later times the bread was replaced by cash.

In the 1870s, an article in the Wolverhampton Chronicle features a somewhat noisier pre- Christmas custom. In the days before alarm clocks, workers relied on "knockers up" to make sure they woke up early enough to get to work on time. This "job" was often done by the local lamplighter or night watchman, or by young boys keen to earn a few pence. But, in the last few weeks before Christmas, gangs of boys took over, doing their wake-up calls banging on tin pots and kettles. Known as "Rough Music", it was guaranteed to wake even the heaviest sleeper.

The writer says that the practice was very common when he was growing up in the 1820s. And, that "it continued for many years after that time". He adds: "The more noise they made the better ... many working men considered the custom a valuable one ..." And the lads were happy to earn some extra cash for Christmas.

In her book, A Feast of Memories – Black Country Food and Life at the Turn of the Century (Westwood Press, 1986), Marjorie Cashmore also recalls how our forebears got ready for Christmas: "Christmas at the turn of the century was less commercialised than today with emphasis more on food than presents. This was the time of year when butchers' windows displayed the carcasses of sucking pigs with garlands around their necks and a rosy apple wedged in their mouths, in readiness for the Christmas festivities."

But, for the vast majority, window shopping was all they could afford. Suckling pigs were way beyond their means. Instead, as Marjorie says: "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." Many others ate tripe or cow heels on Christmas Day.

As we saw last week, Marjorie also says: "Enough puddings were made by some women to last for several months ... a surprising number of families had to manage with a spiced-up version of bread pudding."

Christmas decorations were very much of the DIY kind, using whatever was at hand. Marjorie says: "Few families could afford a real Christmas tree but made their own version from either a holly bough or two wooden hoops retrieved from butter or cheese tubs, joined together and trimmed with brightly coloured paper. Chains of similar paper secured with a flour and water paste adorned the downstairs rooms."

Even though food was the main priority, many Black Country mothers joined savings clubs to put a little by for a few items to go in the kids' Christmas stockings. Marjorie recalls: "About 12 weeks before Christmas, some mothers with small children paid a penny a week which was recorded on a card at the local sweet shop, in order to have sweets put on one side as fillers for Christmas stockings. These included sugar fancies, sugar mice and pigs, sticks of rainbow coloured rock and liquorice pipes. Little bundles of chocolate were hung on the Christmas tree but were supposedly not to be eaten until after Twelfth Night." It's hard to imagine young kids resisting temptation until January 6 today.

This old custom of saving treats for the period after Christmas relates to the religious feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi, who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Tradition also dictated that these seasonal treats were conditional on the children's behaviour. Well behaved children received small wooden toys, an apple or a few nuts, but naughty ones received lumps of coal!

If you have any memories of old Black Country Christmas customs I'd love to hear from you. Email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

Next week: A Black Country "Downton Abbey" style Christmas.

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