TO our ancestors, the gap between rich and poor was never wider than at Christmas. While ordinary folk could only dream of fat geese or suckling pigs with apples in their snouts, the wealthy enjoyed gargantuan feasts.
For many Black Country families Christmas Day was the one day in the year they could sit down to a nice plump fowl. But, for many more everyday fare of trip e and onions, cow heels or liver and bacon sufficed.
In the great houses of the nobility Christmas was a very different affair, with no expense spared and celebrations lasting the full 12 days of Christmas. Yet, at least there were some wealthy landlords who believed their privileged position meant they should help the poor at Christmas.
Himley Hall lies between Wolverhampton and Stourbridge, and since 1988 has been owned by Dudley Council. The beautiful house and grounds are open to the public, and each year, thousands attend the spectacular Bonfire Night fireworks display.
The original hall was a moated manor house, built next to the Medieval church and village. For more than 400 years, this was home to the Lords of Dudley and their knights - including, the famous Dud Dudley, whose experiments in smelting iron ore with coal kick-started the Industrial Revolution.
In 1740, John Ward became the 6th Lord Ward, inheriting the Himley estates. He decided to demolish the old manor house, replacing it with the elegant classical style building we know today. This involved re-locating Himley village and re-erecting the church to its present site – all to accommodate the lord's new stately home, deer park and landscaped grounds.
John Ward's son commissioned famous 18th century landscape gardener, "Capability" Brown to redesign his parkland, in keeping with the fashion that was all the rage among the aristocracy of the day. This included the creation of the great lake, a new carriage approach and the planting of countless great trees.
An entry in the History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire describes the hall as a "noble structure, situated in the midst of the rich and extensive park, which abounds with deer ... and has a magnificent sheet of water ... finely clad with ancient and modern foliage ..."
When the 7th Lord Ward died in 1774, his brother, William Ward, inherited Himley, becoming the 3rd Viscount Dudley. The Gazetteer also records that the "mansion was frequently the scene of rejoicing and festivity upon public occasions. The King's escape from assassination in 1786, and several of our naval victories were celebrated here by illuminations, fireworks etc ..."
William Ward was said to have a fondness for "port and fiddling". He certainly loved music and was patron of the Birmingham Music Festival. And, like most of his contemporaries, drank gallons of port and other fine wine. But, he did have another side, and was known locally as the "Poor Man's Friend".
The Gazetteer says the Viscount was well known for his "benevolence ... In the distressful year of 1792, no less than 1,000 of the unemployed poor of this neighbourhood were regularly relieved by him." He also helped "distressed artisans" and that his "innumerable acts of private charity conferred upon him" the title of "Poor Man's Friend and as such his memory will long be cherished by his countrymen."
So, let's step back in time to 1819 and experience the festivities as Viscount Ward kept open house for all at Himley over the 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 ladling jars; one beer 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."
It was definitely Christmas - celebrated in true "Downton Abbey" style.
But, downstairs, a more modest celebration was underway in the servants' hall. After a long day ensuring master and guests had a slap-up feast, the Himley staff had a supper of "grorty dick" and mulled ale. They shared this with the local "waits" who had been called in to entertain the servants with a traditional local carol:
The cock sat 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.
Originally, the word "wait" referred to musicians who were paid by the local parish. But, in the Black Country, the term was applied to any roaming singers and musicians begging from door to door on festive occasions.
Wednesbury historian F. W. Hackwood describes the custom taking place immediately after midnight on Christmas Eve:
"The practice of the carol singers in the Black Country is for them to wait until the bells have ended their merry midnight peal before they sally forth, and then to commence carols at the houses of those most likely to bestow largesse in honour of the season. Some people sit up to receive them liberally with cakes and ale. Generally, however, after singing a carol, the waits pass on, and call again for the customary donation when the household is astir next day, preparing for the Christmas dinner."
No doubt the waits had performed for the Viscount on Christmas Eve, returning on Christmas Day for their "grorty dick" and mulled ale with the servants. Whatever the case, traditional carols were very popular in the Black Country. And, it seems, the longer they were the better.
According to Hackwood, "the repertory of a Black Country band of carol singers was a wonderful assortment of Christmas lyrics, crude of language and quaint in expression." By that he means they were mostly Black Country versions of the popular carols of the day, but composed and performed in everyday Black Country dialect. Two lengthy carols mentioned by Hackwood from a Willenhall collection of old favourites, were "Dives and Lazarus" and "The Creation o' the World." Apparently, renditions of these lasted 20 and 40 minutes, respectively!
Over the Twelve Days of Christmas, the partygoers at Himley would undoubtedly have been entertained by the local sword dancers. Born in 1845, local historian G.T.Lawley recalled seeing sword dancers in his youth at Christmas time:
"It was performed on Christmas Eve, before the residence of the principal inhabitants, by bands of colliers, sometimes as many as twenty in a band. Decorated with sprigs of holly and mistletoe, and armed with wooden swords. Two of their number, called "Tommy" and "Betsy", were usually dressed in skins and masks of the most grotesque fashions ... They were accompanied by a fiddler or musician ... and two or three lads, also fantastically dressed, carrying lanterns of immense swedes, hollowed out and cut to represent grim human faces, to give this group as grotesque an appearance as possible. They proceeded at first slowly to cross their wooden swords, changing their position to the music of a fiddle. While the dance was proceeding, the speed of their movements was gradually increased until they seemed to be engaged in mortal combat. Their proceedings were accompanied by the singing of a carol, which they timed to end with the dance:
Christmas comes but once a year
Give us of your beef and beer.
If the beer is getting low,
And the beef is gone also,
Wine and mince pies give instead,
Or money, that we be fed.
Merry is the Christmas time,
Merry is our simple rhyme,
A Merry Christmas to you all.