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Home <> Lifestory Library <> Pick of The Week <> Victorian family Christmas in Sussex as recorded by diarists

  Contributor: Brenda WoolgarView/Add comments

This article was first published in the West Sussex Gazette on December 26th 1996.

How did Sussex Victorians spend their Christmases and what did they get up to around the festive season? This Christmas Special explores seasonal entries in three Victorian diaries, the first of which belonged to the head of a rural family.

Worthing reader Mrs. Brenda Woolgar sent me several entries from the diary of her grandfather, George Greenfield who was manager of the Balcombe Place Estate which included a number of farms, the first memorandum relating to a freezing Christmas some 116 years ago. Set firmly in the Victorian Age the country tale reads thus:-

'1878 Dec 23. Very cold 13 degrees of frost. Bought a pair of 'Acme' skates from Combes; paid him 4/- for them likewise 6/- for three pairs of knitted woollen socks. The skates were very cheap. I cleaned them up and now they are worth 10/6. To lake for half an hour skating before dinner... Received my Christmas present of a turkey (17 lbs), carried it home and stayed there and prepared it for cooking on Xmas day. George went to Lindfield and bought a piece of spare rib of pork for sausage meat -- 6 lbs at 9d per lb. He won half a Xmas cake at Billy Smith's. Annie came home from Toddington by last train; wife and Lizzie met her. Supper of pork chops, then to bed at 11.'

'Dec. 24. l5 degrees of frost. Finished preparing my turkey which I roasted and sat down to dinner at 2 p.m. An excellent bird it was. We all enjoyed it much, nine of us all told. Annie (daughter) & Lizzie went to church in the morning. George and self went to the lake skating. I tried my Acme's for the first time, did not like them at first but soon got used to them. There was a large party on the lake, some skating, some at hockey and others sliding, besides ladies looking on; home to tea, a little music and singing after. No supper required by any of our party. Just a wee glass of toddy and to bed at 11 p.m.'

Three years earlier he had hoped his brother-in-law Tarring historian Edward Sayers would spend Boxing day with them.
The extract for that year reads:-

'1875 Dec.23. Went to Lindfield, had my hair cut, and bought 4½ ozs of loin pork with kidneys and 9½ ozs for the stuffing of the turkey.'

'Dec 24. To House and Stone Hall (one of the farms), took my Christmas gift home and a very nice turkey -- not quite as large as last year. Stuffed it and got it ready for roasting tomorrow.'

'Dec 25. A beautiful day. Sent the children to church. I as usual was cook, and successfully too. Turkey done to a turn, vegetables and pudding to a bubble. Children came home with excellent appetites, which were soon satisfied, and enjoyed themselves with the Christmas Cheer afterwards.'

'Dec 26. Went to meet the up train in expectation of meeting my brother-in-law Edward Sayers from Tarring - was disappointed.'

The following Christmas proved to be quieter than in previous years.

'l876 Dec 25. Xmas Day. Successfully roasted the turkey and sat down to dinner at l.45. The smallest party that I have had for eight years, there being but seven of us. Annie dined with Frances, and Kate (daughter) being in Brighton. The children enjoyed themselves very much. George (a son) and self played chess in the evening and read.'

'Dec 26. Fine day. Went to Ireland (village store) and bought some powder and shot. Spent the day rabbit shooting ..... finished just below the railway station with 25 rabbits, 10 hares and a brace of birds. I received a brace of rabbits and walked home quite tired.'

The very next Christmas, Greenfield's daughter appears to have encountered a problem at school.

'1877 Dec 24. Fine, but cold. Went to Town House. Annie came home quite unexpectedly having had notice to leave, on account of the Master, preferring pupil teachers to an Assistant. Mrs. Tugwell sent a very nice cake for the children. To Stone Hall in the evening and assisted in distributing Mrs. Hawkey's Xmas gifts to our workmen. Stayed at Stone Hall and played Napoleon --- lost 3d. Carried my turkey home at 10.30.'

'Dec 25. Very fine day, quite bright. Dressed and cooked turkey myself as usual. Dined at 2 p.m. Self, wife and eight children. We all made an excellent dinner. Annie went out this evening, home at 11, at which time we went to bed.'

'Dec 26. Snowed heavily until 8 a.m. Cleared off and we had a beautiful day but very cold. Mr. & Mrs. Atkinson (tailor) called. I paid him £3 3s. for a suit of homespun cloth.'

On retirement from the Balcombe Place Estate in 1886, George Greenfield built two houses in Canterbury Road, Worthing, one of which became his home.

Another resident of 19th century Worthing who kept a daily diary was one George Tellick, a painter, of 1 Frances Cottages, George Street, whose home now lies underneath the Guildbourne Centre development.

Unlike his terraced home, George's personal diary has withstood the ravages of time, handed safely down through his family to his great granddaughter Miss Nora Hillman of Storrington. Many of his neatly written memorandums relate to family chit-chat but among them can be gleaned some interesting facets of Victorian family life, not least those written in the Christmas season as follows:-

'1885 Dec 25. Xmas Day, Annie (daughter-in-law), Edward (son) and baby and also Maude came (from Chichester) to spend Xmas. They sent a beautiful piece of beef and brought with them a fowl and plum pudding. Spent the day at home very quietly, I did not feel at all well.'

The next Christmas but one, George did not complain of any sickness.

'1887 Dec 13. Annie was confined of a daughter, Evelyn Maude.'
'Dec 22. Edward sent us a nice piece of beef.'
'Dec 23. Received from Helena a hamper of miscellaneous things.'
'Dec 24. Mr Richards from Brighton came to spend Xmas with us.'
'Dec 25. Maude came to spend Xmas with Lizzie (daughter). Very fine and frosty. Maude dined with us. In the evening very quiet indeed, no company.'

It was a similar situation the following Christmas.

'1888 Dec 25. Xmas Day. Nice morning, remainder of day very wet and windy. Mr Richards came to spend Xmas, we spent the evening very quiet indeed, no company.'

The following year the situation worsened: not only was he lacking in company but he felt poorly again.

'1889 Dec 25. Xmas Day, very fine, spent the evening very quiet indeed, no company, Laurie (youngest daughter) went to Chichester to spend Xmas. Mr Richards went with her --- I did not feel at all well.'

At Christmas two years later his sickness seemed to be contageous.

'1891 Dec 25. Middling kind of a day. Spent it very quiet. None of us very well. Mr Richards came from Brighton.'

Five days before the next Christmas he completed painting the outside of Frances Cottages with 35 lbs of paint costing 17/6d and then enjoyed the traditional break.

'1892 Dec 25. Xmas Day. Spent the day very quietly at home, a very fine day. Mr Richards came over from Brighton. Edward sent us a very nice fowl, plum pudding, etc.'

More family problems contributed to the Christmas after.

'1893 Dec 21. Charlotte's sister Ann was taken to Haywards Heath Asylum.'

'Dec 25. Very nice day. Spent the day very quietly at home, didn't feel very well. Edward sent us a nice fowl and cake. Helena also sent us some brandy, etc.'

At the beginning of the New Year the laying of sewage pipes in one of the town's main streets began.

'1894 Jan 2. The drainage works were commenced in Montague Street.'

Illnesses seemed to be a feature of family life for poor old George.

'1895 Dec 18. I took a chill, which caused me to keep in bed for nearly a fortnight, and I did not put my head out of the house for nearly a month, but I got over it better than the doctor thought I should. It was the longest time I ever remember being in bed or in the house at one time. I trust I shall never experience the same again, nor anybody else.'

'Dec 25. Laurie, Jimmy and the baby came to spend Xmas with us and they all returned the next night. I was in bed all day, so I did not enjoy myself much.'

Towards the next Christmas a terrific storm caused horrific damage along the Sussex coast, and drove ashore a three-masted barque, the Ophir.

'1896 Dec 6. A severe storm sprung up on a Friday and continued on the Saturday destroying the old chain pier at Brighton, the wreckage from which did great damage to the two other piers and also to the electric railway, completely destroying the saloon car, causing altogether several thousand pounds worth of damage. The railway had only been opened a week on its extension to Rottingdean. Great damage was also done to the Lancing new road close by the coastguard station. The storm also continued on Sunday when a Norwegian vessel was driven ashore at Lancing with her masts and rigging hanging over her side. The Worthing Lifeboat went to her assistance and rescued two of the crew, and as it was dangerous on account of wreckage round the ship, she stood off till the other eight of the crew were rescued by the rocket apparatus which in the meantime had arrived from Shoreham; the Lifeboat then returned to Worthing. The vessel became a wreck and was sold by auction about ten days after. It was the worst storm we have experienced for many years.'

Geo Tellick's final memorandum in the diary was entered on Christmas Day the following year --- 'a most beautiful sun shiny day.'

Still on the subject of diaries, I discovered an interesting seasonal entry in the diary of a well-known actress who spent the latter half of her life in Worthing. Not only was Nancy Price a renowned actress but also a clever artist and skilled author as the following extract, from her illustrated childhood diary, written at the age of 11 shows:-

'1891 December 24. Christmas Day --- my favourite day is coming tomorrow but I think I like Christmas Eve better than Christmas Day because Christmas Day hasn't come and I can look forward to it. I hate to feel its come and going. I love the preparation. I am not allowed to go into mother's room and I know why --- exciting parcels are everywhere; and we have been decorating and I have been stirring the Christmas pudding a lot with cook and I helped Sutton (the gardener) rub some of the spice into the spiced beef. The bells are ringing tonight and it's a white world outside. I looked out and the moon is making everything sparkle --- it is wonderful and everything is fairy.'

'The bell-ringers all came down from the church with lanterns. They sang outside first then they all came in and drank punch out of a big bowl; Papa let me help them. They are funny old men, some rather ugly --- old Hubble (the sexton) is dreadful to look at, like an ogre. His hands are all twisted and his legs too. He says its rheumatics --- I hope I won't ever get it. And he has very big teeth, not many, they seem to hang out of his mouth. Spot always barks a lot when they sing, but he is all right when they come in. Hubble makes a speech, but I can't understand what he says, it's because of his teeth I think. They will ring the bells tomorrow and they always do it on my birthday.'

Later recollections of Christmas spent at home as a young girl are recorded in what must have been at least her eleventh book 'Into An Hour-Glass', written at her home in High Salvington in 1953 at the maturing age of 73, in which she turns back the clock to those far off days of her Victorian youth and strict upbringing.

'The air breaks into a mist with bells, and I go back over the years. The curfew bell was still rung at 8 o'clock when I was a child, but as far as I could gather I was the only one who had to put out my light then and go to bed, which I considered most unfair. I often heard my father say the village might do worse than follow the old custom, that there were too many late hours and too much burning of the midnight oil, but he did not practise what he preached in this respect.'

'I hear again the bells on Christmas morning, that greatest of all festivals for a child. They heralded the early carol-singers, who continued at intervals throughout the day, to be rewarded from the two huge bowls, left for the purpose in the hall, containing copper for the children, silver for the grown-ups --- which were always emptied by midnight.'

'Memory is a clear thing. I can see the festive decorations --- scarcely a space in the house left bare --- and hear my father's disapproval, fearing that his pictures might be scratched by the holly, but in the end giving an unwilling consent. I look again at the posy by each breakfast plate --- 'bosses', the old gardener called them; these were afterwards worn throughout the day. I see our presents on the breakfast table, feel again an excitement caused by the advent of a laden postman, then the feverish unwrapping of parcels, tearing open of envelopes, then walking up the hill to the church. Carols again, while my eyes roved over the decorations with which I had helped my mother --- the bunches of holly, and our finest chysanthemums, the white cotton-wool on the window ledges competing with the snow outside --- warm greetings afterwards in the porch. Home to Christmas fare --- the blazing pudding, crackers with their mottoes, caps and various surprises, mostly noise-producing! In the afternoon a snow-man to be created, followed by snowballing; then indoors again to a glittering Christmas tree, and in the evening a bell-ringers' party in our hall, with hot punch served. Tongues loosened to unwanted eloquence; the peak of the evening, a speech by Hubble; then Sir Roger de Coverley danced by the entire household, followed by snapdragon, and so to bed.'

This article was first published in the West Sussex Gazette on December 26th 1996.

Whoops! A painful landing for Christmas knight on this comical postcard.

Seasonal surprise: A lucky horseshoe turns up in this Christmas postcard sent from a Katie to her Tommy with love. I wonder if this was a subtle way of letting him know she had wedding bells in mind.

Victorian romance: Having descended the chimney, Father Christmas drops his sack of presents in favour of the oogly-eyed mistress of the house.

Traditional fun: Two young Victorian ladies fend off the boys' snowballs.

What a catch! A greetings postcard sent to 'Snowdrop with Love from Horace.'

Young love: A Victorian Christmas card sent to 'Llewellyn with Elsie's love.'

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