Well…that time of year is almost upon us again, when everyone scurries around filling their baskets and trollies with a seemingly bizarre amount of food and goodies.
Perhaps it’ll be a good time to take a peek back into history, see what sort of Weymouth our ancestors were living in, the everyday lives of the townsfolk preparing for their Christmas.
The Victorian Christmas might not have been quite as overly commercial as our present day one, but it was when the beginnings of what we now know as Christmas festivities began. This came about mainly thanks to Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert who dragged a bloomin’ great tree into their home, (well, I don’t suppose he actually did the dragging,)
Our ancestors, like us, lived, loved, laughed and lost over this festive period.
According to the newspaper reports penned over this season of good will life had it’s ups and down in the town then as it still does now.
Some folk had managed to get themselves into mischief, some business men had lost their living…one person even lost their Christmas dinner!
The Festive season of 1862 saw the streets of Weymouth filled with a sudden influx of soldiers. Sappers in their bright uniforms proudly paraded along the promenade and mingled with the shoppers in the busy streets and lanes of the town.
These were the men of the 26th corps of Royal Engineers who arrived here under the command of their Captain, Percy Smith, and his trusty Lieutenant, A A Jopp. They were about to embark upon a massive building project, that of the Nothe fort and the Coastal Defences over on Portland.
For the high and mighty of the area, Luce’s Royal Hotel, facing the esplanade, held their popular annual Christmas Ball, of course resident military and naval officers came top on the list of invites.
It was a time for members of the local business community to get together for this glittering soiree. This is when wives and daughters would primp and preen, decked out in their latest finery and fripperies purchased from some of Weymouth’s many department stores,
Gossiping behind their feathered fans, fluttering their lashes at the attending officers in their magnificent uniforms. The men standing confident in their dinner suits, legs apart, hands behind backs, discussing the latest money making schemes or practising their political manoeuvres for next years committees.
However, there would be two local business men and their families missing from that nights spectacular event, Henry Groves and Edwin Elias Brooking.
The first was thirty-seven-year old Henry who lived with his wife Sarah and their children, Sarah, Henry, Frederick and Olivia at no 10 Petticoat Lane (todays St Alban Street.)
His family ran a grocery, bakery and provisions merchants business.
I say ran, because coming up to Christmas, it had gone into receivership, they were about to loose absolutely everything.
Within a couple of years Henry had picked himself up, dusted himself off and was up and running again as a general dealer, by this time the family had moved to no 4 New Town Place, ( as yet to discover where this was in old Weymouth, according to the census returns it ran off of Gordon Row at one time…answers on a postcard please.)
The second local well to do family about to face hardship this festive season was Edwin Elias Brooking, he resided at Victoria Villa with his wife Mary Ann and their somewhat large brood, Sarah Ann, Emma, Edwin, Mary Ann, Eliza Ellen, Edith Ellen and George Frederick.
This family wasn’t originally from the area, they had only moved to Weymouth in the last 4 year period, it was where their youngest son George Frederick was born.
Edwin was a builder, in all probability he had moved here because of the work opportunities that arose from the vast ongoing building project of the coastal defences, particularly the Nothe.
However, the year 1862 saw work stopped at the Nothe fort due to certain events overseas, the American Civil War, (long story…and which will be explained in my forthcoming book about the Nothe.) Orders had arrived in town from on high, the Committee of Defence had sent a telegram for all private contractors to down tools.
When work finally restarted at the beginning of 1863 it was to be by the hands and skills of the recently arrived Royal Engineers.
The closing of the work site must have been the death knell to Edwin’s vision of lucrative contracts and immense wealth. He suddenly found himself without a job and struggling to make ends meet. The dreaded threat of bankruptcy hung over their heads during the Christmas period, they were about to loose everything, even their furniture which had been valued..£148.
Edwin just about managed to scrape a living together in Weymouth until 1865, when he gave up and the family left town, they moved lock stock, ladders and builders barrel to Bermondsey in Surrey.
Someone slightly lower down the social scale and in all probability would never have been allowed anywhere near the hallowed doors of the grand Christmas Ball at Luce’s was Benjamin Ireland.
Benjamin was 46-year-old dealer, or ‘huckster’ as he was charmingly referred to in the papers. (A huckster being an itinerant trader.)
In 1861 he was temporarily residing with his wife, Jane, and their fair sized brood of boys and girls, Sarah, Jane, Henry, Benjamin, Francis, Julia, Rosa and finally Joseph, in Maiden Street.
Come late December and Benjamin climbed on the proverbial Christmas wagon, never one to miss a trick, he found himself a stash of holly and was tramping the streets of the town with his old rickety wooden cart containing the prickly loot.
(It was considered very unlucky not to have holly in the house over this season…the prickles stopped witches and warlocks from being able to enter your house, of course.)
The Victorians decked their houses out with a ton of evergreens, including holly, ivy and mistletoe, this harks way way back to the pagan era and celebrating the ending of winter and the coming of Spring.
Someone else who never missed a trick was bright-eyed little 7-year-old Thomas Brooks, beloved son of local tailor George and his Mum Elizabeth from Waterloo cottage. Having espied the man and his horse and cart passing by, full of holly covered in irresistible bright red berries, he followed closely behind. As the old cart jolted along on the rough roads, so bits and pieces fell of the back. Thomas was in like a shot, gathering up the escaping berries as they rolled down the road.
Spotting the cheeky young entrepreneur gathering up his blood red booty, Benjamin took umbrage. He ran to the back of the cart and raised his whip in the air, with one almighty swipe he lashed little Thomas across his face and back.
Benjamin Ireland found himself stood before the local magistrates charged with assault…for his quick temper and even quicker whip hand he was fined 1 shilling.
The last person to find himself in court over the Christmas period was one Richard Wentford, ( though I suspect that the court reported transcribed his name incorrectly!)
Richard Wentford was an officer in the mounted section of the Coast Guard, he was being charged with an assault upon Susan Attwooll who lived with her mother Elizabeth and siblings in a cottage at East Row up on Chapelhay. Dad being a sailor was away at sea at the time of the incident.
Susan, aged 22, was at home on her own that lunchtime on Christmas day when a sudden hammering on the door startled her and in burst one almighty angry man. An irate, or should I say extremely irate, Richard confronted the quivering Susan. He was past fuming, he was besides himself with rage, a stream of vile filth erupted from his mouth.
According to him, her younger brother, James, had nicked his bloody prize chicken! Raising his deep menacing voice in uncontrollable anger he threatened that “he would strip her in pieces.” His vile words kept on spewing forth, ( including many unrepeatable expletives,) He declared that “he would take the very womanhood out of her,” pointing out that “He was no d…..fool, and Weymouth people would not find a Barber in him.” Just to make his point he upped the threats, “He was a devil, and had devil’s work to do, and would be the devil to her.”
Stood outside their house on that Christmas day was John Stone, a builder from Portland, (no surprises there then with that name.) He had seen the irate Richard march up the path and burst into the house, according to him all he could hear then was “language that was of the most disgusting character.”
Local policeman, P.C. Mahone arrived on scene and tried to calm things down, he ended up physically pushing the still angry and verbally abusive Richard out of the house, later telling the court that yes, the “Defendant was in a passion.”
It was also revealed in court that the man’s Christmas fowl was found soon afterwards, ( but a bit like the Monty Python’s infamous parrot sketch…this was bird was dead, dead, dead,) at which point he returned to the Susan’s home. Having calmed down by now and realising that in all probability she had been ignorant of the facts, he had come to “humbly begged her pardon.”
As it so happens, it had been Susan’s younger brother who had done the dirty deed, James, aged 11, had lobbed a stone at the bird and killed it according to witnesses in court. (One can only ponder over whether it had been an accident or a deliberate attempt to gather in Christmas dinner!)
One of James’ mates, George Doel, was called into the dock to snitch, (sorry, give evidence,) on his pal. When the lad was questioned by the prosecuting council, Mr Tizard, if he knew the nature of an oath, his good old Mum rushed forward, “No Sir” she shouted, (she wasn’t going to have her son in trouble for telling lies .) But George told the truth, yes his mate James had thrown the stone that killed the bird and then carried it off.
His honest evidence, Mr Tizard rather unkindly remarked, “placed him in a higher educational position than that assigned by his mother.”
For his belligerent outburst that christmas day Richard Wentford was fined 5 shillings and bound over to keep the peace for 6 moths.
Just to finish our Christmas tales for Weymouth of 1862 I’ll throw in a weather report, (we Brits sure do love our weather!)
That year there was no Jack frost covering the sea side scenery with glitter and light, or snow falling to the children’s delight, instead the winds howled and the rains lashed and according to the papers;
The wind indulged in numerous vagaries, and the prevailing fashion of dress with the ladies gave it scope for its fantastic display. We hear of one young lady who, as a salt would say, “carried too much sail,” she was obliged to be “towed” over the Bridge uniting Melcombe Regis with Weymouth.”
A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ONE AND ALL.