Christmas Past

– the festive season in Victorian and Edwardian Neston

Neston celebrated Christmas and New Year in all the traditional ways we associate with that time and which are not so very different from today: presents were bought and Christmas food, there were services in church and dances and entertainment in the evening. However the problems of poverty and unemployment, were deeply felt by many in the town. Fortunately, in an age when there was no benefit system or state pension,  there were a number of organisations and individuals who helped bring some enjoyment to those less fortunate.

‘tis the season to be jolly

Dancing was as popular then as now and in 1893 a Cinderella Dance was given at Neston Town Hall with the stage arranged as a drawing room. A Cinderella Dance was a dance that ended at midnight though it was not unusual, even then, for dances to continue until the early hours. Mr U. V. Corbett of Ashfield Hall hosted an annual ball for servants on the Ashfield estate and tenants from Willaston. In 1887 (Cheshire Observer, 31st December, 1881) dancing and musical entertainment was provided for around 100 guests, the ballroom being decorated for the occasion with holly and mistletoe. Mr Corbett began the dancing, partnering the housekeeper from the Hall and the ball continued until 5 am. ‘The Pride of Neston’ Lodge of the Ancient Order of Druids held an annual ball for its members. In 1891 it took place on Boxing Day in the Town Hall and was attended by 200 members and their friends. The room was decorated with flags and evergreens and the banner of the lodge occupied centre stage. Many local men were members of the  5th Company (Neston), 1st Cheshire Rifle Volunteers. They were entertained to an annual ball provided in alternate years either by Mr Duncan Graham of Lydiate House or Mr Reginald Bushell. The ball in December 1882 (Cheshire Observer, 30th December ,1882) was hosted by Mr Graham, formerly the Company’s captain, in the Neston Schoolroom.

Other entertainments were organised with talks and music often organised by Neston societies and performed by local people. They were sometimes seen as an alternative to the traditional means of celebrating Christmas as there was often a temperance theme. The Navvy Mission Society was a national society formed by a group of Church of England members to cater for the spiritual, physical and social needs of navvies and their families. When the Wirral railway system was being built a large number of the navvies engaged in its construction lived in Neston. The Neston Navvy Mission organised events in the Navvy Mission Hall during the Christmas period. The Cheshire Observer (31st December, 1881) records an evening attended by upwards of 150 people which was organised by Mr Grylls, the mission pastor. Captain Darlington gave an interesting account of his first voyage at sea and incidents in his seafaring life which was followed by addresses from Captain Hammil of Parkgate and Mr. Graham of Windle Hill. In 1895 (Cheshire Observer – 28 December 1895) the Navvy Mission organised a musical evening to raise money for the children’s Christmas treat with a programme of songs and violin and piano performances, though the reporter commented that all but one of the people involved were from Heswall.

With thank to Lucerna: the Magic Lantern Web Resource for permission to use this slide from John Plowman's Journey to London

With thank to Lucerna: the Magic Lantern Web Resource, for permission to use this slide from John Ploughman’s Excursion to London

A magic lantern show was provided on the Thursday and Friday of Christmas week, 1887, (Cheshire Observer, 24th December, 1887) at the Neston Mission Hall. On the Thursday the titles were Gabriel Grubb’s Christmas from Pickwick Papers and Roger Ploughman’s Visit to London. There was a temperance theme on the Friday evening with a show entitled Dan Dabberton’s Dream.  The Neston and District Literary Society engaged the Egremont Christy Minstrels in 1890 (Cheshire Observer, 27th December, 1890) for a performance in Neston Town Hall. In the following year the society had become Neston and District Literary Society, Library and Club and they presented an ambitious evening of entertainment in aid of the library. (Cheshire Observer, 26th December, 1890)It comprised a series of ‘living waxworks’ and a comedietta entitled ‘Second Thoughts’. The effigies were presented by Mr Whineray in the role of travelling showman assisted by Mr. T.S.Comber. The characters represented included Cinderella (Miss Matilda Davies) and Old King Cole (Mr Hugh Rogers).

In the same year, a musical evening organised by the Neston branch of the Church of England Temperance Society attracted a smaller audience than expected because of the bad weather and the state of the roads. It took place in the National Schoolroom and the programme, which was introduced by the Rev. W.F. Barrett, included a piano duet performed by Mrs Barret and Miss Wyse and carols from Mr Bridge, Master Barrett and Miss Wyse. Some of the contributors were children – Bertha Shone recited ‘Pussy’s Lament’, Edith Jones recited ‘The Sick Doll’ while Rosa Kerns chose ‘The Baby’s Stocking’.

In 1908 St Mary’s Guild, an organisation associated with the Neston parish church, enjoyed an evening entertainment at the Neston Vicarage hosted by the Rev. Canon Turner. Tea was followed by a variety of games and entertainment in which several of the members took part.

Chester Courant and Advertiser, 22 Jan 1908

‘A capital dialogue was given by the Misses Lavinia Oxton, Alice Birch, Florrie Hough, Carrie Hough and Pattie Jones. Songs were given by the Misses F. Hough, Annie Fewtrell, Nurse Munro, U. Hough and A. Marle, the Misses Lavina Oxton, Lillie Scarratt, F. Hough. Maria Fewtrell contributed recitations, Miss Belle Scarratt a humorous reading, and a charming instrumental piece was given by the Misses Lena Tickle (banjo), Ada Tickle (mandoline), and May Tickle (piano).’

‘Come All Ye Faithful’

For many Neston families the church was central to the celebration of Christmas. Traditionally a carol service was held on Christmas Eve at the parish church and the church bells were rung early Christmas morning and before the church service. In 1893 the ringers sounded carols instead of the traditional peal. (Cheshire Observer, 30th December 1893). In 1886 the ringers visited the residences of the ‘principal parishioners’ and performed carols and hymns on hand bells. They were warmly welcomed at all the houses and were given a generous supper at Springfield. An improvement in the skill of the ringers was noted which the reporter put down to the diligent practice of the ringers and tuition from a ringer from St Mary’s, Chester. (Cheshire Observer 2nd January 1886)

At Parkgate a service of song on the subject of ‘Elijah’ ,which took place at the Parkgate Mission Hall (now St Thomas’) in 1884, benefitted from the support of Reverend Towert from the Neston Presbyterian Church. (Cheshire Observer, 27th December 1884). The parish church in Neston was decorated by parishioners and in most years the local newspaper described them in some detail and named the (mostly) ladies responsible. In 1883 the reporter notes the striking appearance of the church on Christmas Day and details the decorations on the pillars, pulpit, lectern, reading desks, chancel wall and font which had been garlanded with evergreens, flowers and appropriate texts.

Cheshire Observer, 29th December1883

The lectern was very beautifully decorated. In the centre panel of the upper portion was a star neatly formed with yellow blossoms, and surrounding it crimson velvet ground with the words ‘There shall come a Star out of Jacob’. The letters were formed of straw and presented a glowing appearance as of bright gold. The lower portion was wreathed with festoons of evergreen.’

The presentation of prizes to Sunday School pupils became an annual, rather than half yearly, event and in 1892 it took place in the afternoon of Christmas Day. Prize winners received books and/or money and were presented with them by Miss Seagar, niece of the vicar, the Rev. Canon Gleadowe. (Cheshire Observer, 31st December, 1892).

Christmas Shopping

High Street

High Street

The Victorian newspaper descriptions of the shops in Neston at Christmas focus largely on the local butchers shops. In 1887 (Cheshire Observer 1st January 1887) the reporter noted that trade was worse than for twenty years but the shops were still well stocked. There was much unemployment in the area at the time and many local families would have been unable to afford the tantalising goods on display. The window of Messrs P. and T. Swift’s shop on the Cross contained a very choice description of prize beef and mutton and was very with gay with emblems of Yuletide and seasonable wishes’. The stock included a prize heifer, fed by Mr Allison of Rake Hall, which ‘bore on its ample sides the words ‘A Merry Christmas’, another heifer from Mr Dennsion at Saighton and some Shropshire sheep from Mr Naylor’s Hooton Hall estate. Mr T. Chesworth’s shop in Bridge Street was decorated with holly and mistletoe and was stocked with heifer which won second prize at the Hooton Christmas Show, fed by Mr Wright of Leighton Hall and some fat sheep fed by Mr Bushell of Hinderton Hall. Another butcher, Mr W. Briscoe, then one of the oldest tradesmen in the town had a shop on the High Street and there was a fourth well stocked butcher’s owned by Mr. W. Hancock.

Messrs Oakes and Griffiths in Parkgate Road (now a hairdressers shop next to the dentists near the library)had a tasteful display of fancy goods and Mrs Tranter and Mr. P. Scorn had a selection of toys that would astonish Santa Clause himself’. Jellicoe’s, and the other confectioners, also had attractive windows and Mr. T. Mallinsons pork butcher’s shop had a ‘tempting display of pork sausages and other edibles’.

By 1891 Mr William Hancock’s shop had undergone some refurbishment which, together with its ‘commanding location’ ,made it second to none in the town. (Cheshire Observer, 26th December, 1891). In the same article the reporter tellingly observes that Messrs Oakes and Griffiths, as well as fancy articles for gifts, also had goods ‘which might be useful for charitable purposes- blankets, quilts, flannel shirts and cardigans’. They were offering special value wadded quilts for 5s 6d and 6s 9d.

Good Will To All Men’

The problem of unemployment in the Victorian period was such that emigration was often suggested as a solution. Neston vicar, Rev. Gleadowe commented that he was much grieved to see so many young men of fourteen years and upwards loitering about the streets of Neston. He had noticed over twenty in the street the other day, and thought it a sad spectacle. He advised such of them as could not obtain employment here to consider the advantage they might obtain by emigration. Young men with willing hands might emigrate without fear’.(Cheshire Observer, 23rd February, 1884)

Financial help from the local board of guardians was minimal and not always forthcoming. One elderly woman, Catherine Quigley, was refused ‘outdoor relief’ by the Wirral Board of Guardians and would have to choose between begging to make enough money to pay for her lodgings or going into the Union Workhouse at Clatterbridge (Cheshire Observer, 6th March 1886). In December the following year there were 80 residents at the Clatterbridge Workhouse. Mrs Quigley was not one of them; she died earlier the same year.

Charitable help was often vital to the poor and elderly particularly during the winter months, and especially at Christmas. Mr and Mr J. G Churton of the Manor House in Neston for many years organised an annual Christmas treat for the elderly. (Mr Churton was a wine merchant and son of the local coroner, Mr Henry Churton). Anyone over 60 in Ness, Pargate and Neston could attend and the event wasparticularly appreciated by those whose life has been one long battle with poverty and who, even in their old age, must struggle to keep the wolf from the door of their humble abodes’. (Cheshire Observer, 2nd June, 1886). Carriages were sent for those unable to walk. And after a meal, catered by Mr Crimes of the White Snow Colliery with Colliery Mission in backgroundHorse, the elderly guests returned home with gifts of tea or tobacco. A few years later, in 1891, Mr Kendrick, a collier aged 81 from Little Neston made his way along the slippery roads on foot. Again carriages were sent for those unable to walk and gifts were delivered to those too ill to attend. Dinner was served at 1.30pm and consisted of beef steak pies, hotpots, legs of mutton etc followed by plum pudding, mince pies and apple pudding. The afternoon ended with a musical provided by Mrs Barrett, Miss Russell and the Mrs Lloyd whilst Mr John Lloyd provided some comic entertainment. Mr Sutherland of the Golden Lion Hotel did the catering on this occasion.(Cheshire Observer, 10th January 1891).

At Parkgate, in the same year, Mrs Comber gave Christmas gifts to the ‘poor families’ of Parkgate and gave ‘a large quantity of flannel’ to be distributed among the fishermen.(Cheshire Observer, 26th December, 1891). The patients at Parkgate Convalescent Home, which was connected with the Chester Infirmary were regularly provided with Christmas dinner by Mrs Ball of Stanley Place, Chester and in 1893 Mrs Rathbone of Backwood, Neston provided treats for Christmas breakfast and decorations.(Cheshire Observer, 2nd January 1892)

In 1899 the newspaper records that Mr Johnson Houghton of Westwood gave two large sheep to the Vicar of Neston, the Rev. Canon Turner, for distribution among the poor of the parish, many of whom were out of work. (Cheshire Observer, 30th December, 1899).

One local Neston charity which still continues in Neston, the Monks Mathews charity, regularly distributed clothing and blankets to the deserving poor. The bequests which established the charity were from Mrs Nessie Matthews who died in 1874 and her brother John Monk, who died in 1880. In 1901 the charity was being managed by their great niece, Emily Nessie Livermore (nee Brown), who had come to live in Neston.( Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales 25th December 1901)

The children were not to be left out either as givers or receivers of Christmas gifts. In 1893 three young girls, Dora Busby, Ruth Barrett and Phillis Sawers, organised a small bazaar on the Saturday afternoon with stall stocked with work made by themselves and gave the proceeds to district visior to be used for the benefit of the poor. (Cheshire Observer, 30th December, 1893).

A Sunday School treat for pupils of the Mission Hall in Neston was organised in 1899 by the superintendent, Mr. W. Tranter. Tea was provided for about 50 pupils by the Misses Tranter, the Misses Peers and Miss Whitehead and this was followed by recitations and games. (Cheshire Observer Sat 14th Jan 1899)

White Christmas

There was a prolonged spell of snow and frost in the winter of 1878 and Christmas festive season was favoured with the traditional snowy scenes associated with Christmas. This was the first appreciable snowy spell for a number of years and one scientific theory that had been proposed to explain it was referred to in the local newspaper.

‘the crust of the earth of was so thin, and we were so near the internal heat that neither frost nor snow could stay’

(Cheshire Observer, 28th December, 1878)

This particular theory was also used to explain the earthquakes shocks experienced in various places, including Chester and North Wales, in recent years.

An extract from the British Medical journal (published in Cheshire Observer, 4th January, 1879) warned of the increased mortality amongst ‘those who are weak and sickly, either from infancy or age, disease or poverty’. Whilst accepting that a white Christmas would always be popular the article warns against the possible consequences for society as a whole.

‘…no misconception should exist as to its cost in disease and death among the poorer of the working classes, much of which is treated in our workhouse infirmaries, and also implies a heavy increase in the necessary rates of poor relief.’

(Cheshire Observer, 4th January, 1879)

And a Happy New Year

In Neston New Year’s Eve was celebrated with the ringing of the church bells and the singing of hymns around the Cross and this, traditionally, always included the hymn ‘Jesu shall reign where ‘ere the sun’. An account of the celebrations as the year 1881 ended appeared in the Cheshire Observer on 7th January, 1882.

‘In the early part of the evening bands of rustic serenaders, disguised with burnt cork and armed with tin whistle, banjo, concertina, &c promenaded the thoroughfares, stopping occasionally to give a ditty which, which invariably ended with a (spoken) happy new year to you’.

The writers gives a somewhat poetical description of the scene at midnight when the sound of the bells mingled with the singing of hymns at the Cross.

‘A group at the Cross commenced to sing hymns, and at last the New Year came. Simultaneously a rush of sounds, discordant and musical, rose into the air, the sweet music of the hymns came in for a few seconds between the changes of the bells like soft stop in an organ, then was lost in their ‘rhyming and chiming’, while the tinkle of rival bells in Flint came over the river like an echo.’

According to the writer it was the Presbyterian contingent who sang the traditional ‘Jesus shall reign’.

Afterwards the New Year was let in the around the town in the traditional manner.

‘..for hours afterwards knockers were plied vigorously and the loud cries of professional compliment wishers crying ‘Happy New Year and many of urn,’ sounded through the streets, the traditional dark man being in great request.’

A few years later in 1884 the scene was somewhat quieter but, although the church bells were awaiting repair so the New Year could not be welcomed in the traditional way, the band of the 1st Cheshire Volunteers, conducted by Mr Behan, played in the earlier part of the evening. There were services however at the Presbyterian Chapel and the Mission Hall and afterwards the Presbyterian congregation assembled at the Cross to sing the traditional hymn where they were joined by the worshippers from the Mission Hall who sang ‘Come Ye That Love The Lord’. (Cheshire Observer, 5th January , 1884).

In 1891 the Presbyterian Church and the Mission Hall were the only places to hold a ‘midnight watch’ service although on this occasion the church bells were available to announce the New Year.

‘A few moments before midnight the tenor bell of the parish church began to toll for the departing year and, as the new year dawned, the full peal of bells proclaimed the joyous intelligence.’

An article written in 1908 maintains that the custom of gathering at the Cross dated back more than seventy years and that,before Isaac Watt’s hymn became the customary choice, entertainment was provided at the Cross by a well-known Nestonian called ‘Dicky’ Handley whose band consisted of his fiddle and a ‘humorous company of vivacious volunteers’. They would call out to individual families in the crowd and wish them the season’s greetings and after the church clock chimed midnight would sing ‘ Lift up your heads with joyful hope’. (Chester Courant and Advertiser, 1st January, 1908)

Volunteer RegimentThe Neston Volunteers, members of the 5th Company of the 1st Cheshire Rifle Volunteers, traditionally held an annual shooting competition, at the range at the Old Quay, on New Year’s Day. The Rifle Volunteers system was set up in 1859 in response to public fear of invasion from France during France’s war with Austro-Hungary. It created, at no cost to the government, a reserve of men with some military training, including the ability to fire a rifle with some degree of accuracy. In 1883 the weather, as it had in other years, made shooting difficult for the 46 entrants. The competition required shooting over distances of 200 yards and 500 yards and visibility was so poor that the 500 yard target could hardly be seen. Prizes were provided by local tradesmen as either money or useful articles of food, drink or clothing. Private T. Coventry won first prize in that year which was the sum of 20 shillings donated by Mr. W. Swift. Amongst the other 26 prize-winners were Private C. Swift and Corporal Jellicoe who each won 10 shillings, Corporal Coventry who won a pair of boots donated by Mr Chesworth, Private Meadows whose prize was a pair of trousers presented by Oakes and Griffiths. Private J. Pugh won 2s 6d donated by a Mr Stock, Sergeant Crimes a currant loaf donated by Mr Mullineux, Private C. Anyon won a saddle of mutton donated by Mr Swift and Private Millington won a hat and tie donated by Mr. Foster. A dinner followed in the White Horse Inn, hosted by the landlord, Mr Crimes who was one of the 5th Company volunteers.(Cheshire Observer, 6th January, 1883).

In 1894 the event was held indoors, perhaps because of bad weather, at the Drill Hall using a Morris Tube which allowed short range shooting. The prizes, as previously, were donated by local tradesmen. Sergeant Basnett was the winner that year and received a prize of 21 shillings. Other prizes included a hand of bacon awarded to Lance- Sergeant Bell donated by J. Grundy, a pair of rabbits donated by W. Fleming went to Private J. Tilley while Private W. Jones won six months free shaving from W. Smith.(Cheshire Observer, 6th January, 1894).

Absent Friends

Victoria’s reign was comparatively peaceful and the Volunteers were never required to defend the country from foreign invaders. However the war in Africa meant that some Neston men were involved in active service. Private Joseph Ryan missed the Christmas and New Year celebrations in 1899 as he was recovering from wounds received at Modder River. He wrote to his wife and friends from the military hospital in Wynnburg. To his friend, Mr J. Hollis, he wrote in surprisingly humorous terms about his experience of battle, describing as ‘just the same as being down coal pit, for there is swearing and shouting just the same.’ Water however was short and they often had to drink the water they used to wash. (Cheshire Observer, 27th January, 1900)

Neston Petty Sessions

It might be supposed that the festive season would result in an increase in prosecutions for being drunk and disorderly or perhaps for poaching as the more enterprising residents attempted to find food for the Christmas table. The number of prosecutions seemed no more in number than the during rest of the year. One interesting prosecution was attempted in 1888 when five Neston residents appeared before the magistrate charged with running an illegal lottery. Mr Gammage organised a raffle for four geese, one ham, two pieces of beef and eight bottles of spirit. The winners were decided by a game of chance called ‘Little Go’ which took place in a house belonging to John Reeves. Joseph ran a similar raffle in a building belonging to John Swift. The chairman of the magistrates, Mr Duncan Graham, suggested that the case be withdrawn as the purpose was to show that such raffles, although held all over the country, were illegal

A Christmas Gift.

The Cheshire Courant in 1907(25th December) included the following report of the Christmas present received by local collier (and his wife)

NESTON

COLLIER’S CHRISTMAS GIFT

The wife of a coal miner named John Jones, living at Sunset Row, Ness gave birth to triplets on Friday morning, two girls and a boy. Mother and children are doing well.