In his latest history feature Daniel Shannon-Hughes unearths festive tales from years past
Christmas is almost upon us and, like it or not, there is little escape. On the day the streets of Waltham Forest will fall quiet, most shops will be closed and very few people will be at work. In this way and many others, Christmas is a very different day to all the rest.
It comes but once a year, every year. And though not an event everyone celebrates, because Christmas is so culturally dominant it is an exceptional event everyone shares.
First-hand accounts of bygone festive days live on thanks to the Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop’s archives. In more ways than one, they give us a taste of the times.
Many stories from the first half of the 20th Century feature the borough’s markets. Stephen Davis, born 1955, was a trader at Walthamstow Market. He recalls: “We used to open all night, a lot of the stall-holders, you know, with fruit and vegetables, fish, meat, all that, because it was such a busy period before Christmas. Instead of packing everything away of a night they would just keep open.”
Late night market opening was common much earlier on as well. The interviewee known only as Mrs Judd remembers doing last minute shopping in the 1920s: “When they turned out of the pub, we’d been to have our Christmas Eve drink, we’d go up and down the high street buying things right ’til midnight.”
Shoppers would often wait until the last minute to get bargains but also storing fresh food could be a problem. Until the 1970s most people did not have a fridge, let alone a freezer.
Food has always been central to Christmas, even though advertised and prepared in different ways. An unidentified member of the North Chingford Town’s Women’s Guild, recorded in 1985, says:
“At Christmas time [the slaughterhouse] used to have a lovely show of fine cattle that all [had] their rosettes on and then they were slaughtered before Christmas.”
The interviewee known as Mr T Sims worked as a butcher’s boy’s assistant in Hoe Street in the 1930s. As he recalls, not everyone could afford the finest cuts: “Ox tongue was popular as it was cheap and served a number of people. This sold extremely well at Christmas, although not a seasonal meat.”
Margaret Churcher’s anecdote from her childhood in the 1930s is a reminder of the extreme poverty of the time: “The highest point of my parents’ life in a year was Christmas Day; they’d go out, [buy] a little tiny bottle of whisky, and they’d share it in their tea first thing in the morning.
“That was their drink, for Christmas. That is all they could afford. You’ve heard about the poor church mouse? Well, god help us, we were.”
Mrs Judd’s family appears to have been reasonably well off: “We always had three chickens and that was a rare treat.”
Before intensive poultry production, chicken was one of the most expensive meats, reserved for special occasions. Similarly, oranges were rare enough to be an exotic fruit. Mrs Worth, first name unknown, was born in 1899. She remembers: “My dad used to go up the market to get oranges for Christmas. He used to bring about 100 oranges in his sack.”
Mrs Worth’s father also brought back a turkey for the Christmas dinner. Without an oven at home, cooking it was a labour intensive process: “When you did your turkey, having a coal fire, [we] used to hook it on there and keep twisting and twisting it round so it cooked.”
Another way of doing the Christmas meat was in the local baker’s oven. John Ludlow, born circa 1930, was from a family of bakers who had a shop in Church Lane. At Christmas time his father provided a service to the neighbourhood you would not find at Percy Ingles today: “He used to bake 20 or 30, 35 turkeys, suckling pigs, big joints of pork, geese… I think the charge was half a crown. We only cooked them – they had to be ready for the oven.”
Christmas decorations in shops and on the streets were as common as they are now. The interviewee known as Mr L Barltrop was a child at the very beginning of the 20th century. For him, the festive season was: “A very jolly place outdoors, everywhere was real Christmassy. Little bits of wadding put up for the snowfall and all that, and Norwood’s the butcher in Hoe Street [had] a bullock in the window.”
Some local shops would put great effort into their Christmas window displays, the magnificent festive cakes made by bakers being one example. The borough’s independent department stores would have big Christmas displays and sometimes an advertising float driving around the borough, complete with Father Christmas and sleigh.
Anthony Elliot worked in Bearmans department store in High Road Leytonstone from 1962 until 1975. One year’s Christmas display stood out in his memory: “We [had] a Father Christmas upstairs opposite my department. As you walked towards Father Christmas there was an ornamental pond with a fountain. One day unfortunately, he didn’t do it quick enough, he was having a tinkle in the fountain when the doors opened and all the children saw him in his… glory. He was sacked immediately.”
Bearmans closed in 1982, just as many other independent shops have in recent decades. The changes to our high streets are just one sign of the rapid change in Waltham Forest over the last century.
Yet though our ways of life may have changed dramatically, 25th December is still a day like no other in the year. It’s still a time of fun for many, of excitement for children and for some adults, and exasperation for others. This shared experience links us to neighbours both past and present.
The Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop is a volunteer group who have been recording oral histories with local residents for the past 30 years. For information on the workshop’s archive, joining the group, or being interviewed: