‘Altogether a right merrie day’? Christmas in the Workhouse

While it’s true that Charles Dickens and Prince Albert did not invent the Victorian Christmas, they did influence the Victorian imagining of Christmas considerably. Were workhouse inmates and other recipients  of poor relief allowed to participate in Dickensian festivity over Christmas or was it more a case of Bah Humbug?

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In the years following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the central authorities in London ruled that no extra food or drink should be given to paupers in workhouses at Christmas. Many local poor law unions ignored this directive including the guardians of Swansea Union. In 1837, The Cambrian newspaper reported that: ‘The paupers of Swansea Union were regaled on Christmas Day with an excellent dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, by a few individuals who subscribed the necessary sum for the laudable purpose’.

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Swansea Workhouse

An entry in the guardians’ minute book from 1883 is particularly poignant, one guardian wrote about a Christmas night party and concert:

‘The remarkable feature in the programme was the difference in the ages of the musicians, The youngest being 3, sang ‘a little cock sparrow who sat in a tree’, the oldest a sprightly young fellow of 83. Altogether a right merrie day was the Christmas of ‘82 and the grateful inmates went to their wards feeling thankful that in the general joy they were not forgotten’.

Gifts of tobacco or snuff, tea, sugar, jam and sometimes beer were given to the elderly residents, and the children and ‘imbeciles’ were taken on several outings over Christmas and New Year. A regular event on New year’s Day was a visit to Studt’s funfair, or ‘Venice’, where they rode on the ‘gondolas’ and received presents around the Christmas tree.  Visits to the pantomime, circus and Poole’s Diorama were an annual event and benefactors also gave the children gifts of cards, toys and games, ‘aerated water’, oranges, buns and sweets.

However in 1880 although the ‘usual Christmas dinner’ was to be given to inmates, it was reported that they should have pea soup on the ‘meat day’ before Christmas to save the meat ration for Christmas day. Bah Humbug etc…

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Western Mail 1894

Events such as Christmas, royal weddings, jubilees or particularly harsh weather could also generate generosity from poor law unions. Extra relief of around sixpence or one shilling per pauper was generally given by Swansea Union at Christmas, although not all unions did the same. Monmouth, Llanelli and Carmarthen were among Welsh unions who declined to give extra relief at Christmas.

Gifts were also made to outdoor paupers from benefactors such as shop owner Thomas  Trew who gave toys and fruit in 1865. However, it appears that largesse to children in the workhouse and cottage homes was much greater than to outdoor pauper children, possibly because they attracted more pity as they were seen as ‘waifs’ or ‘orphans’. It is also possible that gifts to outdoor pauper children were not recorded as often as to children living in institutions.

When Swansea Union built ‘cottage homes’ in 1877 to move the children out of the workhouse, the imagined Dickensian Christmas began in earnest.

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Postcard of Cockett Cottage Homes, Swansea c. 1910 (the ‘cottages’ are on the brow of the hill)

For the children of the cottage homes, Christmas brought presents, sweets, decorations, entertainments and vastly superior food.  Although it is clear from comments written by visiting guardians and the donations received from a wide range of people that a great deal of kindness was shown to the children, a lesson was also apparent. Striving to become responsible working-class citizens would bring appropriate rewards such as the enjoyable, yet respectable, celebrating of Christmas.

Many gifts and services donated to the cottage homes were recorded by the superintendent. The annual reports of many charitable establishments also detailed the benevolence of their subscribers in this way, no doubt to advertise the fact that generosity would be acknowledged publicly.

In 1882 the superintendent reported ‘that several of the boys who once belonged to the homes but who have since been placed in situations returned to spend the day with their former friends and companions and it was with great pleasure he noticed the successful results of their former training’. In the evening all the children assembled in the large cottage when all danced, marched and sang to the music of Mrs Grossmith [the head matron].

In 1903 a guardian remarked that the ‘lively’ preparations of the officers and children were pursued with a ‘joyousness’ that ‘gladdened one’s heart’. On Christmas morning ‘every child found a special toy, orange and apple in his or her shelving’ and Christmas dinner was a ‘huge success’ with every child ‘delighted beyond bounds’.

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The Llewelyn family of Penllegare led much of the festive celebration in the cottage homes. Lady Llewelyn and her daughters regularly hosted a Christmas tree event with gifts of toys and edible treats for the children. The tree was described as being ‘loaded with presents of all descriptions’.

During the Christmas celebrations of 1908, the Llewelyns gave the children bananas and ‘new half pennies’ while a gramophone could be heard playing in number three cottage. Some Christmas entertainments became annual events, such as the Boxing Day visit to local theatres for the pantomime. An invitation to the Star Theatre in 1881 had not been welcomed by all guardians, but by the end of the Victorian period, pantomime was patronised by the Royal Family and considered suitable entertainment.

One report from 23rd December 1903 in particular demonstrates that the cottage homes children were cared for.  Although ‘decorations for Christmas are all in hand’, there had been a message from the workhouse regretting that they could not supply the cottage homes with cake in time for Christmas. The guardians recorded that:

‘We therefore empower the superintendent to purchase 100 lbs [pounds] elsewhere at 3½d  per lb, as we hardly think it is fair to deprive the little ones of their Christmas cake’. That’s a lot of cake!

 Merry Christmas and God Bless Us Every One!

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Gratuitous photo from the incomparable Muppet Christmas Carol

The Guardians Minutes of meetings for Swansea Union and documents relating to the cottage homes can be consulted at West Glamorgan Archives Service in Swansea.

For more on the Victorian Christmas, see Neil Armstrong, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century England, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010.

For Pantomime (oh yes it is), see Jim Davis, ed., Victorian Pantomime: A Collection of Critical Essays, Basingstoke:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.


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5 thoughts on “‘Altogether a right merrie day’? Christmas in the Workhouse

    1. Oh my goodness! A lot of food but only amounting to half a pound of bacon each, poor things. I can’t work out how much potatoes each! The Irish poor law was much harsher than in England and Wales wasn’t it?

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