River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Christmas In The 1930s

January 2002

How the festive season used to be

As I write Christmas is fast approaching and I am very aware of the usual preparations and the excitement amongst the children and, as is my wont, I look back and think about Christmas time when I was a child. Times were hard in the 1930's for the working classes, the western world was trying to struggle out of the great economic depression that followed the first world war, many people were unemployed with much less financial assistance than is provided today. My father was fortunate in that he had a job as a bus driver in London, but wages were very low.

Together with my father, mother, brother and sister we all lived in three rooms on the top floor of a four storey Victorian terraced house. We had no kitchen, just a cooker on the landing, there was no running water, water had to be carried from the floor below and waste water returned there. Prior to 1935 we had no electricity, lighting was by gas. There was a shared bathroom on the floor below with a bath and a loo but no washbasin. Whilst these living conditions seem hard today, at the time they didn't seem so bad as there were many thousands of homes in the country where water had to be carried from the village pump, maybe several hundred yards away, the only lighting was candles or oil lamps, the loo was a dunny in the garden and the bath was a galvanised metal tub.

Refrigerators were only for the rich, they did not exist in ordinary homes and nobody had a freezer. Of course there was no such thing as frozen food. Nobody went shopping by car. Working class people did not have bank accounts and no-one had even thought of credit cards. Hire-purchase was only available on expensive items and not many could contemplate that. So it was necessary to try and save for Christmas but rarely was there much in the kitty come Christmas time, so people were forced to delay purchases until they had earned the money to pay for them. The exception was one or two types of clubs where you paid a weekly amount and could be given cheques or tokens to a value slightly greater than your credit with the club, that could be cashed in many shops. Notable among these were Provident Cheques.

The overall result of people having to wait to earn the money and the problems of food storage meant that most of the Christmas shopping was left until the last day or two. Christmas Eve was the busiest day, shops and market stalls stayed open until very late in the evening. The shrewd shopper waited until the last to buy their turkey hoping that the price would come down, which meant that there were a lot of people just hanging around and waiting. It was all very exciting for a child in Brixton market, the jostling crowds, the toys in the toy shop, most of them just the stuff of dreams, the coloured lights, the stalls lit by pressurised paraffin lamps and cockney barrows that vied for customers with a constant stream of sales shouting that you would have thought would send them hoarse in minutes, but which they kept up for hours. Butchers shops and stalls that were festooned with turkeys suspended from rails, most of them plucked but still with their heads. Many butchers shops had no refrigeration and relied on a cold store which was kept cool by blocks of ice, in the form of a cube of about 50cm each side, delivered daily by open lorry.

Exciting for children it may have been, but a real headache for housewives trying to stretch their meagre budget. There was often little help for the housewife from the husband at these times as he was out working as many hours as he could in order to try and fund it all. It was particularly hard for my mother with her lack of kitchen facilities.

Christmas puddings would be made well in advance. Trifles and mince pies had to be home made (I don't think Mr Kipling had even been born then), to buy ready made pies from the baker was really not acceptable. Sometimes the turkey purchased on Christmas Eve had yet to be plucked, which was no mean task. Very few urban homes ran to a Christmas tree and hardly anybody had fairy lights but paper chains strung across the rooms were very popular. The paper chains crossed the ceilings in all directions and changed the character of the room. Children made paper chains from coloured strips of paper sold for the purpose, stuck together with paste, sometimes made with flour and water. For those that could afford them, there were the manufactured chains that stretched out like enormous concertinas. Most people had a coloured paper bell that opened out from a flat position. The combination of gas lighting or candles, sometimes portable paraffin heaters, with paper chains and Christmas trees for those that had them, was a recipe for disaster. There were some house fires but it was a miracle that there weren't many more.

Times were very hard by the standards of today but for many in those days things were better than they had been for their parents and the difficulties were readily accepted. Christmas day for us was very special, once a nice fire had been established in the hearth and everybody was dressed in their Sunday best with all the family together, presents were opened, sometimes presents from better off aunts and uncles, there were sweets and food of a much better standard than was the usual fare for the rest of the year. After dinner and the washing up Mum could join in more and we would play with our new toys and play games, either party games or board games, with all the family together. Later in the day we might get together with the broader family, grandparents and perhaps an aunt and uncle and cousins that lived nearby. Very daringly the children might be permitted a drink of port and lemon. Generally there was a feeling of happiness and well being. I guess not everyone was so lucky.

Boxing Day was no less enjoyable, Mum could be more relaxed, there were plenty of leftovers in the form of cold meat and vegetables to make a fry-up. There was nowhere to store food of course, much of it was left out on the sideboard, covered with a cloth. We had a small cupboard with sides and door made from perforated galvanised steel sheet which was referred to as the safe. For years I was puzzled as to why such cupboards were called safes, a word which I associated with bank robbers. It was later in life that I realised it was intended to keep food safe from rodents, but that was a problem that we did not have. Food was kept and eaten well beyond Boxing Day but there were obvious hygiene risks with keeping food in warm rooms.

Overall Christmas was a very different affair, practically no buying on credit and no supermarkets, so most food shopping was done locally. Life was much harder, the good food was a treat, not something you could enjoy all the year round. Christmas does seem to have lost something as a consequence. Christmas Eve shopping was especially exciting, nowadays, by four o-clock on Christmas Eve most shopping areas are dead. We have the luxuries of freezers and refrigerators, central heating, television, dishwashers, washing machines, electric this and that and toys and computer games beyond the wildest dreams of children of the thirties. Perhaps children of today find Christmas as exciting as we did when we were kids, I wonder. Are people any happier? I suspect not much. Would they want to go back? No way.

Ron Watts

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