East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food

Christmas for the poor and needy…

It may be traditional now, but turkey was generally off the menu for working class families until at least the 1950s. A piece of beef, a goose or chicken, or even a rabbit were more likely to be on the table on Christmas Day, though in the days before butchers had fridges in which to store their meat, bargains could be had by waiting until they were about to close and happy to sell off what was left at a lower price.

Christmas Party at Cascelloid, Leicester in the 1950s

Christmas was also the time for charity, often in the form of coal, a joint of beef or a plum pudding, or a dinner on Christmas Day. ‘From at least the later 19th century ‘treats’ including tea, presents and entertainment were also provided by Sunday Schools or local employers for the children of their workforce . For children who attended the Ragged School Mission in Leicester, established in the 1860s to care for the ‘poor and needy’, the annual Robin Breakfast on Christmas Day was one of the highlights of the year. The  Leicester Journal reported in 1890 that ‘no less than 300 tickets were distributed but the youthful guests far exceeded that number and comprised not a few unassociated with the Ragged School’. The ‘breakfast’ consisted of bread and butter, meat patties, cake and coffee, ‘which the guests enjoyed to their hearts’ content’ before singing a Christmas carol and departing ‘highly gratified’ with a paper bag holding an orange and a mince pie.

The breakfast continued until the Mission was demolished in the 1950s, and it also provided boxes of food donated by well-wishers to elderly people in the city: ‘plum puddings, tinned goods, fruit and nuts… the Mission was overflowing with goodwill from every part of Leicester… In addition to this were the parties! Rows of trestle tables in the big hall, groaning with sandwiches, jellies, cakes, lemonade, tea, and of course… wonderful crackers’. Along with cardboard plum puddings, tinsel, stars, baubles and other decorations, the crackers were donated by Mr Bonner, a commercial traveller, and the arrival of his hamper was always eagerly awaited. Dorothy Rayson, the daughter of the Mission caretaker Will Pyne, remembered that: ‘I was too small to peep inside unless I stood on a stool, and once fell head first from my lofty perch into the basket, mortified at having shown my bloomers to all and sundry…’.

In the Workhouse, Christmas Day was also the occasion for the Poor Law Guardians to serve the inmates with their roast beef and plum pudding. If you’d like to read the ‘authorised version’ of George R. Sims’ famous poem In the Workhouse Christmas Day, you can find it at http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/poem.html. You just have time to learn it ready for a recitation of your own on Christmas Day… You could also listen to a short parody of it on the British Library website at http://sounds.bl.uk/View.aspx?item=025M-C1023X0007XX-1400V0.xml#, or if you are a fan of The Archers, try Christmas Day in Grey Gables at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/archers/listeners/parodies/grey_gables_christmas.shtml.

(Ragged School Mission quotes are extracted from C. Brown, Wharf Street Revisited (Leicester City Council, 1995) and reproduced by permission of Leicester City Libraries).

A Meryy Christmas to you all.




    Maureen Patton January 16th, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Sure enjoyed reading this and seeing the picture. Thanks for informing me of this blog. So interesting. How much simpler Chrismas was in years past – less commercialism. Thanks for blog.


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A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.