The post of Christmas past

Only a week to go until Christmas  – where has the time gone?

If you’re anything like us you’re probably frantically out shopping for the perfect turkey, booking your panto tickets and keeping your fingers crossed that the weather’s going to be nice enough to go on a Christmas Day walk.

A Trowse cottage covered in snow back in the 19th century

A thatched cottage in Trowse covered in snow back in the 19th century.

But what was Christmas like in Victorian Norfolk without supermarkets, online booking and weather forecasts? Norfolk Heritage Centre has the answers, and have managed to unearth some fascinating stuff.

The Norfolk Heritage Centre is a great place to explore the lives of our ancestors, whether local or global. It’s also a great place to research wider Norfolk life and communities over the centuries, including how Norfolk’s residents used to celebrate Christmas.

We’ve dug deep into our two volumes of Norfolk Annals, which were recorded back in 1901 by Charles Mackie when he summarised the Norfolk Chronicle from 1801-1900, to find the most weird and wonderful stories from Norfolk Christmas past.

Game old birds

In the 19th century, as today, food played a big part in Christmas festivities, and Norfolk was already renowned for its festive birds.

In 1810, the Norfolk Annals tell of Norwich market “glutted” by turkeys:

“Twelve carriages were laden with poultry and game, and each carriage was drawn by six horses, and having 10 stages 60 horses were employed by every coach, which will amount to the astonishing number of 720 horses to draw poultry, sausages, and game sent within three days from this city to the Metropolis.”

In 1834, the Chronicle reported even more meat travelling to London: “Stage coaches conveyed 3,036 hampers of game and poultry to London. Sykes’ waggons in five days conveyed to the Metropolitan market 68 tons of meat, game, and poultry, from Norfolk and Suffolk.” We hope the cold weather kept all that meat refrigerated on its journey southwards!

The bleak midwinter

If you think the unpredictability of the Great British winter weather causes havoc in Norfolk now, rest assured that the Victorians didn’t have it easy either.

Heritage Keswick

A riverside house from the 19th century in Keswick in the middle of winter.

Mackie’s Annals recount that the winter of 1830 saw a frost beginning on Christmas Eve that was “so intense that in the course of forty-eight hours the mill-streams and rivers were frozen over, and navigation between Norwich and Yarmouth was obstructed by ice”.

Overnight on Boxing Day “the thermometer fell to zero [this is in Fahrenheit, which is around -17°C], a degree of cold never before observed in this country. On the 27th there was a sudden change, and on the 31st the thermometer stood at 48 degrees [again, in Fahrenheit, around 9°C]”.

Things were even more difficult six years later in 1836 when “Christmas Day was ushered in with snowstorms and hailstorms, thunder, and lightning. On the 26th the roads were rendered almost impassable by the drifting snow, which, in some localities, was from ten to twelve feet deep. Soon all vehicular traffic was stopped.” Probably not what Bing Crosby had in mind when he dreamt of a white Christmas.

That meant Norfolk residents had to be patient to receive their Christmas cards as the “Ipswich mail coach, which should have arrived at Norwich on Christmas Day, did not reach the city until eleven o’clock on the night of the 29th” and “the Newmarket mail could get no further than Bury St. Edmunds, and all other public vehicles were delayed”. Residents in Dereham, Fakenham and other turnpikes were employed to remove the snowdrifts.

Recognise this path? It's the Newmarket Road going into Norwich as it was back in the 1800s.

Recognise this path? It’s Newmarket Road going into Norwich as it was back in the 1800s.

By complete contrast, 1888 was very mild and Mackie wrote that “it will be noted as an extraordinary year in the meteorological annals of this country… snow in harvest and blossoming primroses in the open air on the eve of December, February rains throughout the summer months, and March gales in November.”

A correspondent, writing to The Times on December 3rd, stated: “I am still supplied with green peas grown in my garden at Brundall, the roses are all in flower; the fields abound in primroses and wild flowers”, the cuckoo was said to have been heard at North Elmham on December 6th and remarkably, strawberries were gathered at Swainsthorpe on Christmas morning.

He’s behind you!

Already seen most of the traditional Christmas pantos? Why not try “Harlequin Prince Bluecap and the King of the Silver Waters, or the Three Kingdoms, Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral”?

Unfortunately this snappily-titled pantomime, which was produced at Norwich Theatre by Joseph Clarence in 1853, didn’t catch on. But it wasn’t the only eccentric sounding pantomime that went on show in 19th century Norwich.

Residents of Brundall called into evasive action to clear ice from a pathway.

Residents of Brundall called into evasive action to clear ice from a pathway.

In 1855 “King Goggle-eyed Greedy Gobble and the Fairy of the Enchanted Lake” premiered at Norwich Theatre to rave reviews and F.C. Burnard’s “burlesque and comic pantomime” hit Norwich in 1864, entitled “Snowdrop, King Bonbon, and the Seven Elves, or the Magic Mirror and the Fatal Sewing Machine”.

If these stories sound totally alien then “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, or Harlequin and the Spiteful Ogress and the Seven Fairy Godmothers from the Realm of Golden Flowers” (1858) and the intriguingly labelled “equestrian pantomime” called “Jack the Giant Killer, or Harlequin and the Fairies of the Crystal Fountain” (1864) sound like they may bear similarities to more the familiar tales of Sleeping Beauty and Jack and the Beanstalk.

But not all 19th century pantos had bizarre, ambling titles. 1861’s Theatre Royal production was a story many of us are still familiar with today – Puss In Boots.

Other festive frivolities

It wasn’t all pantomimes in the festive season, but with no Christmas light switch-ons or repeats of The Snowman on TV, how did the people in the Victorian era get their Christmas cheer?

Animals were a real favourite and on Boxing Day 1861, Manders’ Royal Menagerie came to Norwich, fronted by William Mathers and featuring a whole host of exotic animals. One of the big stars of this was popular African lion tamer Maccomo, whose co-performer got the better of him during the performance, when “whilst performing at the latter show, on the 28th, he was severely attacked by a young lion, and narrowly escaped with his life.”

Can anyone identify any of these cheeky chappies playing in the snow in Harleston in the 1950s?

Can anyone identify any of these cheeky chappies playing in the snow in Harleston in the 1950s?

Believe it or not this was nothing compared to what passed as entertainment in 1863, when “a revolting performance was given at one of the shows at the Norwich Christmas Fair. A man and woman, said to be Kaffirs, actually fed upon live rats, in the presence of continually succeeding audiences”.

Thankfully Mackie’s Annals stop some way short of describing the whole performance saying that “the details, as published in the newspaper, are too horrible to be quoted”.

The Christmas fair in 1864 was a more wholesome affair, described in the Norfolk Chronicle, the central crowd-pleaser was “the striking feature of a roundabout worked by a steam engine, which at the same time turns a barrel organ.” The carousel as we know it today was not patented until 1876, so Norwich was ahead of it’s time!

Have a very merry Christmas, from all at Norfolk Heritage Centre!

Has all this talk of Norfolk past left you wanting to go on a hunt for history? Norfolk Heritage Centre is running a weekly series of ‘Lunch Hour Heritage Hour’ events, located on the second floor of the Millennium Library in Norwich, on Wednesdays at 12.30pm up until the end of March.

The hour-long sessions run from January 2 and will cover topics such as researching your house and the Norfolk Broads.

And on Tuesday evenings at 5.30pm, you go to one of the centre’s ‘Ask An Archive Specialist’ sessions, where you can use the Heritage Centre’s extensive records to make discoveries about your family tree or research into a local industry or community.

It’s all free to come along and you don’t need to book in advance. See here for details of what’s on when this spring.

And if you like the look of some of the photos accompanying this post, then they all come courtesy of the Picture Norfolk site, which you can browse through to find more photos of what Norfolk looked like way back when.

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