Christmases Past

Cuttings taken by Roy York from newspaper archives describing Christmases past in and near Irthlingborough.

The Revd John Jenkinson of Kettering had been invited to preach at Cubbington in Warwickshire on Christmas Day. He had been advised to use the train to Rugby then complete his journey by stage-coach. He recorded, “I therefore left Kettering soon after one o’clock in the morning, walked 19 miles to Blisworth, then our nearest station, and having taken breakfast in Northampton; I was quite in time for the train.”

As Christmas approached, Irthlingborough was lit by gas for first time– by only a few lamps perhaps but the villagers must have looked on in awe and wonder!

At Christmas it was so cold in Kettering that bands playing carols in the streets had to take glowing fire-braziers with them, whilst many people skated along the frozen River Ise from Barton Seagrave to Geddington.

Perhaps they were hoping to supply a demand for Christmas Day but it backfired for 14 year old drover William Sears & 12 year old shoemaker William Houghton when on Christmas Eve they found themselves charged with stealing four fowls worth eight shillings from Jacob Rooksby. The case was sent to the Quarter Sessions where both Sears and Houghton pleaded guilty. The prosecutor appealed for mercy for Houghton saying he had been led into bad company. Consequently Sears received 14 days hard labour and Houghton one day on condition his parents took charge of him.

Sears was then tried for other fowl stealing offences alongside 15 year old Cornelius Cuthbert and 13 year old Joseph Keech. Found guilty Sears had another 14 days added to his sentence, Cuthbert received 14 days hard labour and Keech one day.

At Christmas the Benefit Clubs held their annual feasts, the one at the Sow & Pigs attracting 60 members. The others were the Help in Hand Club which met at the Vine; the Live & Let Live at the Horseshoe; the Hand & Heart at the Railway Inn and the British Arms Club. They were soon joined by the Total Abstinence Society which most certainly did not meet on licensed premises and offered its members a celebratory tea instead of a dinner and booze. At many feasts surplus funds were shared out amongst members – a very popular attraction.

Another popular attraction that year was a performance of Elijah in the Church Schools in aid of renovations to the Baptist Meeting House which was in a dilapidated condition, and rebuilding of the school rooms.

On Christmas Eve the very first football match was played in the village against Wellingborough Victorians in front of a very large crowd. The local team, later renamed The Hawks went on to become one of the leading rugby sides in the county.

As Christmas approached, Richard Healy, a lad, was spotted by PC West taking 12 walnuts valued at one penny from Mr Sykes’ tree. The young lad was fined 5/- with 10/7d costs.

Pigeon pie may well have been on the Christmas dinner table in William Sears’ house as he and Richard Healey were accused at Wellingborough Petty Sessions three days after Christmas of stealing some from a farmer in Chelveston. Feathers found on the road between Chelveston and Irthlingborough, as well as some found in Sears’ house were produced as evidence by P.C. West. Sears received 5 months and Healey 4.

Winter set in early and the papers recorded, ‘The winds whistle cold and the stars are glorious red!’ The popular rendezvous for skaters was the frozen, shallow lake at Turnell’s Meadow, where Wellingborough Tesco now is. Walking there from Irthlingborough was no hardship in those days. The Northampton Mercury claimed that it was possible to skate along the River Ise from Wellingborough as far as Kettering.

A cold north-east wind brought blizzards and the roughest night people could recall – all local roads were blocked by snowdrifts of a considerable depth – the river froze so solid as to allow skating on it. A bonfire was even lit and hot coffee & refreshment stalls set up on the ice.

By the end of January temperatures fell to 7F (-14C) and between 500 and 600 people assembled for a fete on Black Bridge Field between Irthlingborough and Raunds. A one mile handicap skating race was organised – so many entered that five heats had to be held before the final. The winner received a prize of 12 shillings and 6 pence.

On Christmas Eve the bells of Higham Ferrers, Rushden & Irthlingborough resounded across the valley and the choirs of St. Peter’s and the Baptist Chapel toured the village singing carols.

On Boxing Day the Irthlingborough Fife and Drum Band played in the village whilst the hand-bell ringers visited the houses of the principal inhabitants.

On Christmas Day every Wesleyan Sunday School scholar was given a bun. This act of generosity by the Chapel actually made it into the local newspaper!

A Christmas dole of coal was made by Dr Thomas to almost 50 poor folk, but in a village long noted for the quality of its campanologists no ringing could take place as the church tower was deemed unsafe.

A rather unusual advert in the Northampton Mercury on 25th December, 1889 – the Church School was in need of a cleaner. The advertisement stressed that particular attention to drains in the playground was absolutely essential!

On Boxing Day the Town Football Club beat Peterborough Great Northern in the Northamptonshire Junior Cup. A check of those playing association football that day bore great similarity to those who had earlier played the Rugby code for the Hawks.

Great sadness was felt in the village on 21st December, 1892, the days of the funeral in Gloucestershire of Maria Lucas barely a month after her magnificent gift of paying for the octagonal lantern to be rebuilt on St Peters Church tower in Irthlingborough. She had previously lived here and continued to send charitable bequests for the poor at regular intervals.

The church was filled to capacity for Evensong on Christmas Day.
On Boxing Day the Wanderers Football Club held their second Annual Meat Tea & Soirée at the Board School which continued well into the early hours of the following day.

As Christmas approached, the Church tower had been rebuilt and Advent was ushered in with the first ringing of the new bells – ringers from Finedon, Higham Ferrers, Raunds and Rushden attended.

But there was a problem along the road in the Wesleyan Chapel in High Street, described as being of such a character that not many villages could boast – but the big problem was that there was not enough room to accommodate everyone wishing to worship there – 400 seats were just not enough!
But by Christmas Day the village was very, very quiet due to the prevalence of sickness and slackness of trade.

St. Peter’s Sale of Work on 28th December raised less then £6 and the planned tea and dance was postponed until Easter Monday.

With no television or radio, football matches on Christmas Day were very popular but in 1901 Irthlingborough F.C. arrived late for their Christmas afternoon match at Rothwell causing the game to be abandoned 15 minutes from time due to increasing darkness.

With £570 still owing on the new Minister’s house the Wesleyans organised a Grand Bazaar on Boxing Day. It was opened by John Spencer who had donated the necessary land for the house. He then handed over a cheque for £5 towards the event.
Thanks to the efforts of the Christmas Carol Choir, 120 were able to attend the Old Peoples’ Treat in the Board Schools on 30th December. Special permission was granted by the Board of Guardians for Irthlingborough inmates at the Workhouse to attend.

Readers of the Mercury were assured that a very pleasant Christmas had been spent by the unfortunate inmates of the Workhouse. They had been entertained on Christmas Eve by the Wellingborough Town Silver Band and on Christmas Morning by the handbell ringers. Roast beef and plum pudding were served for lunch followed by tobacco, fruits and sweets. After tea an entertainment was provided.

In the week after Christmas a series of Christmas teas and socials began with 100 members of the Baptist Young Women’s Sewing Class enjoying tea followed by a concert by the Baptist Choir…
The Amateur Dramatic Society followed their tea with a social and dancing before ending the evening with a sketch and a farce.
After taking their tea, the Baptist Choir, too, had a social, songs and anthems and games.
150 attended the tea and entertainment for the British Women’s Temperance Association, whilst 100 members attended the Co-op Women’s Guild tea & social in the Church School.

The build up to Christmas 1904 must have been a pretty grim affair starting on 13th December when 29 cases of scarlet fever were reported and the day schools were ordered to close immediately. To help prevent the spread of infection the schools remained closed for seven weeks. It was pointed out though, that children still mixed freely at Sunday Schools which remained open!

There was also much unemployment in 1904 with hundreds out of work. A committee was formed to collect funds to relieve the suffering. The Town Band paraded the streets and £30, a huge sum, was speedily collected. This made it possible for a pint of hot soup and a loaf of bread to be distributed to the large number of needy applicants three times a week for a fortnight.
The suffering of the people was increased by the continued hard frosts and the homes of the poor were often as cold inside as it was outside. Consequently the distribution of soup was extended for three weeks.
A large number of houses stood empty, the brickyards were idle and the cessation of all new building bore evidence that the rapid development of Irthlingborough had received a temporary setback.

But much to the delight of the beleaguered residents the Salvation Army and Town Silver Bands toured the streets playing festive music on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day itself selections from Handel’s Messiah were offered in the Wesleyan Chapel accompanied by Mr Randall’s Orchestra and W.L. Sergeant on the organ. Many took advantage of being able to spend an hour or two in warm surroundings!

Around 600 members and associated friends also enjoyed an excellent dinner at the Working Men’s Club. The ladies of the Baptist Young Women’s Sewing Class were happy to settle for afternoon tea and a social.

To bring the Christmas season of 1904 to a close the Co-op accounts for the previous 32 weeks showed that almost £10,000 had been taken in the tills. It was proudly announced that dividend to members would be two shillings in the pound, and one shilling to non-members. It was also announced that the Society had purchased Mr Pashler’s bakery in Victoria Street.

Following a long spell of wet and dull weather intense cold prevailed over Christmas, 1907. On Christmas Day itself few ventured out and the collection in St. Peter’s Church amounted to a paltry 4 shillings and three ha’pence.

Roller skating was all the rage in 1910 and in order to provide a Christmas Treat for the aged and decayed of Irthlingborough (everyone over 62 years old that is) a Fancy Dress Carnival at Three Chimneys Skating Rink was organised. The Town Silver Band accompanied the skating but the egg and spoon race, the potato race and tug ‘o war on skates must have been hilarious!

The committee of the Working Men’s Club decided to arrange a cold lunch for members at Christmas. Orders for 16 legs of pork and 50 pounds of salt beef brisket were shared between the butchers in the town; baker Billy Hustwaite was to provide 35 loaves; Mr Allen 2 gallons of pickled onions and one gallon of pickled red cabbage; Mr Brown 10 pounds of cheese and Mr Rabbitt offered to make enough stuffing for one leg of pork. The Co-op was asked to supply 8 bottles of sauce, mustard, salt and pepper. It was decided that members could supply the six dozen sticks of celery required.

For the children’s party 100 pounds of cake was ordered from bakers Hustwaite and Leafe and also six dozen party cakes and six Madeira cakes. The bank was asked to make sure that 600 brand new shiny pennies would be made available whilst Messrs. Barratt & Co. were asked to send 600 sticks of rock.

For those not totally ‘blown out’ after eating all that the club had provided over Christmas a fancy dress Roller Skating Carnival in the Harmonic Hall followed on Boxing Day.

The first Christmas of the Great War was the quietist for years – all churches were full on Christmas Day but few Christmas cards were in evidence.
That very day a telegram arrived at Kate Mason’s telephone exchange announcing the death of Pte. William “Tommy” Atkins, the first Irthlingborough casualty of The Great War.
Many reports of local men in the Forces being reported missing, injured or having been killed appeared daily in the newspapers but very few reports of Christmas fun.

There was great excitement three days before Christmas in 1916 when a large Army biplane which had been flying low in the area finally crash-landed into a hedge in Pack’s field in Finedon Road. The pilot was uninjured but the plane’s propeller totally broken. Repairs having been completed the pilot took off again a week later but soon had to land again.

The sudden death of station master Fred George occurred on Christmas Day, 1924. He had served here for 16 years and before that as station master at Barnwell, Thorpe and Castle Ashby in a career stretching over 43 years. Having recently reached his 60th birthday he was about to retire. His funeral at Irthlingborough two days later was attended by a large number including many representatives from a wide range of railway depots. His son Arthur had been born on Christmas Day in 1906 at Castle Ashby.

On Christmas Day every Irthlingborough inmate at Wellingborough Workhouse received half a crown, and children sixpence. After a lunch of roast beef and pork, chocolates and beer were handed round. The entertainment included listening to a gramophone and a visit from the Salvation Army Songsters and Earls Barton Old Silver Prize Band.
Presents were also given to all 13 children living at the Cottage Children’s Home in Wellingborough Road at their annual Christmas Tea. Other treats included listening to records on the gramophone, apples, oranges, sweets and cakes as well as games. They were joined by children from the Finedon Home.

One former resident at that time recalled…. “One year our parents could not afford to buy meat for Christmas dinner so Dad arrived home carrying a dead swan. This was plucked and cleaned and the feathers burnt of the stove in the kitchen. Everyone was terrified that someone might come into the house and see, or smell the evidence of what had been done, because swans belonged to the King and killing one was against the law. I don’t think any of us enjoyed that meal.”

On Christmas Day, 1930 Mr & Mrs J.W.Neville of Rushden aged 80 & 82 celebrated their Diamond Wedding. Mr Neville who originally came from Irthlingborough had been a renowned rat-catcher, his record was 80 in half an hour at Higham Ferrers!
On 27th December 240 people, including children from the Cottage Home in Wellingborough Road, attended the Old Folks’ Treat. Before the evening entertainment began guests were addressed by the Rector, Methodist Minister and Salvation Army Captain – three sermons one after another? Certainly not to everyone’s taste! Each child was then given half a crown.

On Christmas morning the Town Silver Band joined forces with the Salvation Army Band for a visit to the Casual Wards situated on the bypass. 112 men and two women were in residence and reportedly ‘….spent a happy time’ over the festive period. “As well they might!” grumbled many local people who lacked the wherewithal to provide their table with boiled beef, Brussels sprouts, parsnips and boiled potatoes followed by plum pudding and custard, as was served up to the inmates that day. Bacon and eggs had already been consumed for breakfast before the bandsmen arrived to play a selection of Christmas music, and Christmas cake and tea would be served for tea before it was time for hot baths before bedtime.
One really can see why this did nothing to generate Christmas spirit and goodwill amongst the locals!
The £38 collected in the town was enough to finance the Old Folks’ Christmas Treat in 1936. Out of 475 invited, over 250 attended.

After spending 64 years in her cottage in Gosham Road, Christmas in 1936 was the very last one to be spent there by 100 year old Betsy Houghton. Although the row of six cottages was subject to a Slum Clearance Order Betsy had refused to budge for six months, but was finally persuaded to leave just after Christmas. The tearful centenarian left in a wheelchair to live with her daughter in Addington Road. She died 20 days later.

Christmas dinners in 1937 would have to be cooked in ovens using gas brought by pipeline from Wellingborough, the local gas-works having been recently demolished. Modern cookers would be available to view at the new showroom due to be opened near to the Cross in the New Year. It was not confirmed, but hints were given that gas prices just might have to go up before too long.

As Christmas, 1937 approached tramps intending to spend a couple of days at the Casual Ward were assured by the Northampton Mercury that there would be bacon and eggs for breakfast on Christmas Day followed by roast beef and Christmas pudding. No beer would be offered but the men would also receive tobacco with fruit and sweets for the women. Vagrants were assured that a concert would bring a memorable day to a close.

So many children attended Irthlingborough Council Senior School that Christmas parties in 1938 had to be spread over three days – the children in those days were quite content to be entertained by playlets, sketches, action songs, games and community singing!

The world was not at war at Christmas in 1938, but preparations just in case were already going ahead. The Irthlingborough ARP Wardens were already trained and ready to commence fitting respirators early in 1939 and appeals for more men to join as wardens were made.
The marking of Christmas had already changed over the years and was about to change once more – this time the change would be greater than ever before.

The Co-op in High Street, Irthlingborough putting on a Christmas display.