ID: DJG_CMY / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleChristmasses of Yesteryear
AbstractThe first Christmas I can recall was that of 1910, I was approaching my third birthday. My mother had died a few months previously, and I had been taken into the care of my grandparents, John and Emma Gurton, who lived in United Cottages of the then "Woodrope Road". John and Emma had had thirteen children, seven boys and six girls. I was the fourteenth child, and in the words of grandmother I proved more trouble than the whole lot put together. However, the few years I lived with them were to be the happiest of my childhood. I can recall the preparations made for that Christmas of 1910. The puddings had been made some weeks previously and boiled in the huge copper in the kitchen, and then suspended by their cloths from the hooks in the ceiling, alongside the ham hanging in a white linen bag. Grandmother told me that there were real silver "threepenny bits" in one or two of the puddings, but would not identify them to me although she knew. A firkin of bitter beer had been supplied by Mr. Stone, the brewer, who had tapped it and placed in the cask stall in the pantry. Grandmother had pocketed the brass Key to prevent indiscriminate use by any adult males who may he in the cottage. A week or so before the festive season, the visits of the tradespeople became frequent. Orders were placed with Mr. Ponder of Salcott for a supply of his renowned sausages (beef 6d per lb (2½p), pork 8d per lb (3½p). Loaves of bread were obtainable from the three local bakers at 2½d a loaf (1½p). David Brand had prime meat at 4½d a lb., and Harrington and Gower could supply butter at 11d (4½ p) a lb., and two pounds of sugar at 2½d. Supply of meat was not a very great problem, as grandfather was a wildfowler of note. He had been known to shoot over a hundred teal and widgeon with one shot from his punt gun.

It must be remembered that wildfowl was very plentiful in those days, and a pest and source of great worry to farmers and fishermen, hence punt gunners were fairly numerous in these parts.

The only toy-shops in the village were Mrs. Harriet Leavett's in Mell Road, Miss Binnington Leavett at the top of Woodrope Road, and the newly opened shop White's at Bank House. Miss Binnington Leavett had a small mono-plane suspended from a cord in her window. It was clock-work and like all good quality toys in those days had been "made in Germany". I was fascinated by the plane, and my Uncle Alf arranged a demonstration for me. After being wound up the propeller would revolve and the plane would circle around. I hoped that I would get it for Christmas, but I feel that my grandparents considered that it could do damage in the small rooms of the cottage. However, I was to receive a more dangerous toy, a carpentry set comprising tenon saw, hammer, pincers, bradawl, etc., and I was over-joyed to find this at the foot of my bed in the morning, as I had only hung up my small stocking, not wishing to appear greedy. Sunday morning or Christmas morning, my cousins next door, Stan and Flo Collins went to Sunday-school, but I was considered too young at that stage to go, and had to remain indoors. In the course of the morning, my uncles who were living in the village or were on holiday, would visit the cottage and be regaled with a drop of home-made wine, or ale, and a piece of Christmas fruit cake or hot mince pie. Visitors arrived periodically throughout the day and were treated accordingly. Dinner was a very satisfying exercise. Duff and gravy, followed by meat and a variety of root vegetables, and cabbage, all cooked in the large cast-iron saucepans on the kitchen range and in the living room. I was disappointed at not finding a "threepenny bit" in my pudding, but Uncle Alf got a another small portion for me, and slyly pushed in a "threepenny bit" without my knowledge, and I was overjoyed on finding it. After the clearing away and washing up, I was allowed to go into the front room in which an open fire had been lit earlier. The room was a show-piece and not frequently used. I was fascinated by the gilded baskets of dried flowers and grasses, protected by domed glass shields, and the beautiful model of a native catamaran, which grandfather had retrieved from the sea years earlier. There was a variety of nuts and apples. Chestnuts roasted in the open fire were a special treat. As darkness fell, oil lamps were lit, and the adults settled down to reading or keeping me amused. Grandmother on such occasions always read a passage from the family Bible which she had purchased by subscriptions over the years, and which she very much treasured. Christmas festivities being over, the work of clearing up the left overs, and laundering the house linen followed. It was on this occasion I disgraced myself. On washing-day, grandmother attired herself in a large straw hat, and what she termed a "mantle", a large hessian apron. The kitchen would be full of steam and smelling strongly of soap and soap powder. It was on such an occasion I asked her what I could saw, and I felt she said "I don't care what you do" - I promptly sawed off the wheel-back of her favourite armchair, much to my lasting sorrow and perpetual remihder as the backless chair was placed by the back door.

The next Christmas I received a Boy Scout's outfit, without jack-knife, the Tollesbury Territorial Scouts had just been formed, but I was too young to join. The next Christmas, I was to receive one of the most useful presents of my childhood, a pair of rubber Wellington boots, purchased by my Aunt Daisy with her first week's wages cf 5/- (shillings 25p) she having just entered the employ of the Count and Countess de la Chapelle as nursemaid to their daughter Yvonne at Heron Lodge.

Wearing the boots I could accompany Grandfather when he visited yachts in his care, give attention to his smacks "Phantom" and "Gem" and tend his oyster pits on the saltings. No more would I be plastered up to the eyeballs in "Wood-up mud", but I was becoming a trial to the old couple, and the time was fast approaching when I should go to school. In the meantime, my father had re-married and I was to return home to live. Christmasses were never to be the same simple care-free occasions as those of my grand-parents. My father was the licensee of a rambling old timbered public house, about four hundred years old. It possessed a brew-house, where beer had been brewed years earlier, stabling and cart-lodges for eight horses, and a very damp cellar which filled up with water every winter. In the days before 1915, the bars were open from 6.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. at night. The house had been built around a massive brick fire-place, with brick lined and plastered cupboards either side, which were reputed to be "priest holes" as it was possible to enter in one room and escape in another. Christmasses were on a much grander scale. Much preparation was made, the bars were decorated with paper chains, presents of pipes were available for the customers, and there was a Christmas tree for the parties which followed. Before Christmas Eve the "Slate Club" would pay out to its contributors one or one and a half golden sovreigns for the contributions of twopence or multiples thereof made weekly. One of the features of Christmas in those days was the singing of "sea shanties" and great-uncle John Prior who always walked from his cottage opposite Beckingham Hall would always render "Farmers Boy" before making his return journey.

It was a rough and boisterous life, and I was pleased to be able to escape to the kindness and serenity of the Sunday School and the warmth of the Church which had at that time coke fires under the floor, although on odd occasions we had to beat a hurried exit on account of noxious fumes. In the evening, my cousin Flo Collins would call for me and take me to the Chapel where we had to go up into the gallery, and gaze on the assembly below. In those days there was a choir, and there were oil lamp standards at the end of the pews, casting a mellow glow on the proceedings. The Rev. Basil Anstey in black silk gown would enter from one of the doors in the north and ascend the stairway to his rostrum at the head of the Chapel. Much singing of favourite hymns followed. As a child I could never understand why people went to different churches, and I asked my grandmother the reason for this, but she could not give me an adequate answer, and impatiently told me that there was "too much bobbing up and down" at St. Mary's and not enough singing. However, I liked St. Mary's and the Vicar, Rev. William Carter, who had a beautiful gold watch which could chime the hours. Soon after Christmas the Sunday School parties followed where there was an abundance of delicacies, jellies, cakes, etc., and usually a concert given by the older scholars. The concert was repeated during the week following for the benefit of adults. The Christmas festive season was a very happy period. Although there were no street decorations, and those in houses were restricted to paper chains and sprigs of holly, the shop windows made a brave display with tinsel, cotton wool, and the like. There was no need for the American custom for putting a holly wreath on the front door, as practically every home in the village was open house, with a warm welcome and refreshment. Tollesbury like many other villages at that time was a close knit community. Over the years there had been much inter-marriage, and relatives could be claimed in nearly every family.

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
Published18 December 1979
SourceMersea Museum / Cedric Gurton
Related Images:
 Hope Inn, Tollesbury. Ezra Gurton and Jim Frost. Postcard.
 The Hope Inn was rebuilt in this form in 1923  CG10_431
ImageID:   CG10_431
Title: Hope Inn, Tollesbury. Ezra Gurton and Jim Frost. Postcard.
The Hope Inn was rebuilt in this form in 1923
Date:After 1923
Source:Mersea Museum / Cedric Gurton Tollesbury
 Tollesbury Congregational Church. Interior. Postcard dated 10 August 1915 which says notice the harmonium and oil lamps.  CG11_111
ImageID:   CG11_111
Title: Tollesbury Congregational Church. Interior. Postcard dated 10 August 1915 which says "notice the harmonium and oil lamps."
Date:Before August 1915
Source:Mersea Museum / Cedric Gurton Tollesbury
 Tollesbury Congregational Church. Interior. Postcard mailed QE2 stamp date unreadable.  CG11_115
ImageID:   CG11_115
Title: Tollesbury Congregational Church. Interior. Postcard mailed QE2 stamp date unreadable.
Source:Mersea Museum / Cedric Gurton Tollesbury