Rex Needle: A glimpse of Christmas past in Bourne

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The greetings card evocation of Christmas past will forever be associated with Charles Dickens whose novels have inspired scenes of a cosy fireside with a blazing yule log, stagecoaches, snow covered rooftops and decorated trees hung with presents.

And it is these images that we associate today with our celebrations of the festive season.

rex needle

rex needle

Shop windows in Bourne during the late 19th century also had that Dickensian appearance and were adorned with colourful trimmings, the grocery, butchery and bakery shops crammed with meat, game and other appetising wares while the millinery and drapery 
stores displayed the latest fashions.

Beasts were bought for slaughter in readiness for the Christmas trade, the meat proudly displayed at butchers’ shops where sides of beef hung outside on hooks awaiting buyers. In 1887, for instance, one trader alone, George Mays, of Eastgate, killed 300 sheep, one weighing 211 lb, and nine cattle, to meet the demand yet at that time he was only one of nine butchers in Bourne when the population was under 4,000 (1881 census).

The Christmas story was featured at the 12th century Abbey Church which had been beautifully presented by a small army of helpers, the communion table surmounted by the text Emmanuel, God with us in white letters on a scarlet ground and the centre filled with a white cross”, reported one newspaper.

“The miniature arches were adorned with an arrangement of evergreens interspersed with flowers and the reading desk decorated with ivy and holly, the panels in front being ornamented with chrysanthemum crosses. The pedestal of the lectern was adorned with a choice selection of flowers and evergreens, a fine bunch of pampas grass being especially noticeable.

rex needle

rex needle

“Holly berries and ivy embellished the handsome pulpit. The sills of the windows in the north and south aisles were beautified with texts worked in white on a scarlet ground, and encircled with wreaths and evergreens. The font was decorated with exquisite taste; the cover was surmounted with a fine cross and chrysanthemums; the pedestal was encircled with ivy and a variety of evergreens prettily frosted. Great praise is due to the ladies who so admirably executed the decorations.”

Christmas Day was ushered in with peals of bells and carols in the market place from Bourne Brass Band. There were three main services at the church, all choral, communion at 8.30am followed by morning and evening service when The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah brought the day of worship to an end.

The inns and public houses were busy throughout the festive season and full most evenings. Yet despite the large number of licensed premises in Bourne, this was the age of temperance and there was always someone ready to warn against the perils of the demon drink. Thomas Rosbottom, a celebrated Lancashire lecturer, paid a Christmas visit to address meetings at the Victoria Hall in Spalding Road [now demolished] and he was given a rousing welcome from a sympathetic audience, his speech being interspersed with anecdotes, humorous and pathetic, about the effects of drinking on marriage, the family and human relationships, and frequent moving exhortations to abstain, claiming that during his career he had induced thousands to sign to pledge promising to give up alcohol in the future.

On the two days after Boxing Day, a grand fancy fair, similar to our modern pantomimes, was staged at the Corn Exchange to raise funds for the Congregational Church in Eastgate [now the United Reformed Church], the hall decorated to resemble a grand international bazaar, the work of Alfred Stubley, a painter, paperhanger and sign writer, of West Street, Bourne, a man with a vivid imagination who was noted throughout Lincolnshire for the stage sets he designed for amateur musical productions.

The newspaper description of the colourful setting said: “The scene was laid in Canton. The peculiar conglomeration of Oriental and European architecture was depicted with realistic effect. Proceeding down the left side of the street, the enterprising traveller passed in succession a Persian residence, an Indian cottage, a Chinese house, a delightful Japanese village, a 
Tyrolese chalet, a snug mountain home covered with snow and having icicles pendent from the roof, a magnificent Buddhist temple having its elaborate exterior embellished with representatives of the Oriental deity and dragons, and the last abode in the curious street was an Australian log hut. Various entertainments were given in the evenings and vocal and instrumental musical items and presentations were performed at intervals which were very popular.”

But despite the celebrations, poverty was prevalent in Bourne and those who could not afford such pleasures queued up at the National School in North Street [now the Conservative Party headquarters] where the vicar, the Rev Hugh Mansfield, assisted by his churchwardens and officials from various charities, distributed gifts to deserving cases. They included 700 yards of flannel, 50 blankets, 700 yards of calico and 170 tons of coal, much of which was paid for by Harrington’s Charity, a bequest from Robert Harrington (1589-1654), a Bourne man who made his fortune in London and left it for the benefit of the town, a legacy that is still enjoyed today and administered by Bourne United Charities. There were also donations of food and clothing brought in by townspeople.

At the workhouse in St Peter’s Road [now demolished], the Board of Guardians gave their annual treat to the inmates on Boxing Day where the monotonous and unappetising food normally served was replaced with roast beef and plum pudding with beer and tobacco to follow.

“The seasonable additions to the usual plain fare were apparently highly appreciated“, said the newspaper.

“A thoroughly enjoyable day was suitably concluded with a merry evening entertainment.”

The inmates, however, were not allowed to forget the generosity that had been bestowed upon them and at the end of the celebrations, grateful thanks were expressed for what they had received while the children who could write were urged to thank the guardians by letter.

What a contrast we have today when Christmas has become an indulgent spree for most and few will go short of food, drink, presents and other luxuries with families predicted to spend an average of £800 on their celebrations leaving many with a financial hangover well into the New Year.

A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.