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Tales of London’s Christmas Past


Well as we approach another Christmas period and London is facing strikes and other inconveniences, it would be easy to sink into negativity. However if you look at some of the following newspaper reports from London’s past, perhaps it is time to reconsider and count our blessings.


Drink and Christmas have been synonymous for centuries, but for one reporter in 1876, things had gone too far  

1876 – Dissipation at Christmas.

Tue 26th of December. falling last year upon a Sunday, Boxing Day was celebrated on the 27th, and London, as a consequence enjoyed a triduum of festival, dissipation and cessation from all work. On Monday, the spectacles of the streets were simply disgusting. The shops were all open, but the Gin places and public houses were open and doing a roaring trade. The whole atmosphere reeked with vile tobacco smoke and was poisoned by the alcoholic exhalations from tens of thousands of mouths. No greater curse can be imagined for the masses in their present condition and with their present tastes, than the compulsory Saturnalia, which, thanks to Sir J. Lubbock’s Bank Holiday Act, Christmas brings with it.;

The charges at the metropolitan and provincial police courts on the following day usually give us an idea of how Boxing Day is spent by the multitude. The London police say of the present year that the Christmas drunkenness is in excess of past years. At Marlborough street there were on Tuesday morning. Twenty four “‘Christmas charges'” at Southwark nineteen, at Clerkenwell thirty five, and at-Worship-street forty one.

Suicides and sudden deaths in consequence of excessive drunkenness has been common: throughout the week. In fact, the list of casualties after Christmas is almost as severe as after a battle or a riot.


Over a decade later, there are more serious concerns with unemployment leading to considerable distress.

1888 Christmas ‘Cheer’ in London

The distress amongst the unemployed in London, is assuming a very acute form. Cases of an appalling description are of daily occurrence. Men and women are dying in the streets of sheer starvation. The men have been offered relief in the workhouses, but this they have refused, declaring that they will not submit to be treated as paupers, and that what they want is work at which they may be able to earn their living. Many are subsisting on garbage and refuse which they find in the gutters.


Things had improved in 1912 but the rather pessimistic reporter is definitely not looking on the bright side.

1912 – Christmas in London

Of all the detailed, dark, dismal, dreary, dingy, depressing places in which to spend Christmas, London is easily the worst in the world. This year London weather is at its worst, and Christmas is being ushered with semi-darkness, rain, fog, sleet, and flood. The atmosphere is not very cold, but it is miserably dark and dreary—the darkest Christmas for years—with lights burning all day long. Half the country districts are under water, and all hunting fixtures in the northern districts have been cancelled in consequence.

Most of the people who can afford it are fleeing from this land of gloom, and thousands have left for the Continent, and are still leaving. The boat trains from Charing Cross are running in triplicate, so great is the exodus. Most of the travellers are bound for Switzerland, Italy, and South of France.


The middle of the First World War dampened down the Christmas spirit, even to the extent of programmes in luxurious hotels being ‘modified’.

1916 – Christmas in London, quietest for years.

This has been the quietest Christmas in many years. The high prices for food in conjunction with the newspapers’ appeals for a simple Christmas, curtailed festivities. In response to an appeal not lo travel, the railway traffic was small, especially over long distances.

Many Christmas trains which were scheduled were not needed. Live programme in luxurious hotels were modified.


The middle of the Second World War was even worse with many shortages including rather strangely wedding rings.

1942  – Austerity Christmas in London

Britain’s fourth wartime Christmas will be an ‘Austerity-plus’ festival. Travelling is unpatriotic, turkeys and other poultry are unusually short In supply, and London school children are having only a seven-day break. Servicemen and servicewomen will have a working Christmas.

The Ministry of Food has announced that 400.000 turkeys had been Imported from Eire, but Britain has 12.000,000 homes, apart from a great demand from restaurants, which find It very difficult to get enough food of any sort to carry on. The vast Smlthfield Market seemed practically empty yesterday. Some of its shops had closed and others had notices. ‘Nothing for sale.’

One shop had 40 turkeys, but a salesman said those were al! for the Merchant Navy and they were not selling to anybody else.Another shop which in peacetime sold between 6000 and 7000 Christmas turkeys had barely 600 this year. and all had been booked up weeks ago.

Deliveries of toys to wholesalers have been late, and yesterday hundreds of small shop keepers besieged wholesalers for supplies. One queue outside wholesalers began forming at 6 a.m. and by 7.30. when the doors were opened an hour earlier than usual, it numbered over 1000.

Publicity regarding a shortage of wedding rings caused the Board of Trade suddenly to increase production from 10 to 50 per cent, during December and January, so hundreds of war brides will have their own instead of borrowed wedding rings.

After the Second World War, shortages continued and at the beginning of the 1950s, the menace of the Cold War was making people fearful of the future.

1950 Britons enjoyed an odd Christmas

Most Britons soberly agreed that about the best Christmas present they got this year was Ike Eisenhower. It seemed a pretty odd sort of present at a season of traditional peace and goodwill, but then it was an odd sort of Christmas.

In many ways it was the oddest Christmas Britain has had since the bombs stopped falling. In the weekend before Christmas I saw more drunks in the streets of London than I have seen at any time in the past five years.

They were happy enough drunks, or at least that’s how they looked. But some people thought they detected a note of hysteria — just as though people had made up their minds that anything might happen and they had better have one more big blowout.

An Englishman standing beside me and listening to the shouting and singing in crowded pubs, which were just not big enough to hold the celebrating Londoners, said, “It looks just like it did in wartime.”

When the hangover wore off Britons were gladder than ever about Ike Eisenhower. News of his appointment was the one event which seemed to spell some sort of security. Ike is admired-and trusted here and Britain is very glad that he is coming to Europe.

But nobody here is losing sight of the fact that Eisenhower’s army exists so far only on paper and everybody would be more ,relieved if they knew, where he is going to get his troops from. His appointment was the one bright spot in what was otherwise . Britain’s glummest postwar Christmas.

Ordinary people who don’t claim to know what goes on at the higher levels are convinced that if Europe lives in peace through 1951 it is going to be very lucky.They think that the Russians aren’t going to let the “build-up” in the West go on without kicking up some kind of fuss.


The dangers in 1968 were a little bit closer to home when a report indicated that people were not cooking their Christmas turkey properly and were poisoning their families.

1968 Poison

Dr Geoghegan is reported by AAP as saying that stuffing the turkey could lead to food poisoning in the family.

“It is virtually impossible to cook the interior of a large turkey without incinerating the outside if the bird is stuffed”, he was quoted as saying by the Daily Sketch.

If food poisoning germs are in the turkey — and they are more prevalent in poultry than many other meats — they could survive a roasting in the oven, he said.

Dr Geoghegan, of Chichester, Sussex, said in his annual report, “The size of the bird may prevent the high temperature necessary for sterilisation from ever being attained in the interior of the bird and is all the more so when the carcase is stuffed before roasting. The stuffing acts as an excellent insulation to the deeper parts of the car case during cooking and food poisoning organisms survive and cause trouble”.

He said there had been a spate of food poisoning incidents in England ; recently because of badly cooked poultry.

The late 1970s were a period of considerable industrial unrest and fears about terrorism  (seems strangely familiar).

 1978 Strikes, fog, fear . . .Otherwise London all well

It has been an off Christmas season in London. The streets were bright and the shops, with their inflated prices and new inviting Arabic signs, were frantically busy, but somehow it did not seem very merry.

More than 2,000 policemen on emergency duty were touring the fashionable West End in pairs for fear of Irish terrorists. Security guards checked all parcels and handbags at department store doors. All suspicious cars or vans were worked over by the bomb squads, and while nothing much happened, it created an atmosphere of uneasiness.

Meanwhile, the BBC had been on strike for a couple of days before Christmas. There was a shortage of petrol in some places for fear of a truckers’ strike. Fog closed the main London airport at the height of the Christmas rush — otherwise all was well.

Although the media and advertisers like to present a rather sanitised view of Christmas, it has often been a period of trouble and unrest.  However it is a period when we can look to the new year with a sense of hope.

It is within this sense of hope that we would like to wish the Season’s Greeting and a Happy New Year to all our readers. Thank you everyone who has read and contributed to the site over the year and we look forward to reporting on another fascinating year on the Isle of Dogs.


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